How Do I Care for My Water Heater?
The hot water heater is a key appliance that keeps things civilized at your house. While these appliances are usually reliable and problem-free, regular maintenance and periodic check-ups are the best way to prevent unwanted breakdowns (along with unwanted cold showers) and add years to the life of your hot water heater. It may even help you improve your household energy efficiency.
Check the Pressure Release Valve
Your water heater's pressure release valve is a critical piece of safety equipment. As the water temperature rises, the pressure inside the tank also rises. This pressure is released automatically through the valve. Without this safety feature, excessive pressure could build up inside the tank of the water heater, ultimately causing a rupture. You can avoid this hazard by checking your pressure valve at least twice a year. This is a simple process that takes just a few minutes.
- Shut off the power source and the intake valve.
- Place a bucket under the pressure release valve.
- Manually open the valve, allowing water to flow out.
- Release the valve.
If it snaps closed, it's working as it should. If not – or if it's leaking – it's time to call a professional to have it replaced.
Flush Your Water Heater
Over time, sediment begins to collect at the bottom of the water heater tank. This sandy-looking substance could be debris from your well or from water mains, or it could be calcium carbonate. Hot water causes the minerals in tap water to change into solid form, and this settles and collects over time in the bottom of your tank.
This "sand" sounds harmless enough, but this build up can do bad things to your hot water heater. The layer of sediment can act as an insulating layer between the heating unit and the water, making your machine work harder and longer to raise the water to the right temperature. Sediment can also add unwanted corrosives to water and damage the appliance, leading to unexpected repairs. An annual draining can help prevent these problems. Fortunately, draining and flushing the tank is a fairly simple water heater maintenance task:
- Turn off the intake valve, and power off your electric heater. For a natural gas-powered water heater lower the temperature to "vacation mode."
- Attach a hose to the drain valve, and place the other end of the hose outside or in a large tub or bucket. Be careful – the water draining out will be hot!
- Open the drain valve and the pressure release valve to drain out all of the water. The water may appear dirty because of built-up sediment. If you see rusty flakes, that's a sure sign your water heater is corroding and it may be time to replace it.
- When the tank is empty, turn the water supply back on for several seconds to flush the tank with clean water. You may need to do this a few times before water starts coming out clean, indicating the tank has been properly flushed.
- When you're done, close up the drain and pressure release valves and open up the water supply to refill the tank.
Going forward, make sure the water heater is set at no more than 120 degrees — too-hot water accelerates the rate of sediment build-up, and, of course, increases the risk of burns.
Checking the Anode Rod
The enamel coating on the inside of the water heater tank keeps a steel water heater from rusting out. However, after years of heating water, this can create an environment in which corrosives and bacteria prosper and wear away the enamel. That's where the water heater's anode rod comes in. This is a pipe made of aluminum, magnesium or zinc, and its job is to attract the corrosive elements in the water — so instead of "attacking" the enamel, the corrosives attack the pipe.
Eventually, the pipe will disintegrate, so it's important to check it every three years. If you have water softener, your anode rod may need more frequent checks — consult your owner's manual.
- Turn off the power, along with the water intake. If you have a natural gas unit, lower the temperature to "vacation" mode.
- Attach a hose and drain approximately five gallons from the tank.
- Following the instructions for your model, remove and inspect the anode rod. In most water heaters, you will be able to see a hexagon-shaped rod head sticking out of the top.
- If the corrosion is extensive, or if your pipe is completely covered with minerals, it's time for a replacement. Luckily, these pipes don't cost much. Tip: If you have low ceiling clearance, get a collapsible anode rod.
Like anything mechanical in your home, water heaters need preventive maintenance. The good news is your efforts will pay off by helping head off problems before they develop, and exteningd the life of this important appliance.
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