Water Heater Maintenance and Safety
Dishwashers, refrigerators and other appliances we see and use every day usually get all the attention, but other hardworking appliances — like water heaters — need a little love from time to time as well.
Tucked away in a garage or utility room, our water heaters usually just quietly go about their business of heating our water without us giving them much thought, even though they work hard for us throughout the day as we shower, do laundry or wash dishes.
In fact, most of us do not think about our water heaters at all until they stop working, start a fire or explode.
With just a little love, you can extend the life of your water heater, help ensure that it will not explode and injure your family or damage your home, and save money by reducing energy use and the frequency of replacement.
If you are a handy homeowner, you may already be performing these tasks or can add them to your do-it-yourself home maintenance list.
Homeowners who are not quite as handy or who are not comfortable checking gas lines and draining their water heaters might want to add these to their list of home maintenance tasks they have professionals perform each year.
Before we dive into some water heater safety and maintenance tips, it should be noted that this post is specific to water heaters that have tanks and are powered by electricity, gas or propane.
Things You Should Know About Your Water Heater
Getting to know your water heater can help you more quickly recognize problems and feel more confident in your ability to maintain your home.
To this end, here are seven things you should know about your water heater.
1. You should know where your water heater is located.
If you do not know where your water heater is, you need to find it.
It is most likely in your garage, a utility room, an exterior or interior water heater closet, or your laundry room.
2. You should know if your water heater runs on propane, gas or electricity.
The first step is knowing if it runs on electricity or some type of gas.
If it has a pilot light, it runs on natural gas or propane.
Now, all you need to know is if your home has natural gas or propane.
If you have a propane tank somewhere on your property that you need to have filled every once in a while, your home runs on propane.
3. You should know how to shut off the gas, propane or electricity, and the water, in case of an emergency.
We will talk about this one later in the post, but remember that it is very important to know the emergency shutdown procedure for your water heater.
4. You should know that your water heater has anode rods.
Your water heater has sacrificial anode rods inside to help protect it from rust.
It is not overly important that you understand the science behind using sacrificial anode rods; the important part is that you know they are there and they need to be replaced every once in a while.
Anode rods are made from a material (aluminum or magnesium) that is more reactive than the steel of your water heater tank.
Because they are more reactive, your anode rods are corroding away in your water heater tank to keep it from rusting.
Not replacing these rods in a timely fashion causes most of the issues homeowners have with their water heaters.
Many factors determine how fast they will corrode, but it could be as quick as six months if you have a water softener.
5. You should know how to set the temperature.
Your water heater’s temperature control should be visible and easy to access.
It is generally recommended to keep the temperature at a maximum of 120 degrees.
Keeping the temperature too high (over 140 degrees) can damage your pipes.
6. You should know that gas water heaters can leak carbon monoxide.
Your family could be at risk if your water heater is not properly installed or maintained.
California law says that you must have a carbon monoxide detector in your house, but it is a good idea to also have one in your garage (or wherever your water heater is located).
7. You should know that your water heater can flood the area or explode.
It does not happen very often, but it is possible that your water heater could flood the area in which it is located or that is could explode in a rather devastating manner.
We will talk more about preventing these events from occurring in the section on maintenance and safety tips, but it is important for you to understand just how much this often-ignored appliance could affect your home and safety.
Water Heater Maintenance and Safety Tips
Water heater maintenance and safety go hand in hand, so it makes sense to cover both of these topics in the same section.
The preventive maintenance you perform (or have a professional perform) is intended to extend the life of your water heater and help to ensure the safety of your family and your home.
Here are 10 maintenance and safety tips to help you and your water heater have a long, positive relationship.
1. The area around your water heater should be clear of items, particularly flammable objects.
This will help prevent fires and will help you avoid your belongings being ruined by potential flooding.
2. Gas water heaters located in garages should be placed on sturdy platforms to keep the pilot light a minimum of 18 inches off of the floor to keep it away from the gasoline vapors that can gather there.
This is particularly important if you do not have a baffled combustion chamber.
3. If you plan on bombing your house for spiders or ants, make sure you extinguish the pilot light before setting off the bombs.
4. You also need to extinguish the pilot light if you plan on using any flammable liquids near your water heater.
5. Make sure your temperature pressure relief valve (T&P valve) is in working order to prevent explosions from pressure or temperature getting too high.
