Most people don’t understand exactly how they get hot water in their homes — they view the water heater as a complicated and slightly intimidating piece of equipment with a clear purpose but incomprehensible function. And that’s fair, because water heaters are serious business, and their maintenance and repair require someone with skills and experience. Understanding the dangers of water heater failure and the precautions to take to prevent it is important for every homeowner. And if the worst does happen and your water heater explodes, you should know what to do so you can quickly get a professional to diagnose the problem, limit the damage, and put a plan for replacement into action.
A Word of Caution About Water Heaters
To put it succinctly, water heaters are pressurized tanks filled with boiling water that run on explosive gas or large amounts of electricity. So when a water heater fails and explodes, it can cause serious damage to your house. Because of that — and we cannot stress this enough — only a licensed plumber should work on a water heater. Even for serious DIY-types, there are a lot of risks and complications to consider, including that working on one yourself will void the manufacturer’s and installer’s warranties. Change your HVAC air filters, replace a sink p-trap, and split your own firewood, but leave your water heater to the pros. Seriously.
1. Temperature Issues
Last month, we had two clients with slightly different problems but the same solution. One client in Sacramento was getting lukewarm water, but nothing hot enough to bathe in. The warmish water was depleted very quickly, and it never heated up. The other client, on the other hand, couldn’t even get that much hot water — theirs was totally cold.
Both had checked out their water heaters before calling us to ensure the heaters were on, and both were stumped as to the problem.
Both folks had problems with the heating elements in the water heater. Most residential water heaters have two replaceable elements that often go bad or fail, especially after months of disuse. The first client with the lukewarm water had a failed element: one was working, but the other was out. And one element wasn’t enough to get the water in the tank any warmer than “warmish.” For the other client, both heating elements had gone out—hence the cold water.
Like we said, this is a quick and easy fix. The plumber drains your tank, replaces the bad elements, and refills the tank again. It takes longer to remove the water than to replace an element. Most plumbers consider heating element replacement in a water heater to be standard, general maintenance just like changing a lightbulb.
2. Bad Thermostats and Cut-Off Switches
Your home’s hot water heater comes with a thermostat, just like your house’s central heating and cooling system. This heater thermostat sets the temperature for hot water in your home, and generally speaking, you want to leave the thermostat alone — we had a client who suffered nasty burns after raising the temp too high and trying to use the hot water on bare skin afterwards.
That said, thermostats and cut-off switches will on occasion go bad. It’s less common than a heating element to burn out, but it’s also a pretty cheap fix. A plumber should be able to replace a thermostat and cut-off switch for a very reasonable cost plus labor. If your elements are good but your heater is not, chances are the thermostat or cut-off switch are to blame.
3. Water Leaks
Water heater leaks can be the result of a wide variety of problems, and the leaks themselves can range from “drips” to “Niagara Falls.” Funnily enough, sometimes the worst leaks are actually the easiest to fix, and sometimes the small leaks spell the end of your heater.
Leaks from the pipes supplying the heater require the immediate shut-off of the supply. (If you don’t know where that is, you can turn off the water to your house at the main.) If the water is leaking from pipes that carry hot water from the heater to the rest of the house, there should be a shut-off valve where the pipe emerges from the heater body.
Be extremely careful when shutting off water coming from the heater as it can be very hot and may be spraying everywhere. Once the water is no longer spraying, get a plumber ASAP. These leaks can be bad, but they’re usually very easy to fix — just some new pipe and couplers and solder and a few minutes time from an experienced plumber.
On the other end of the spectrum, drips from places like the heating elements or temperature relief valve can mean your heater is on its way out. While both of these problems can sometimes be easily fixed, they often mean that your heater is old and needs to be replaced. Pay special attention if your water heater is leaking from the temperature relief valve and if you notice anything wrong with the valve, immediately stop using the heater and get a plumber ASAP.
We hope you won’t need a new heater, but we also hope that whether you need a new element, soldered pipe, or a brand new water heater, you’ll come to Bell Brothers for the family treatment, fair pricing, and no surprises, guaranteed.