Is Your Water Heater Dying?

Did you know that water heater problems are one of the most common reasons to call a plumber? Did you know that the average cost to replace a leaking water heater is about $1000? If there were a way to easily and inexpensively extend the life of your water heater would you like to know how? Well, read on, the secret is in the anode.

It’s Too Late If The Tank Leaks

The number one reason that you need to replace a water heater is because the tank has started leaking. Many people wonder when to replace a water heater and when to repair it. The answer is when it has started leaking. There is really no good hot water heater repair method for a leaking tank. Problems related to no hot water can almost always be repaired, but a leaking tank means the end of the road for that water heater.

The Anode Rod

Water heaters are essentially steel tanks with vitreous glass bonded to the inside to protect the steel from rust. This sounds good but there are always seams and fittings that leave some steel exposed to the water. That’s why water heater manufacturers install a sacrificial anode rod in the tank.

An anode rod protects the exposed steel from the effects of electrolysis. Electrolysis occurs when dissimilar metals are in contact with each other in water. Whichever metal is the most reactive will corrode first. A metal’s “reactivity” is measured on something called a galvanic scale.

Anode rods are made of aluminum or magnesium, which are more reactive than steel, so they will corrode first. This sacrificial rod protects the steel inside the tank from corrosion. But, since they are designed to wear out, anode rods need to be replaced when depleted. How long this takes depends on several factors, such as water quality, temperature and usage patterns. Once the anode rod is used, up the tank starts corroding.

All new water heaters should have an anode rod installed from the factory. Some of them have the anode installed in a separate opening on top of the tank and some use a combination anode rod that is installed in the hot water outlet of the tank. If possible, get a water heater with a separate anode rod, which will usually have a hex head on top where the anode screws into the tank. This will allow you to add a second, combination anode to increase your protection.

Adding a second anode when installing or servicing a water heater is a very cost effective way to extend the life of the tank. That’s actually what the manufacturers do for their longer warrantied models. You can do the same thing. If you combine that with a regular maintenance routine you can add years to your water heater’s service life.

Drain The Tank At Least Once A Year

Maintaining your water heater doesn’t have to be a big chore either. Every water heater manual ever written has a section regarding maintenance. They all say to inspect the T&P valve and drain the heater at least annually. If you have ever done those things you might have found out that the T&P Valve wouldn’t close properly after checking it and the water heater drain valve now leaks. Many people had a similar experience and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.

While it’s true that the T&P Valve is likely to leak after testing it, the danger involved if it failed makes the risk of a leak worth it. If you want to see what could potentially happen due to a failed T&P, just Google “water heater blast” and check out the video at the website of that name. It will make replacing a $6 part a no-brainer. It only takes a little residential plumbing how to skill and a few minutes.

One other thing you can do when you install or service a water heater to make your life easier is to go ahead and replace the cheesy, plastic drain valve. You can do this really simply when the tank is dry. You can use a brass boiler drain or hose bibb, just make sure it is long enough to reach the tank through the insulation and housing. The absolute best way I’ve seen is to use a brass nipple, a threaded ball valve and an adapter from pipe threads to hose threads with a cap screwed on the hose threads to prevent accidentally opening the valve.

Once you’ve installed a real drain valve, follow the manufacturers suggestion. Once or twice a year, hook a hose to the drain and flush the tank out until the water runs clear. This will help prevent a sediment build up in the tank bottom. Sediment that collects around the bottom seam can act as a barrier and not allow the anode to protect that part of the tank. A reduction in efficiency due to this build up is also a common gas water heater problem, but the big issue is that it blocks the anode protection.

It is also a good idea to check the anode when you flush the heater, if you make this a routine you will be able to replace the anode before it is completely gone. Remember, once the anode is gone the tank starts corroding. With the water to the water heater turned off, take a big wrench and remove the hex nut on top of the water heater. The anode should look sort of like a chewed up stick, this means it is working. If it is very small or looks almost like a wire with some chunks on it, it needs to be replaced.

Making sure your heater is protected with a good anode rod and performing at least an annual sediment flush should let you get the maximum length of service from your water heater. Since a water heater is probably the single most expensive component of your plumbing system, preventing a water heater problem can save you a bundle. Remember, it’s all about the anode.

Copyright 2009 Bryan Stevens

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1 comment to Is Your Water Heater Dying?

  • Annual flushing of the water heater through the drain valve can help prevent sediment build up. Sediment reduces the efficiency of the water heater and may clog pumps and valves elsewhere in the system.Always remember,”prevention is better than cure”.

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