Residential Water Heater Maintenance
By Owen Whetzel
Your first source of maintenance information should be the owner or user's manual, that came with the appliance. (If you do not have a manual for your water heater, you may be able to obtain one from the heater manufacturer. See the end of this column for suggestions on how to contact the manufacturer.)
Although some water heater maintenance tasks can vary from one water heater to another, here are some general suggestions, that might improve the operation and life of your water heater.
Some newer water heaters are self-flushing, but most in operation are not. If your water heater needs to be flushed, it's a good idea to do it about every six months.
To remove loose sediment from the tank, hook up a garden hose to the water heater drain valve. Place the other end of the hose, where running HOT! water will not scald humans or pets, or damage surfaces or landscaping. Open the drain valve and allow water to flow, until the water is moderately warm or lukewarm. Then shut the water heater drain valve. Remove the hose.
If the drain valve doesn't allow for a good flow of water, you may want to replace it. When replacing a water heater drain valve, turn the gas control to the "Pilot" setting or, if the water heater is electric, turn the power off. Connect a garden hose to the existing drain valve and drain the water to a safe location until the water is warm. If the valve is inoperable, you should run hot water through a large tap, such as a tub spout, until the running water is at a warm not hot temperature. Allowing the water to cool to a warm temperature will minimize the chances of you getting scalded, when you replace the drain valve.
It is not necessary to drain the water heater to replace the drain valve, as long as the pressure is off. To temporarily disable pressure close the shut-off valve on the cold line and open one hot water faucet. Water will run for a while and then stop. Once water has stopped, close the faucet to prevent air from entering the system. Warn others not to use the water supply, while you are replacing the valve, otherwise you may get drenched.
Expect some water to leak from the tank, when you replace the valve (maybe a cup or so). When the job is completed close the hot water faucet you opened and open the shut-off valve on the water heater cold line.
A good choice for a replacement valve is a 3/4-inch ball valve. You will find ball valves, plastic-lined steel nipples (if one is needed) and adapters to go from 3/4-inch pipe thread to hose thread (which is needed to be able to attach a garden hose to the ball valve for flushing and draining) in Orchard Supply Hardware's plumbing department.
It pops! It rumbles! It loudly bubbles!
Flushing may help, but the "pops and bubbling" you are hearing are likely coming from a build-up or deposit of minerals and other materials on the bottom of the water heater tank. As the water heater burner comes on, water beneath and in the pores of the deposit eventually heats to a high temperature—the point where molecules "smash" into each other, making a popping, bubbling, banging, cracking, or snapping noise.
If flushing doesn't help, the tank must be vacuumed using a device known as a Muck Vac, which breaks up and vacuums deposits from the bottom of the tank. This is not a do-it-yourself job due to the expense of the Muck-Vac. This work is done by companies specializing in water heater maintenance. These contractors are often listed in the Yellow Pages under "Water Heaters—Repairing."
You don't want the heater to explode
Should other safety features on a water heater fail, boiling and explosion protection is provided by a properly functioning temperature and pressure valve, commonly known as a T & P or "pop-off" valve, which is required to be on all water heaters. This valve expels hot water when it reaches 210-degrees F., which allows cold water to flow into the tank. The valve also serves as a safety device should water pressure exceed 150 psi.
Check the operation of the device about every six months. If it fails to open or leaks, replace it.
Use a bright flashlight to inspect all the pipe fittings and valves in and around the water heater. Note any that appear rusted or damaged or valves that don't properly operate. They may need to be replaced.
Then, in gas water heaters, inspect the burner chamber (with the burner OFF). Some signs of slight rust or condensation are not usually a problem, but significant rust and water streaks are usually a sign the heater should be replaced. Look for a build up of rust scale on top of the burner. This is a sign of tainted air entering the chamber. Tainted air can come from often-overlooked sources, such as liquid household chlorine bleach or fabric softeners, which are used in a nearby washing machine and then pumped into a laundry sink near the heater.
Every few years
Both gas and electric water heaters have anode rods, that can deteriorate with time. Water heaters may have one or two and they should be examined every three or four years (check them every two years, if the water is acidic or artificially softened by a water softener). Anode roads are commonly known as sacrificial rods, because they corrode and "sacrifice" their structure to protect the tank.
These rods are difficult to remove. A torque multiplier wrench may be necessary to loosen a 1 1/16-inch hex plug on the top of the water heater, but inspecting them and replacing them, if needed, can add years to the life of an otherwise undamaged water heater. If you can't access the rod or rods, have the job done by a qualified water heater technician or licensed plumber.
A quick examination of an anode rod will give you an idea, if it needs replacing. If you find 6-inches or more of the steel core of the rod exposed or the rod is covered with a mineral deposit—calcium carbonate—then it's time to replace the rod.
What if the water heater is leaking?
The answer is simple. Replace it. You cannot repair a leaking residential water heater.
Should I replace my water heater because it's old?
A reason may be age. If the water heater has been in use for a number of years, particularly without maintenance, it may be time to replace the existing appliance with a new one. If you don't know the age of the water heater, here are a few clues on how to determine the age: On most brands that information is found in the serial number or warranty information on the heater's tag (which is affixed to the lower face). For example, if the serial number begins with 0495, it was made in the fourth month of 1995. D95 was also made in 1995, in April (A = January, B = February, C = March, etc.). If the serial number begins with, for example, 9615, the heater was made in the 15th week of 1996.
However, if your water heater is not leaking, does not show signs of rusting on the outside jacket or in the burner compartment as previously described, and is providing hot water, there is probably no reason to replace it. Just have the accumulation of deposits removed from the tank bottom and perform the other maintenance mentioned.
You may have specific water heater problems. You may also want to read "The Water Heater Workbook," by Larry and Suzanne Weingarten (Elemental Enterprises) or visit an information-packed Web site, Water Heater Rescue, http://www.waterheaterrescue.com/, a site dedicated to maintaining water heaters and keeping them out of landfills.
How to contact water heater manufacturers
If you don't have an address and telephone number for the manufacturer, it can usually be located through a Web search; the "Thomas Register," a comprehensive set of reference books or on-line at http://www.thomasnet.com/; or in a brand name directory, such as "Brands and Their Companies," published annually by Gale Research. The "Thomas Register" and "Brands and Their Companies" are usually found at most public libraries.
If the water heater is a Kenmore, an owner or user's manual may be available through Sears Parts, http://www.sears.com/ and choose "Parts."