Hot Water Heater Maintenance
Hot water heaters are not cheap. By performing a bit of hot water heater maintenance now and then, you can prevent problems with your heater and greatly extend the life of the device well past its warranty period. Even better, this maintenance is simple and inexpensive.
The anode rod is the single most important part of your water heater from a maintenance perspective. This is rather ironic since most people have never heard of it. In plumbing terms, the rod is known as a “sacrificial anode,” which should give you a hint to its purpose.
A quick and painless lesson in science; All metals are electrically charged. When two metals are placed together in water, the metal with a higher charge will decay while the other metal will not. In this sense, the metal with the higher charge is “sacrificed” so the lower-charged metal does not corrode.
This process, called electrolysis, is the reason sacrificial anodes are used in water tanks. The rod has a higher charge than the tank metal. The presence of the anode rod keeps the tank from rusting. This extends the life of the tank as long as the anode remains in decent shape. Exactly how long an anode rod lasts depends on many factors, so you need to check the condition of the rod at least once a year.
The anode hangs down from the top of the water heater, into the water in the internal tank, so it is very easy to access. However, first be sure that the heating elements are turned off and the tank has cooled down. You may want to drain out a few gallons of water just to be safe. Once you’ve done this, take an adjustable wrench to the head of the rod and unscrew it.
The rod should then just pull out from the top. If it looks like a naked wire, it needs to be replaced. If it looks like a rod with a lot of material still built up on it, you are good for another year.
If you do no other water heater maintenance, do this one thing each year. The rods cost $20 to $40, so replace them when in doubt and your water heater should last for decades.
The water used to fill your water heater contains small amounts of sediment. Over time, this sediment can form a mud-like layer at the bottom of the tank. This increases your heating costs because the burners need to be turned on for a longer time to heat the tank. This sediment can also cake the inside of pipes and become a breeding ground for bacteria. All in all, it is best removed on an annual basis through a flushing process.
To perform the flush, the first step is to turn off the electricity or gas fueling the water heater and let the tank cool down. Now, locate the drain valve on the bottom of the tank. It should look similar to the faucet to which you hook your garden hose. Now connect a hose to the drain valve and run the other end of the hose outside, so you can drain 40 to 80 gallons of water. The tank should indicate exactly how much water it holds.
Once the water begins to drain, pay close attention to its appearance as it comes out of the hose. If the water is a dirty color, you have a sediment issue. The first time you do this type of hot water heater maintenance, you should expect it to be very dirty.
Once all the water drains out of the tank, you will need to refill the tank partway, to get at the sediment still in the tank. Turn on the cold water valve. This will introduce cold water into what is known as the dip pipe within the tank. The water will build up in the bottom of the tank, stir up the remaining sediment and flush it out through the hose. Continue the process until the water coming out of the hose is clear. That’s the sign that the sediment has been cleaned from the tank, and your water heater should work much more efficiently and deliver hot water for longer periods of time.
The next few maintenance steps focus on extending the life of your water heater by reducing how hard the device has to work to provide hot water. The first step in this process is to adjust the temperature setting on the thermostat, much as you would for the air temperature in your home. In this case, however, the gauge is found on the water heater itself.
Most water heater thermostats will allow you to set a temperature between 120 and 180 degrees. The manufacturers will set the thermostat to anywhere between 140 and 160 degrees. This is actually higher than needed and wastes a good bit of energy. To prolong the life of your heater, it is best to turn the temperature down to 120 degrees.
To do this, you need to locate the thermostat on the water heater. You can typically find it three-quarters of the way up the heater on the side. To protect it from the elements, the thermostat may be covered by a gray piece of metal. If so, just unscrew the plate to get at the thermostat.
At this point, you usually need a flathead screwdriver to set the temperature. The temperature regulator should look like the top of a screw surrounded by red markings. Turn the screw with the screwdriver to adjust the temperature. Once you’ve turned it to the 120 degree mark, you are finished and need only to replace the plate to be done permanently with this bit of hot water heater maintenance.
For some bizarre reason, plumbers rarely insulate the pipes delivering cold and hot water to and from the water heater. This makes these pipes “temperature dumps” and significantly decreases the efficiency of the water heater. This results in the heating mechanisms needing to be turned on and off far more often than they should be, to maintain the desired temperature in the tank. In the same way that turning a light bulb on and off shortens its life, the unnecessary wear and tear of turning the water heater on and off shortens the life of the heating elements.
The solution for this problem is another one-time hot water heater maintenance job. You need to insulate the pipes using ¾ inch foam pipe insulation. Insulating something may sound difficult and time consuming, but this project can be completed very quickly. The insulation material for pipes of this sort is preformed and cut. It looks like a foam pipe with a slit cut down the length of the pipe. You simply measure out the length of the insulation necessary to cover your pipes, cut the segments and then pop the foam insulation over the pipes. The foam insulation is even self-sealing.
One quick caveat with pipe insulation: make sure that the water pipes are not too close to the fume hood on the top of the heater, since you don’t want the insulation to melt. To check this, have someone run hot water in the house until the water heater turns on. Now place your hand around the pipes at the top of the heater to see if you can feel heat coming off of the fume hood. If so, consider using fiberglass insulation instead of foam products to prevent the insulation from melting.
Insulating The Tank
You can cut the cost of heating water for your home by ten percent or more by insulating the tank itself. Your water heater already has a layer of internal insulation, but an additional layer on the outside can never hurt. Think of it as wearing a warm coat over a sweater on a cold winter day.
To insulate your tank, you should buy R5 water heater insulation. Cut the insulation to the size of your heater by wrapping it around the tank once. Next, tack it to the top of the heater so it loosely fits the tank. Cut out the areas where pipes come out of the tank, the thermostat sits, and so on. Once finished, tightly wrap the insulation around the tank and use insulating tape to seal the top, bottom and cut-through areas. Do not place insulation over the bottom or top of the tank, as those areas need to be open for air flow purposes.
When it comes to water heater maintenance, the good news is there really isn’t much to do. Make sure to check your anode rod and do a flush each year and you’ve covered the necessary tasks. Lowering the temperature and adding insulation are one-time steps that can save you money on heating costs and greatly extend the life of your water heater as well. Considering the one-thousand dollars (or more) you would need to pay for a new water heater including the installation cost, taking these small steps to extend the life of your water heater by several decades is a wise decision.