Hopefully, there is a long drain pipe attached to your T&P valve, which is intended to keep you from being scalded by water if the valve opens or when you open it to check it.
If not, you should remedy this by adding a drain line or having a professional do it for you.
The valve should be checked at least once every year to make sure it is working.
To test the valve, simply pull the handle up, and then let it go to allow it to close again.
If water just drips out or does not come out at all, you need a new valve.
Water (which will be very hot) should come out easily when you lift the handle and stop when you let go.
6. Earthquake straps are required in California, so if your water heater does not have straps, you need to remedy this right away.
7. Regularly check the flue for gaps to help ensure the exhaust gas is being properly removed.
8. To help ensure good ventilation, make sure the vent is the same size as the draft diverter and that it runs up and out and that the line does not dip down anywhere.
9. Know how to quickly shut off your water heater in an emergency.
It is a good idea to put a sticker on your water heater that walks you through the emergency shutoff process in case you become frazzled when disaster strikes.
You should read the instructions that came with your water heater to best understand how to shut off power and water.
To turn off electricity to your water heater, flip the circuit breaker off.
To turn off gas or propane to your water heater, turn the temperature control to the off position.
To turn off the water to the water heater, turn the handle clockwise.
If you need to drain the water from the tank, attach a regular garden hose to the drain valve so that you can drain the hot water outside or into a garage sink.
10. To extend the life of your water heater and save energy by heating your water more efficiently, your annual water heater maintenance routine should include flushing your water heater to remove the sediment that collects at the bottom of the tank.
Flushing your water heater is not incredibly difficult, but it is time consuming and, considering the importance of doing it correctly, you may want to call in a professional plumber to perform this annual maintenance task.
Even folks who are pretty handy should consider having a professional do it the first time and having them walk you through the steps to make sure you understand how to properly flush it in the future.
Since each water heater can be a little different, it is best to read the instructions that came with yours to determine how best to drain your water heater.
Here are the basic steps to performing an annual water heater flush:
Step 1: Turn off the electricity or gas going to the water heater.
It is best to do this the night before you plan on flushing your water heater to allow the water to cool off before draining it.
This will lower the chance of hot water causing damage or an injury.
Step 2: Turn off the water supply going to the water heater.
Step 3: Connect a hose to the drain valve.
Step 4: Place the other end of the hose somewhere that will not be damaged by hot, dirty water (outside is best).
Step 5: Turn on a hot water faucet in your house to prevent a vacuum forming (a bathroom or kitchen sink will work).
Step 6: Open the drain valve to allow the water to drain.
If you did not allow the water to cool first, it will be very hot.
Step 7: Once your tank has drained, turn the water supply on to push remaining sediment out.
Step 8: Once the water is running clear, close the drain valve and turn off the faucet that is running inside your house.
Step 9: Once the tank is completely full, turn on the electricity or gas going to your water heater.
It is very important that the tank is full before you turn on the power supply.
Step 10: Once the water in the tank is hot, test your T&P valve to make sure it is functioning properly.
How to Save Energy and Money
Heating water uses a lot of energy, but you can lower your carbon footprint and save money by reducing the amount of energy your water heater uses.
One way to do this is to perform the annual flush mentioned above, which helps your water heater function more efficiently.
Here are 10 more ways you can save energy (and money):
1. Wash your clothes in cold water.
2. Shorten your showers.
3. Lower your water heater temperature.
4. Take showers, instead of water-wasting baths.
5. Install a low-flow shower head.
6. Replace single-handle faucets with faucets that have a separate handle for cold and hot water.
7. Consider insulating your water heater with a specially designed blanket (electric and gas water heaters are insulated differently).
8. Insulate your T&P valve.
9. Repair leaks in faucets, shower heads and pipes promptly.
10. Install aerators on all of your sink faucets, and make sure they have a flow rate of 1.0gpm or lower.
Water Heater Maintenance and Safety: Final Thoughts
A little preventive maintenance can significantly extend the life of your water heater.
It can also help you reduce the amount of energy required to meet your hot water needs.
Save money and make your home safer by performing these annual water heater maintenance tasks or having a professional perform them for you.
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