A water heater failure is a major inconvenience for any home. Most families use hot water every day for showers, washing hands, and washing dishes, not to mention the occasional loads of laundry or various other water-related tasks. Icy cold water isn’t used too often out of the tap, and it can be a shock when that is all you get out of your pipes! When your hot water heater is acting up or on the last leg of its life, you need fast solutions before ending up stranded without hot water in your home for days or even weeks.
Sometimes a water heater issue is electrical and sometimes the issue is caused by something else. Below we will explore the most common issues your water heater may be facing and whether it is time to repair or replace your hot water heater.
Problem 1: No hot water at all or water quickly turns cold.
A lack of hot water is a problem you might notice right away. You go to wash dishes and the water never heats up. Or, you are met with a chill when you wash your hands in the sink. Perhaps your shower was warm and quickly turned cold even though you were the first to use hot water that day. There are a few reasons why your hot water heater is not producing enough or any hot water, and some of them are simpler to remedy than others.
The first reason why your hot water heater may not be producing much if any, hot water is that the thermostat is incorrectly set. If you were recently working around the thermostat, it is possible that it was accidentally left at a lower than a preferable setting. Or, you could have just moved into a house where the water heater thermostat hadn’t been set yet.
This is one of the easier solutions to the problem of no hot water, so it is best to start here. Ideally, a water heater thermostat should be set between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. After adjusting the thermostat, it will take some time for the water heater to increase the temperature of the water in the tank. Give it between 30 minutes and 1 hour before checking the water temperature again through the faucets.
If you experience a sudden lack of hot water in your home, it could be that the heating element in the tank gave out or is giving out. With an electric water tank, the heating element, usually a coil, is located inside the tank. Sometimes the electric connections go bad, which means it can no longer properly heat the water. Gas-powered water heaters use a burner to heat the water, which can also go bad over time if not properly maintained. You can call a professional to come to check and replace these elements if you suspect that this is the cause of your cold water problem.
If you frequently experience a lack of hot water, it could be that the appliances in your home are using all of the hot water before you can benefit from it. If you run the dishwasher, do a load of laundry, and then try to take a shower, you could be missing all of the hot water by then.
If more people recently moved into your home, the amount of hot water in your tank may not be sufficient for everyone. If you do get hot water sometimes but not at other times, you may just need a bigger tank to satisfy the hot water needs of your household. A professional can perform an assessment on your home and your needs to recommend a properly sized water tank.
Location of Tank.
If your water tank is located outdoors or in an uninsulated area of the home, cold weather can affect the temperature of your water. It may be that it is too cold for the unit to heat the water fast enough or to a high enough temperature. If the problem of cold water occurs only when the weather is bad, you may need to find ways to keep your tank or the pipes more insulated from the cold air.
Problem 2: Loud noises from the heater.
Usually, a hot water heater should make very little noise, if any noise at all. If you notice strange or loud noises coming from your tank, this could indicate an issue that requires action sooner rather than later. Knocking, clanging, or rumbling noises may mean that there is sediment accumulating at the bottom of your unit, making it difficult for the hot water heater to efficiently run.
As a home uses hot water and the unit reheats new water, sediment from the water will eventually accumulate at the bottom of the unit. If a home uses an excess of hot water or is located in an area with abnormally hard water, this issue can form much more rapidly than normal. Once the sediment builds up enough, it is difficult for the machine to properly heat water, and it may take longer to do so. This can cause strain on the unit, wear down the metal encasement, and eventually cause leaks.
It is recommended that homeowners call a professional once per year to have their tanks flushed. This expels the sediment and helps the water heater last much longer. If you still hear strange noises coming from your hot water heater after being recently flushed, it may be near the end of its life and likely that no amount of flushing will improve its chances of survival.
Problem 3: Water is leaking from the unit.
Water is supposed to stay inside a water tank. If you see water pooling around the tank or around the pipes leading to the tank, there is definitely an issue that needs immediate addressing. Leaks don’t normally stop on their own. If ignored, they can lead to significant property damage as well. Not only will you be facing wet furniture, carpet, walls, and other belongings, but you could have to deal with invasive mold as well. It is best to take care of a hot water tank leak as soon as possible.
There are a few reasons why your water heater may be leaking. One of the reasons could be due to the expansion issues of the tank itself. After countless cycles of heating the water in the tank and the metal expanding each time the water is heated, it may start to form fractures. These fractures may only leak a slight amount at first but can turn disastrous when the pressure becomes too much to handle.
Loose connections to the water tank could be another possibility of why water is leaking around the tank. Sometimes these can be tightened by a homeowner, but other times a professional may need to replace them. A leaking pressure/overflow pipe could indicate an issue with the unit or that the relief valve is malfunctioning. It is best to call a professional to inspect these parts and make sure the unit is working as it should.
Since small leaks may be difficult to spot right away, it is good practice to regularly inspect around the water tank for any signs of leaks so they are spotted as soon as possible. If missed, you may be facing the possibility of gallons leaked onto the floor rather than a minor trickle.
Problem 4: Rust is forming on or inside the unit.
