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Straight Talk Articles

Water heater efficiency and maintenance
December, 2017

Dear Pat:

My water heater is  fifteen years old. How long could it last? Are there things I can do to maintain it and maybe make it more efficient? Or should I just replace it? – Max

Dear Max,

Hard to say how long it will last. Certified home inspectors estimate the life span to be 10 years.1 Some manufacturers suggest 12-13 years. But I had a water tank that lasted over forty years before the heating element finally gave out. It’s wise to be replace a water heater before it fails, though, because sometimes failure includes a burst tank or a massive leak that can do a lot of damage.

 

When it comes to a water heater’s lifespan and maintenance, each case is different, so there are often no hard-and-fast answers. Instead, I can give some general guidelines that will hopefully help you make the best decision for your situation. Much of my advice assumes that yours is the more-typical water heater that has a tank, rather than an “on-demand” tankless model.

 

The life span of a water heater depends on factors such as how much water is cycled through it, the hardness (mineral content) of the water and the type of interior coating in the tank.

 

Most water heaters come with a warranty as long as 12 years.  Presumably, a longer warranty indicates higher quality and the chances of longer life. These warranties usually only cover the cost of a replacement tank, not the labor cost to install  it or the costs from flood damage if the tank fails.

 

There are a few warning signs that your water heater tank or heating element may be failing.

  • Water is leaking from the tank or pooling on the floor underneath it

  • There is rust, corrosion or mineral deposits around fittings or release valves coming out of the tank

  • You find you are losing temperature from your faucets

 

The biggest step you can take to maintain your water heater during its life is to drain it at least once a year. Allstate.com gives an excellent step-by-step guide. However, Ken Maleski, the residential advisor at Central Electric Cooperative in Pennsylvania, recommends that if your tank has not been drained in the past 6-7 years, you should leave it be in case a weak spot has developed in the tank.

Anode rods in your water heater reduce rust in the tank, and will be consumed over time. Replacing them may extend the life of the tank, but the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors questions the value of doing so.2

 

There  are a few simple steps you can take to increase your water heater’s efficiency:

  • Insulate the first 6-10 feet of easily-accessed pipe where it comes out of the tank.

  • If the tank is warm to the touch or is in a cold location such as the garage, consider insulating it with a heater blanket. But first, check the owner’s manual to make sure doing so won’t void the warranty, and be careful the blanket doesn’t block the unit’s air supply.

  • Keep your water temperature to 120 degrees or less. Not only will it save money on your heating bill, but it will ensure longer life for pipes and gaskets and keep household members from getting scalded.

 

And think safety! If you have a gas or propane water heater, protect your family from the “silent killer,” carbon monoxide gas. Pick up a carbon monoxide detector from the hardware store and install it near the heater.

 

Saving money on your monthly hot water budget doesn’t just come from your water heater, though. Showering uses up almost 17% of our indoor water use3, so you can save a lot of money by switching out your shower heads for water saver models. You should also fix any leaky faucets, as a drip every second can add up to $35 a year4 .

 

Ultimately, there’s no way to know how long your water heater will last. Three things are certain: there are a few simple things you can do to make it more energy-efficient; maintenance is advisable if done along the way; and replacement is worth considering before the tank fails, especially if your heater is beyond the manufacturer’s warrantied age or the national average.

For more information on water heaters, please visit the December 2017 more information page.

 

Footnotes

1 https://www.nachi.org/lifespan-water-heater.htm

2 https://www.nachi.org/lifespan-water-heater.htm

3 https://www.epa.gov/watersense/showerheads

4 https://energy.gov/energysaver/reduce-hot-water-use-energy-savings

Mineral deposits on pressure release valves or corrosion on fittings coming out of the water heater are signs of leakage that need to be addressed. Photo credit: Jim Troth, homeinspectionsinohio.com.