Water heaters are one of those items on your home that you cannot live comfortably without. It typically is considered a need rather than a want. When a water heater fails, it is one of those items that must be replaced immediately. Being familiar with your water heater, its location, and its operation is important for every home owner
A typical water heater is a 40-50-gallon cylindrical shaped container that holds water and heats it to a desired temperature. The water is heated by an electrical heater unit or by a gas fired burner. Cold water under pressure refills the canister as hot water is used at a facet. A thermostat keeps the water a set temperature by turning on the heating element or gas burner to heat the water when it drops below the desired temperature.
It is recommended that a water heater temperature is kept between 110-120 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature at the kitchen sink or bathrooms should never exceed 120 degrees for the safety of children
An electrically heated water heater will typically have water two pipes attached to the top and a shielded wire that feeds electric power to it that is also attached to the top. On the side of the water heater at about 1/3 of the way from the top and 1/3 of the way from the bottom you will typically see two small panels that can be removed. These are where the two electrical heater elements are located and accessed. It is not uncommon for one or both of these heater elements to fail before the tank rusts through. These heater elements can be replaced.
A gas heated water heater will typically have two water pipes attached to the top and a gas line that is attached near the base of the water heater where the burner is. There is typically a thermostat you can set here and some way to light the pilot light.
The two pipes attached to the top of all water heaters are your cold-water supply line and the hot water supply line. The cold-water line in will have a valve to shut off supply to the tank. It is now code that there should also be a small gallon sized tank teed off the cold-water supply pipe. This is called an expansion tank and helps to regulate waterline pressures as the temperature in the water heater changes. The hot water or outlet pipe feeds the house with heated water. There is one other device you will see on the top or side of your water heater and this is the pressure relief valve. This is designed to let off pressure and steam if for some reason the water heater kept heating or became stuck on. This would cause the pressure to build in the tank and eventually and explosion. The pressure relief valve is there to make sure pressure can never build to dangerous levels. This valve should have pipe attached that drains to the outside or at least to within six inches of the floor
Water heaters need to be secured to the wall by two straps that encircle the tank and attach to the walls on each side of the tank. These seismic straps should be placed 1/3 of the way from the top and the bottom of the tank.
Gas Water heaters located in a garage should be mounted on a stand higher than 12 inches above the garage floor. In theory if your car was to leak gas in your garage, the vapors would hang out in that 12 inches above the floor. This puts your water heater burner above these vapors and helps prevent ignition of these potential vapors
Water heaters not located in a garage should have a pan installed under the water heater to catch water when the tank begins to fail or rust through. Tanks on upper floors should not only have a pan but also a drain for that pan that exits to the exterior or to a drain waste line.
Water heaters do not require significant maintenance and are generally ignored. I recommend you drain your water heater yearly to remove sediment that accumulates in the bottom. This is accomplished by attaching a hose to the hose bib at the bottom and running it outside or to a drain. Before you open the hose bib you will need to shut the water supply valve to the water heater off and open a hot water valve at a sink. Now open the hose bib valve and hot water should drain from the hose. Once all the water and sludge has drained, shut off the hose bib and remove the hose. Next, open the water supply valve to the water heater. The open hot water valve will hiss and spit till the water heater is full. Shut the hot water facet valve off once it is full on water coming out.
It is also important to look yearly for leaks at all of the pipe joints and fittings. Also observe for rust near the bottom edges of the tank. When a water heater fails, it usually rusts through the bottom and starts leaking rusty water onto the floor.
Water heaters typically last from 12-15 years. I have seen some that were older than 25 years and had one fail in my own home at 7 years. The age of the water heater can be determined typically by the information label on the side of the water heater. Some manufacturers will put the manufacturing date. Others will code it into the serial number. You can access this coding information by going to www.buildingcenter.org and clicking on Water Heater Age Info and looking up your brand of water heater
Many people are now investing in tankless water heaters. These water heaters do not have a holding tank to hold hot water and heat it quickly as it is used. Tankless water heaters are more efficient and are only on when you are using the hot water. They also take up less space and last longer.