How to Tell if My Water Heater Needs Repair

For most of us, a water heater is out of sight and therefore out of mind. We only know that it’s somewhere in a deep, dark recess of the house we never get to. As long as it keeps producing the hot water we need, we don’t think about it.

Once it stops giving us hot water, though, we surely notice it. But there are other signs not necessarily related to water temperature that can indicate the water heater needs attention. Although these signs can point to several problems in your water system or home environment, they also mean you need to find and check your water heater – and possibly have it serviced by a professional.

 Here are some of the common signs that your water heater may need repair or replacement.

Inconsistent water heat

The most obvious sign, of course, is that your water isn’t getting heated in a dependable, consistent way. It might heat up very briefly then immediately decrease, it may only get to a lukewarm state, or it may simply stay cold.

Several conditions might be behind inconsistent or fluctuating water temperatures. The most common cause — and you’ll be hearing about it a lot in this post – is the accumulation of mineral deposits.

Elements like magnesium and calcium frequently amass in hard water. They often appear in the form of small, white particles that show up along the water heating pathway. The more these minerals hang around, the less successfully your water heater does its job. They can impact and interfere with the mechanisms responsible for generating heat.

Many times, especially if the water heating system is newer, these mineral deposits can be easily taken care of. But in older units or ones with heavy damage resulting from mineral deposits, the condition may be too severe for repairs and the unit might just need to be replaced.

Other reasons your water temperature may be inconsistent include a thermostat that needs to be fixed or reset; a low-temperature level of the heat regulator that prevents water from getting hot enough; problems with the pressure-balance valve; or the heater using well water that’s too cool.

There’s little or no hot water pressure

When the hot water you get has noticeably lower or absent water pressure, it can also mean that mineral deposits are messing with your system. In this case, the minerals may be interfering directly with pipes or valves, either by restricting flow or causing corrosion.

Low hot water pressure can also indicate design or construction flaws in the original system – this is especially prevalent in very old homes. Kinked distribution lines and worn or broken pressure regulators also contribute to low pressure.

Of course, the culprits may also be coming from inside the house: Low water pressure is frequently the cause of several taps or water-using devices being used concurrently, like taking a shower when someone else has decided it’s time to water the lawn. But if that’s not the case — or you live alone – low hot water pressure can indicate a more serious issue with your heater.

You see leaks

Even the slightest rupture, tiniest misalignment, or loosely sealed pipe can cause leakage at any point in your water heating system. It can happen in connective points, drain and discharge lines, any of the control valves, or inside the tank itself.

Leaks should never be ignored or brushed off, regardless of how small they may be. Cracks and fissures can easily get bigger more quickly, turning what was once a fairly innocuous leak into a giant pool of staging water or moisture. If the leak sticks around for more than a day, it’s imperative that you get it checked out as soon as you can.

The damage from a leak that doesn’t get repaired can spread much, much further than the immediate area around your water heating system. Moisture can soak, warp, and destroy some of the most permanent surfaces in the home, including the floors and walls. Should the leak grow into a full-blown flood, you’re looking at the possibility of mechanical breakdown and a costly set of repairs. Sometimes the damage can get even more personal, as moisture creates mold, mildew, and other toxic spores that can get people sick.

Condensation is collecting around the heater

Leakage and condensation both involve the accumulation of water, but they’re not quite the same thing. Even if there are no holes, cracks, or fissures for leaks to get through, moisture can collect around your water heater through the process of condensation.

Condensation is the result of cold water coming into quick contact with extra-hot elements — combustion, in other words. Damp droplets gather around the tank’s surface, especially in gas-powered heaters. More energy-efficient units can also experience condensation.

Condensation shouldn’t always be a major cause of alarm. A little bit of it is normal. Often it will clear up within an hour or two. Condensation is also a by-product of seasons — when there’s more cold water coming into the system during winter and spring, you’ll probably see it gather more often than you do in summer.

But if the condensation doesn’t clear up after a reasonable amount of time, you could have a bigger problem on your hands. One could be the size of your water heater system being too small for the size of your house or the number of appliances you have. If your water heater is powered by gas, you may also have to provide better ventilation to prevent moisture from collecting.

The water looks brown or yellow

Water that contains a visual tinge of dirt or rust is often the product of sediment that’s gathered inside your water heater. When water meets metal and continues to interact with it in a series of pipes and containers, at some point rust will show up. That’s essentially how water heaters work.

