Maintaining your water heater



Whether you have an electric or gas-burning water heater, routine maintenance is an important part of keeping your water heater efficient and working for the duration of its natural lifetime. If there's nothing seriously wrong with your water heater, chances are you can do most, if not all, of your maintenance without any outside help or significant expenditure. If you are interested in guaranteeing the lifetime of your water heater, consider a home warranty.

Check the TPR valve
TPR stands for temperature-pressure-release. Your TPR valve opens in the event that the pressure in your water heater gets too high, releasing steam and water. If your TPR valve isn't functioning properly, pressure could build up in the tank and potentially cause it to explode. To check the TPR valve, first turn off the gas switch to the pilot in a gas-burning heater, or turn off electricity to your electric heater. Next, shut off the cold water inlet and position a bucket under the TPR valve to catch any water that escapes. Finally, pull the trip lever on the valve. You should see some vapor and water escape out of the valve. If nothing comes out, or water flows out of the valve continuously, you'll need to replace it.

To replace a TPR valve, first drain the tank halfway so that water doesn't rush out when you take the old valve off. Unscrew the valve using a pipe wrench, and screw the new one in. It's as easy as that!

Change the anode rod
The anode rod in a water heater helps to prevent the buildup of rust inside the tank, which can corrode the sides over time. Most tanks are made of steel, with a glass interior as the first line of defense against rust. This glass eventually cracks, however, which is why the anode is present as a backup. Eventually, the anode rod itself becomes too corroded to do it's job, and it is much cheaper to change an anode rod every five years than it is to buy a new tank.

First, shut off everything to the tank, just like you did to check the TPR valve. This includes turning off the gas switch or electricity and shutting the cold water inlet. You should also turn on a hot water faucet in order to relieve some pressure. Next, drain a few gallons of water from the tank's drain cock somewhere that won't be affected by the scalding water that comes out.

Now that you're prepared, fit a 1 1/16 inch socket onto the anode rod's hex head on top of the tank and unscrew it. You may need a "cheater" to turn the wrench if the rod is stuck in place. If you have less than 44 inches of clearance, you might have to bend the old anode rod in order to get it out – this is ok. To fit a new anode rod in with low clearance, buy a flexible or segmented rod. Wrap the threads of the new rod with Teflon tape, put it back in the tank and tighten securely.

Clean out the sediment
Sediment buildup in the tank will lower its efficiency and possibly clog your water lines. To clear out this sediment, drain the rest of the tank. Make sure that everything is still off while you do this, as heating elements on in an empty tank could do serious damage to the system. You should notice a brown, brackish look to this water if there is significant sediment. To stir up the sediment still in the tank, open the cold water inlet briefly before draining again. Simply repeat this process until the water coming out of your tank is clean and clear.

Adjust the temperature
The temperature in your water heater should be set at 120 degrees for maximum efficiency. Most of the time, the factory will set the temperature at 120 degrees for you, but over time it may have slipped, or it may have been set higher or lower by a previous owner of the house. To change the temperature, simply locate the thermostat on the heater and set it to 120. Older heaters need to be adjusted with a flathead screwdriver. According to This Old House, for every 10 degrees lower that you set your water heater, you can expect to save about 5 percent in energy costs.

Insulating a water heater and pipes isn't an annual task, thankfully. It can be a lot of work, but once you're done you will likely never have to insulate your heater again, and you'll save significant money on water heating costs. To insulate the pipes running from your water heater, measure the circumference of your pipes and buy 3/8 inch thick, self-adhesive foam pipe insulation of according size. If your pipes are within half a foot of your flue – the exhaust vent for a gas-heater's combustion – use fiberglass insulation instead to prevent the risk of fire.

Peel away the tape and squeeze the insulation closed over both your hot and cold water pipes as far as you can reach. You probably won't be able to reach all the way into your walls, but the more pipe you cover, the more efficient your system will be. Insulating the cold water pipes prevents condensation in the warmer months, which isn't good for your pipes.

To insulate your tank – which is where you lose much of your waste heat – buy an insulation blanket that fits easily around it. Tape one side firmly to the side of the tank and wrap tightly. Make sure that you cut holes for pipes, the TPR valve and the thermostat, and never cover the top of a gas-burning water heater.

Get a home warranty
If you want to ensure that your water heater will continue to work for years to come, and avoid any large, unexpected expenses, consider whether a home warranty is right for you. A TotalProtect® Home Warranty may increase your confidence as a homeowner, and will reduce your liability to a low monthly payment.

The information in this article is intended to provide guidance on the proper maintenance and care of systems and appliances in the home. Not all of the topics mentioned are covered by our home warranty or maintenance plans. Please review your home warranty contract carefully to understand your coverage.