It’s easy to take your water heater for granted. You turn on the tap or shower handle to the left, and expect hot water to pour out – at least, after a few seconds. But what happens if it never gets beyond merely tepid? Or, at the other extreme, if you’re almost scalded? On such an occasion, that tall cylinder in the corner of your utility room or other out-of-the-way spot asserts its importance in your household.
While we offer the following symptoms and troubleshooting guide, we emphasize that making DIY repairs is not for everyone. As we always caution, watching YouTube videos is no guarantee your attempt will succeed – especially when dealing with an electrical appliance, not to mention an electrical appliance that’s in contact with water. Gas water heaters pose their own dangers, as natural gas can explode. Caution needs to be exercised to make sure the gas is shut off and only turned on when the pilot is lit.
Stopping those freezing showers
While no plumbing problem should be ignored, many people choose to live with a dripping faucet – at least until the drip becomes a steady stream, or jiggling the handle to find the sweet spot that stops it no longer works. However, cold running water all the time quickly (or immediately) becomes unacceptable. Finding and fixing the cause has a sense of urgency.
Be it an electric or a natural gas model, a hot water heater has basic components, and operates in a straightforward manner. Both types have an insulated storage tank jacket made of steel to reduce heat loss. Insulation is also provided between the storage tank and the jacket. The water in an electric water heater is heated by upper and lower heating elements; a gas water heater has a gas burner underneath the tank.
A faulty heating element is the most frequent culprit in water heater problems. Other common issues include improper settings, poor tank maintenance and high water pressure.
Writing for The Spruce, architect and builder Bob Formisano offers this troubleshooting guide, which we’ve summed up here. The full article includes detailed DIY steps for those who feel confident in their ability to safely take on such repairs.
No hot water – A water heater that produces no hot water may not be getting power, or it may have a tripped limit switch or one or more failed heating elements. First, check the water heater’s circuit breaker in the service panel to make sure it hasn’t tripped. If the breaker has tripped, switch it off, then switch it back on again. If the heater’s breaker did not trip (it is still on), try to reset the high-temperature limit on the heater.
Inadequate hot water – If your water heater is producing hot water, but not enough of it, your unit could be too small to meet the household’s hot water demand. Make sure the demand does not exceed the capacity of the water heater. The water heater should have 75 percent of its capacity as hot water. For example, a 40-gallon water heater is properly sized for a demand of 30 gallons. If the demand is too great for the heater capacity, try to limit the length of showers (and/or install a low-flow showerhead) and spread out dish-washing and laundry to different times of the day.
If your unit is not undersized, or it suddenly produces less hot water than it used to, one or both of its heating elements may have failed. A constant supply of lukewarm water during a shower is indicative of a defective upper heating element. Hot water that runs out quickly during a shower is indicative of a defective lower heating element.
Water temperature too hot – Water temperature that’s too high can be almost as frustrating as tepid or cold water – and can be dangerous to young children and the frail elderly. If you’re experiencing this problem, it’s possible that one or both of your water heater’s thermostats is set too high. Both thermostats should be set at the same temperature, which should be between 115 F and 125 F.
Leaks – Leaks from water heater tanks can be due to loose heating elements or to tank corrosion. Inspect the elements for looseness and, if necessary, tighten them with an element wrench. A corroded tank cannot be repaired and must be replaced. Turn off the power and water supply to the water heater, then drain the tank completely. Leaking water can cause significant damage, so it is important to repair the leak as soon as possible.
Discolored water and bad odor – If rust-colored water starts coming out of the tap, there could be corrosion inside your water heater tank or in the pipes. A rotten egg odor indicates the growth of bacteria in the tank. You may need to replace the anode rod inside the tank.
Noises coming from the tank – Are there noises coming from your water heater? Does it sound like a low rumbling or popping noise? Or maybe it’s a high pitched whine? The noise you’re hearing may be the sound of boiling water. Excessive buildup of sediment in the bottom of the tank can cause the bottom of the tank to overheat, boiling the water. The first solution to try is draining the tank to get rid of the sediment. If that doesn’t help, you may need to replace the tank.
What to look for with your water heater
Home repair expert Don Vandervort provides additional water heater diagnostic tips and instructions specific to electric models for HomeTips. Again, visit the article for complete instructions and precautions – such as shutting off power before performing work, and never work if there’s standing water pooled on the floor near the appliance.
Points to assess include the following:
- Check to see if electricity is being delivered to the appliance.
- Check the high-temperature cutoff in the water heater.
- Check for water inside the compartment. A leak here means that your water heater may need to be replaced.
When it’s time to call in the experts
Even for those who know their way around a water heater – such as hardcore home rehabbers – acknowledging your limitations is wise. And for those who don’t want to venture near their water heater, we hope we’ve given you a 101 education that will make you a better informed consumer when you do call a professional plumber for repair or replacement.
Adams and Son Plumbing is a family-owned business with over 50 years in plumbing service. A state-certified plumbing contractor, we have over three generations of master plumbing experience. Contact us to learn more and schedule a service appointment.