When water gets heated, it gets more agitated. You’ve seen this whenever you’ve boiled water on the stove. The water that goes through your water heating apparatus contains elements from the outside, including dirt and rust. So, when that gets heated, these substances get more activated and start circulating around the tank. Eventually, that dirty water finds its way out, which is through your faucet.

Old pipes are frequently to blame. They typically have buildups of rust and debris that have been collecting for years; running water detaches these particles, which get carried along the stream. Newer pipes that have rust problems may be improperly sealed.

There’s also a chance that the glass lining within the walls of your tank has suffered a crack or break. That causes water to come into contact with the metal surface of the container, which eventually produces rust if left unaddressed.

The water has a strange smell or taste

When the smell or taste of water offends your senses, there’s something wrong with it. The possibilities are plenty and unpleasant to think about.

Especially if your hot water has a strong metallic odor or taste, that problem could be the water heater. This is a common sign of corrosion happening within your tank itself. As with rusty-looking water, this can be a case of breakage in the glass lining of the tank.

Other types of bad smells can indicate other problems. If there’s a rotten, eggy smell to your hot water, it could indicate an excess of sulfur bacteria in the water heating system. Water frequently contains trace amounts of sulfur bacteria; it’s a normal thing and isn’t harmful in those usual amounts. But too much of it can be hazardous to your health. Other bacteria, especially hydrogen sulfide, can also cause hot water to have a sickly smell, or a bad taste if you have the misfortune to drink it.

The water heater is unreasonably noisy

Your water heater is an appliance, so when it’s working properly you can expect to hear the occasional noise (if you’re the type to hang around and listen closely to water heaters). Quick clicks or gentle hums are nothing to worry about. But if you hear a barrage of bangs, pops, cracks, or hisses, the winds of chaos are rustling around your water heater.

The most common reason for this mechanical anarchy, again, has to do with the accumulation of mineral deposits and sediment, especially if your water heater is powered by gas. These substances form a small layer toward the bottom of the tank, which sits atop a stagnant amount of water. When the heater powers up, the water underneath this layer gets heated but rubs up against the sediment. This causes harder materials within the sediment layer to pop and crack, much like a coffee or popcorn maker.

Although this noise might not be terribly disagreeable, it’s by no means benign, and can point to more extensive problems on the horizon. The water temperature could get higher if it’s lodged underneath the sediment, which can cause leaks and damage the steel molding of the tank. It can also burn out the heating element. For those reasons, it needs to be completely flushed out by a service person.

The water heater is too old

Most water heaters aren’t built to last forever. The average lifespan of an electric or similarly powered water heater is eight to ten years. Gas-powered heaters usually wear out between six to eight years.

In a few cases, it may be possible to extend the life of your water heater beyond those limits. But if your water heater unit is approaching eight years old, even if it’s showing all signs of working properly, it’s time to think about its future. Or, specifically, its lack of one.

Of course, most of us who have lived in our current residences for less than eight years and haven’t replaced a water heater yet probably don’t have a clue how old our existing unit may be. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to find out through the unit’s serial number, normally found on a tag attached near the top of the tank.

The serial number looks like a lot of random digits, but you only need to look at the first three. The first digit is a letter between “A” and “L,” which are the first and twelfth letters in the English alphabet. What else comes in bunches of twelve? The months of the calendar year. So, the letter on the serial number corresponds to a certain month of the year – “A” is January, “B” is February, “F” is June, “K” is November, and so on.

The next two digits mark the year the water heater was produced — simple as that. So, a serial number that begins with the digits “E11” was made in May 2011; one that starts “C02” was produced in March 2002. If the date you come up with is longer than eight years ago, start thinking about a new water heater installation.

It’s been more than a year since you serviced it

Water heaters need to be emptied annually, to flush out excessive sediment and minerals that can impact water quality and personal health. Even water heaters that don’t have tanks need annual servicing of their interior pipes and parts.

A plumber flushes your system by draining the contents of the tank into an outside drain. The plumber then refills the tank and usually takes advantage of the time to inspect and maintain other parts of your water heater system, such as the rods and vents.

It’s handy to have a specific time set aside every year for water heater drainage and maintenance — that way there’s no need to think about it; it’s just something you do regularly like spring cleaning.

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