DIY Plumbing: Home Water Heater Maintenance

Hot water heater

It’s easy to forget how important your water heater is—as long as it’s working properly. It only takes one problem before your entire household is suddenly left without hot water. Every homeowner who’s experienced these issues knows how vital it is to perform routine maintenance that can keep small problems from turning into expensive projects. While some issues may require professionally certified help, here are a few practical techniques and quick fixes that will help keep your water heater operating as smoothly as possible.

Periodically drain your tank

The most common cause of water heater issues is the buildup of mineral deposits and sediments in the tank. Visible rust or metal in your tank water is a sign of this problem. To prevent this, drain your tank every six weeks for a brand new system, and at least once every six months thereafter.

To drain the water heater tank, first turn off the power by disabling the circuit breaker or fuse. Next, turn off the water supply via the cold water valve at or near the inlet pipe, usually at the top of the tank (if you cannot find it, turn off the main water supply to your house). A silver- or brass-colored drainage valve with a threaded end will be at the bottom of the tank—place a bucket underneath or connect a water hose that leads to a drain. Remember that this water may be very hot; wear gloves or allow the water to cool. Now flip the lever of the temperature and pressure valve (T&P valve) into an up or open position, and turn the drain valve into an open position or use a flat blade screwdriver if your drain valve is handleless. This should allow water to flow from your tank.

Once you’ve performed a partial or full drain, close both the T&P valve and the drain valve, and reinstate the power and water supplies to the water heater.

Diagnosing and fixing a leaky water heater

A leaking T&P valve is one of the most basic water heater issues. Normally found at the top of the unit, if this valve is leaking it’s usually due to either a faulty part in which the valve has stayed open, or the water heater is operating under too high of a temperature or pressure. To diagnose, first check the water temperature and make sure the setting is no more than 120ºF degrees (or “medium” if degrees are not shown). If this does not stop the leak, it’s likely being caused by deposit buildup, and the T&P valve will show signs of corrosion or rust. Sediment buildup is very common with well water, and the procedure listed above to drain your tank will help resolve this problem.

In some cases, flushing a water tank to fix T&P valve leaks will reveal leaks from the drainage valve at the bottom of the unit. If the drain valve is brass, you can probably just replace the washer with a trip to any home improvement store—however you will still have to fully shut off your water heater and drain the tank. If you have a plastic drainage valve, you will also have to drain the tank, but it is probably best to simply replace the entire valve. If you cannot replace the valve or washer right away, a quick fix can be to add a simple garden hose end cap to the drainage valve.

If these fixes do not work, the culprit may be  high water pressure in the municipal system or a back-flow problem outside of your home, and you’ll likely need a licensed and certified plumber to diagnose and handle these issues.

Insulate your water heater

One of the easiest ways to save money and energy in your house is with proper hot water heater insulation. If your storage tank’s insulation has an R-value of at least R-24, you will likely not need any added protection (an R-value is a measure of thermal resistance in the plumbing and construction industries). If the R-value—stated on your water heater unit—is below R-24, adding insulation can reduce standby heat losses significantly. If your unit does not display your R-value and you cannot find it, simply touch your tank. If it’s warm to the touch, then your heater is not keeping energy inside the tank and you will need more insulation.

Insulating a water heater tank is a simple and inexpensive fix that can save your household lots of money. Pre-cut jackets and blankets are available at most hardware stores, and are priced at around $20. These will come with instructions that are often as easy as wrapping and securing the insulation around your heater. Be sure to never cover the thermostat access panel, and do not set your water over 130ºF if you have added insulation.

When to call the plumber

While regular do-it-yourself maintenance can prevent many costly calls to the plumber, there are some cases when a certified plumber is necessary and will actually save you money by fixing the problem right the first time. Complex issues like your water pressure hovering too low or too high, or continued sediment buildup even with DIY maintenance, will likely take a professional plumber to investigate. And remember, you can contact Newcomb and Company online or by phone for certified 24/7 convenient service.

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