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Top 5 Problems With Water Heaters

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Residential water heaters work invisibly. They provide hot water 24 hours a day, and we never even think about them until they develop a problem. Water heaters are generally very reliable, but like all appliances they eventually break. Here are the five things that are most likely to go wrong with residential water heaters and what to do about them.

You have no hot water at all. The causes for a hot water heater going cold are different for gas and electric models.

With gas water heaters, check the pilot light. If it's out, re-light it following the instructions printed on the water heater tank. If the pilot won't light, there could be a problem with the gas supply; contact your utility provider. If the pilot will light but goes out quickly, there might be a problem with the thermocouple or gas control valve.

With electric water heaters, check the circuit breaker. If it has tripped, reset it by flipping it to the “off” position then back to “on.” If the circuit breaker hasn't tripped, reset the water heater's high temperature cutoff, or ECO switch. If that doesn't fix the problem, your water heater's thermostat or heating element may have failed.

What to do: Call a plumber. Do not attempt to repair the gas line and fittings or electrical elements yourself!

There's not enough hot water. If you're running out of hot water more often than you used to, there are several possible culprits.

Sediment may have built up in the bottom of the tank, taking up room and decreasing the volume of available hot water.

The thermostat may be broken and need replacing.

The dip tube may be damaged. The dip tube is a plastic tube that directs cold water to the bottom of the tank. If it cracks or breaks, cold water can leak into the hot water at the top of the tank as it flows out of the water heater.

What to do: You should be flushing the sediment out of your water heater as part of its regular maintenance. If you've done that and sediment build up isn't the problem, call a plumber to check for other possible causes.

Your hot water looks or smells bad. All water heater tanks eventually corrode, and rust-colored water is a pretty accurate indicator. The corrosion can affect the tank itself, or be concentrated on the anode rods that are put in place to protect the tank walls. A decaying anode can also create hydrogen gas which feeds bacteria in sediment that has built up in the tank, causing a rotten egg smell in your water.

What to do: If the corrosion isn't too extensive, you can replace the anode rod and get a few more years from your heater. Replacing the rod will also help bad smelling water, as will flushing out sediment.

The heater is making odd noises. Rumbling or popping noises coming from your water heater is a sign that sediment has built up in the bottom of the tank. That can cause overheating to the point where the water boils, causing the noises. Electric water heaters can also make a high pitched whine when calcium carbonate (lime) builds up on electrical heating elements.

What to do: Remove sediment by draining and flushing the tank. Scale build up on heating elements can be removed by soaking the elements in vinegar or a professional de-liming product. Call a plumber for help with that.

The water heater is leaking. Water leaking from hot water heaters can be caused by several problems. It could be coming from the temperature-pressure relief (TPR) valve. If the valve is stuck open or has released water because of excess pressure, clear it of debris. Leaks can also come from worn gaskets or pipe fittings, or from the tank itself.

What to do: Put a bucket under the overflow pipe below the TPR valve and open the valve to clear any debris. If the valve still leaks, call a plumber immediately. The TPR is a critical safety component, and a faulty valve can allow enough pressure to build up to cause your tank to explode!

Look for leaks on gaskets around the heating elements and all the fittings on your water heater. Examine nearby pipes, too. Finally, check the tank itself. A corroded tank is the final indicator that it's time to replace your water heater.

If you can't diagnose your water heater's problem, call a plumber. With regular maintenance, and occasional help from a professional, water heaters are very dependable. Just keep an eye out for these common problems to keep your water heating working without a hitch.

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