Lesson 5- 7786

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Today’s Lesson:
Part 5 of 7

How to Troubleshoot Water Heaters

Last time we learned how your water heater is like a pet tiger, it can hurt you if you don’t take care of it.   This time we’ll talk about taking care of it and how to troubleshoot water heaters.

Your water heater is one of the single most expensive components of your plumbing system.   It costs a lot of money to buy it and it costs more money to operate it.   It can cost a lot to repair if it doesn’t work.   You can save some of that money to use for other things by learning to troubleshoot water heaters.

If your water heater isn’t working properly it can make our life miserable.   Unless you really like cold showers it is a big deal when your water heater has problems.   That’s why water heater issues are some of the most common service calls for many plumbing companies.

This is a good time to talk a little about when it is appropriate for you to fix things yourself and when you should probably go ahead and call a plumber.   Water heater problems are a good example of when this choice is important.

If you water heater itself is leaking, as opposed to the piping connected to it leaking, this probably means that it needs to be replaced.   It is beyond the scope of this mini course to teach you how to replace your water heater.

A water heater replacement raises a lot of safety concerns (see the previous lesson) and there are some fairly technical skills needed to do the job right.   It is usually better to call a licensed plumber if yours needs replacing and you aren’t entirely sure you know what you’re doing.

On the other hand, if your heater is not leaking but is just not making hot water, you can often correct that without calling a plumber.   You don’t need any really technical skills to learn to troubleshoot water heaters, just a little common sense and patience.

The first good news is that, although the trend is toward more economical water heaters, the basic operation and controls haven’t changed much over the years.   So some basic knowledge will allow you to troubleshoot water heaters of almost any age or manufacturer.

There are two main kinds of storage type water heaters (we won’t get into tankless models here): gas and electric.   This depends on what sort of energy source is used to heat the water.

economic water heaters gas economic water heaters electric
Gas Water Heater                                 Electric Water Heater

Gas water heaters use natural gas (and sometimes LP) to fuel a burner which in turn heats the water sort of like a pot on the stove.   They have only a few components that control whether or not you have hot water.

The first thing to check if you have a gas water heater and no hot water is whether or not you have gas.   I know it my sound silly, but I have gone to many homes only to find that the gas had been turned off for one reason or another.   If you have a gas stove see if it works.   If not, check your meter to make sure it’s on.

If you have gas, the next step is to check your pilot light and, if it’s out, try to light it.   The lighting instructions are usually right on the water heater.   If your gas has been off it may take a while for the air to bleed out and the gas to get to the pilot, so be patient.

If your pilot won’t light, or won’t stay lit, the thermocouple may be the problem.   This looks like a copper wire coming from the control box on front of the water heater and going down to where the pilot light should be.   It has an enlarged tip at the pilot end.

You can change a thermocouple with only a small adjustable wrench.   You can get a new thermocouple at most hardware stores for under $20.   This will usually correct a pilot light problem.

troubleshoot water heaters thermocouple

If you are sure you have gas, and replacing the thermocouple doesn’t fix the problem, the gas control valve is about the only thing left to check.   This is a fairly major repair so if you aren’t very comfortable working with gas connections you may want to call a licensed plumber for this.

Electric water heaters use, you guessed it- electricity, to heat the water.   If your electric water heater isn’t working the first thing to do is check your breaker or fuse box.   Many electric water heaters also have a separate disconnect box at the water heater, check this too.

troubleshoot water heaters breaker
Circuit Breaker Box

If you are sure you have power, the problem is either your heating elements or thermostats.    Most electric water heaters have two of each, upper and lower.

In order to check the heating elemants you will have to turn off the breaker sevicing the water heater circuit and remove the access cover on the water heater.   At this point you might get lucky.

Many thermostats have a reset button which can sometimes be pushed to reset the circuit and get the water heater working again.   To find it you may have to carefully remove any insulation covering the thermostat.   If the reset button has been tripped you should be able to hear and feel a definite click when you push it.   If you think it was tripped, put everything back together, turn the power on and check for hot water in about an hour.

economic water heaters thermostat
(Notice the Red Reset Button)

If the thermostat can’t be reset you will need a voltage meter or continuity tester before going any further.   Once again, although this isn’t as hard as it sounds, it is beyond the scope of this mini course.

Learning how to troubleshoot water heaters can be fairly simple but you do need to understand and be comfortable working with gas and electricity.   If you aren’t sure about something it is better to be safe than sorry.   (I sort of have to remind you of that to keep the lawyers happy).

In our next section we’ll discuss what to do when you things aren’t draining like they should.

Until next time,

Bryan Stevens


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