Rust is a tell-tale sign of corrosion and can serve as a warning that a leak may be eminent. If you spot rust on the outside of your unit near the water inlet, this is often an indication that rust has begun to form on the inside of the tank as well. Unfortunately, there is no long-term remedy for a rust problem, so it is likely that you will have to replace your unit soon or risk water damage from a large leak.
If you notice that your water is coming out rusty, this could indicate a problem with your hot water heater or your pipes. One way to tell if it is the water heater is by running about three buckets full of hot water from a spout. If the water still comes out rusty after the third bucket, then your hot water heater likely contains rust. If the rust dwindles as you run the hot water, your pipes could be the ones getting rusty. Since rust is a precursor to a leak, it is important to replace your hot water heater as soon as possible to avoid an even bigger disaster.
When to Repair vs Replace Your Hot Water Heater
Usually, homeowners want to try to fix their hot water heaters before having to totally replace them. A new hot water heater, including installation, can set you back a couple of thousand dollars. So, it often makes sense to try repair before replacing. However, depending on the problem, this may not always be possible. You may consider the below factors before deciding to repair or replace your hot water heater.
Age of the Hot Water Heater.
A typical gas-powered or electric-powered hot water heater will last 8 to 12 years before needing to be replaced. Tankless and solar hot water heaters can last up to 20 if properly maintained.
When deciding to repair or replace your hot water heater, you may want to take into consideration its age. Ones that are on the upper end of a typical lifespan may not be worth repairing, as problems are likely to keep popping up the longer it is used. Instead of wasting money on expensive repairs, it may be more economical to replace it instead and benefit from the peace of mind that comes with a new unit.
If your unit is less than 5 years old, however, a water heater repair may be less expensive than a total replacement. Units that are this old can still be under warranty as well, meaning a repair may cost you nothing depending on the issue. Keep in mind, though, that most manufacturers require regular maintenance inspections from a certified professional to uphold the warranty benefits. A once-per-year maintenance check should satisfy most manufacturers, but you may want to double-check the paperwork or company policies for your particular model to be sure.
The issue at hand.
Not every hot water heater issue will cost you an arm and a leg. Some, in fact, are fairly inexpensive to solve. For example, broken heating elements, pressure relief valves, thermostats, and other small parts are easily replaceable and not worth throwing out the entire tank over.
If rust, fractures, or leaks are present, you most likely will need to replace your unit. A professional should be able to provide you a quote on the estimated cost of repair versus replacement if you are still unsure about how to address the issue.
How Long You Plan to Stay in Your Home.
If a repair can help the hot water heater function for a couple more years at the very least and you are planning on moving soon anyway, a repair could make sense over replacement. However, if you are planning on living in your home long-term, you will want to weigh the costs of short-term repairs versus the more long-term solution of replacement.
If your unit is getting close to the 10-year mark and you know you will have to replace it eventually anyway, a water heater replacement could be the less expensive option in the long run. Plus, you won’t run the risk of a major leak from an older unit causing extensive damage to your home and belongings.
If a replacement is inevitable, you will then need to decide on what type of water heater to purchase. There are a few options on the market, some less expensive than others. Below are the most common types of water heaters.
If you already have a conventional water tank in your home, it may be cheapest in the short term to replace it with another similar design. For instance, if your home is already set up for a gas-powered tank, you may choose another gas-powered tank to replace your current water heater. Depending on gas prices in your area, these models can often be cheaper than electric to keep running throughout the year.
No matter what variety of conventional tanks you have (gas, electric, oil, or propane), it will continually heat the water in your tank throughout the day. The temperature gauge will alert the system to kick back on when it drops below the temperature you have set it, even when you are not using the hot water. This can be a waste of energy if you don’t regularly use hot water. However, it’s always ready to go at a moment’s notice.
These types of tanks require yearly maintenance and need to be replaced about every 10 years. This is something to keep in mind when choosing your next water heater style.
A solar-powered water tank is much like a conventional tank system but uses solar panels as a power source. In direct systems, the water passes through the solar collectors and is stored back into a tank. With an indirect system, the antifreeze will pass through the solar collectors and a heat exchanger. The heat exchanger is what heats the water in the tank.
These systems can last 15-20 years with maintenance every 3 to 5 years. Homeowners will need to periodically dust the solar panels for maximum energy efficiency. If you already have solar panels installed on your home, this can be a cheaper way to heat the water in your water tank. However, it may be one of the more expensive routes if you don’t currently have solar panels.
Where conventional tanks keep about 30-60 gallons of water ready to go at all times, tankless systems only heat water that you are using at any given moment. This saves energy, but it comes at a price.
These systems can only handle a few gallons of heating at a time, which means hot water can only be used for one part of the house at a time. With this system, it won’t be possible to run the dishwasher and a load of laundry at the same time with enough hot water for each. To overcome this, some homeowners choose to install a tankless water heater for each large appliance in the home. Since the design is far more compact than a water tank, this is doable.
A downside to tankless systems is that they often cost about double the price of a conventional water tank. Plus, they still require yearly maintenance. However, they do last twice as long, for about 20 years.
If a replacement is necessary for your water heater, a professional can assess your home, what it is already wired for, and present you with options to satisfy the needs of your household and budget.