You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about your water heater, but it’s a vital piece of equipment for numerous household tasks — such as laundry, washing dishes, and showering. Can you imagine doing all those things with cold water, even in the dead of winter? Yeah, neither can we.
We love hot water just as much as you do, so we want to help you keep your water heater working all year. Whether you own a tank water heater or use a tankless system, the steps in this guide will allow you to keep it in the best condition possible between professional service calls.
Tank Water Heaters vs. Tankless: What’s the Difference?
Figuring out what kind of water heater you have in your home should be pretty straightforward — just look! Tank water heaters consist of (you guessed it) a big old tank that heats cold water and stores it for use in the future. Tankless systems take up less space and usually look like a wall-mounted box connected to your pipes.
The difference between these systems comes down to more than just their size and appearance. Tankless (or “on-demand”) water heaters work by heating water only when needed, making them more energy-efficient. However, this also means that both types of water heater require slightly different kinds of maintenance.
Follow These Ten Steps to Maintain Your Water Heater
The following strategies will help you keep your water heater running safely and efficiently. Some apply to both tank heaters and tankless ones, but a few are specific to one or the other. Make sure you’re using the right techniques for the kind of heater you have!
Lower the Temperature (But Just a Little!)
Turning down the temperature valve on the side of your water heater by a few degrees can help prevent accidental scalding and lower your utility bills. Some associations recommend reducing the temperature to 49 degrees celsius for optimal savings — but the Canada Safety Council recommends a minimum temperature of 54 degrees celsius to prevent water contamination from certain bacterias.
Check for Leaks
A leaky water heater can lead to flooding, causing water damage to your home and potential electrical hazards. It can also drive up your hot water bills — so if you’re paying more than usual each month, check for leaks by following these steps:
- Stand next to the unit and listen for the sound of water dripping or rushing. If you hear it but can’t see where it’s coming from, there may be a break inside the unit, and you will have to replace it.
- Examine the pipes that carry water to and from the unit. The seals connecting these pipes may have worn out, or the pipes themselves could be leaking.
- Check the pressure relief and drain valves, which also wear out over time. Replacing these valves is usually pretty cheap, so don’t worry if you notice that one is leaking — just take care of it fast.
- If you have a tank water heater, look for water pooling underneath the unit, indicating a break in the tank’s inner lining.
Learn How to Shut Off the Water
Knowing how to turn your unit off will allow you to stop a leak from getting worse. The shut-off valve for most water heaters is on top of the unit, near the pipes that carry cold water into it. It’s also essential to know where the gas shut-off is on any gas-powered tank heater — since leaking gas can be an even more significant hazard than leaking water. The gas shut-off typically looks like a single handle on or near the bottom part of the unit.
Flush Your Heater Regularly
Flushing a water heater helps you get rid of minerals that build up inside the unit over time. Some people think this only occurs in tank heaters, but calcium and other materials can also accumulate in tankless heaters. For best results, flush tank heaters once every six months, and tankless heaters once each year.
- For tank heaters, turn off the cold water supply and connect a garden hose to the drain valve. Then let the sediment flow into a container or out to a safe location, and turn the cold water back on for a few minutes to rinse out the bottom of the tank before disconnecting the hose and cleaning the valve with a vacuum. For a full guide on how to flush tank heaters, click here.
- For tankless heaters, you’ll need a special pump to move water through the system and clear out mineral deposits from the unit. These come in tankless water heater flush kits, which are available at many hardware stores.
Clean the Air Filters
Both tank and tankless water heaters have air filters, which need to be cleaned whenever you flush them. These filters prevent airborne particles like dust from entering the part of the unit that heats the water. On a tank heater, the filter is generally near the bottom of the tank itself. On a tankless heater, it should be behind the front cover. Use compressed air to clean the filter, or spray it down with water.
Replace Water Filters
The components we refer to as water filters don’t literally filter water — instead, they prevent minerals in the water from collecting in the unit and help it work efficiently. Most water heater filters need replacement once each year.
Keep the Area Near Your Heater Clear
Whenever you’re near the unit on either tank or tankless water heaters, make sure to keep the area around it clear for at least two feet in every direction. Doing so will prevent any flammable materials from igniting if they are too close to the heater, and will make it easier to spot a leak if one occurs.
Test the Temperature and Pressure Relief Valves
Rust, corrosion, and mineral buildups can all prevent the valves on your heater from working correctly. The TPR valve is particularly important since its function is to release water from the system if too much pressure builds up inside it. Check your TPR valve by simply lifting and lowering the test lever a few times — this should cause hot water to flow out of the drainpipe, so be prepared!
Insulate Your Water Heater
Insulating your water heater means it doesn’t have to work as hard as it usually would to heat water in cold weather. It increases efficiency, reduces wear-and-tear, and reduces the money you spend over time on monthly bills and repairs.
- For tank heaters: turn the heater off, wrap a blanket around the unit, and cut out the sections around sensitive components such as the valves, controls, and the burner. Then tape it in place and turn the unit back on. This process can reduce heat loss in your unit by 25%-45%.
- For tankless heaters: flushing and de-scaling your tankless heater will reduce winter wear-and-tear, but to increase its efficiency, you’ll need to insulate the external pipes. Here’s a guide on how to make pipe-sleeves from various materials.
Regular Professional Care
Home maintenance is something you should do in addition to hiring a plumber for annual service calls — it’s not a replacement for professional treatment. Choose a licensed plumber with strong local reviews and have them check out your water heater at least once a year. Doing so will keep you informed about your water heater’s status and lower the risk of a severe plumbing problem.
Water Heater Maintenance Is (Mostly) Easy!
Most of the steps above aren’t too tricky. Sure, flushing your heater can be a bit challenging the first time you do it, but most water heater maintenance comes down to common sense and knowing how to use the right tools.
Hopefully, you’ve learned enough here to start maintaining your water heater between professional visits. Remember, it’s also okay to call the pros if any of these tasks seem too hard. Do the things you feel comfortable with, and trust the rest to an experienced plumber — your water heater will thank you in the long run.