Electric Water Heater Maintenance,
Cleaning Tips and How to

Electric water heater maintenance guide and how cleaning and tune-ups can prevent or reduce problems such as noise, sediment buildup, no hot water, not enough hot water, low pressure, stinky water, and other issues.

It is important to know that the properly maintained water heater ensures excellent performance and efficiency, dependable, long-term, and worry-free operation.

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An electric water heater does not have a complicated design as the gas counterpart, so it is simpler and easier to maintain.

Therefore, some basic work can be done by the homeowners-DIY-ers, while more complicated, especially when the electrical work is involved, should be done by the licensed contractor.

If you do not want to read this step-by-step guide and just want it done without getting involved - contact a plumber.

In this article:

  1. Checklist and required tools
  2. Draining and flushing as prevention
  3. How to clean heating elements
  4. Inspecting the thermostat
  5. Anode rod and maintenance
  6. Checking the dip tube
  7. Testing the TPR valve
  8. What to do when on vacation

Maintenance checklist – What to check and required tools

  • Storage tank
  • Heating elements
  • Thermostats
  • Temperature and pressure relief valve - TPR
  • Anode rod
  • Dip tube
  • Drain valve

First of all, our suggestion is to read the manufacturer's manual carefully; the best will be a day before you perform the maintenance to prepare all the necessary tools.

Required tools

  1. Adjustable wrench
  2. Multi-meter
  3. Screwdriver
  4. Shop-vac
  5. Sandpaper
  6. Brush 
  7. Bucket 
  8. Garden hose
  9. Teflon tape

Basics - Visual inspection

Visual inspection is the first thing you want to do. This involves checking for any leaks, corrosion, obstructions, deformations, and other unusual conditions. Leaking, for example, is mainly coming from the rusty storage tank and lose connections, resulting in a water puddle at the base of the unit.

How to drain and flush an electric water heater

One of the significant problems with the tank-type electric water heaters is the mineral sediments, dirt, and deposits sitting at the bottom of the heater. Most user complaints are related to hard water, the leading cause of the problem, affecting the efficiency, hot water output, and durability of the heating unit. The hard water and similar issues are related mainly to home plumbing attached to the well systems.

What could prevent the sediment buildup within the heating system is if you install a water softener. Of course, this has pros and cons.

If this is not an option, regular electric water heater maintenance might be adequate if done correctly and frequently. It is suggested by experts to drain 1-2 gallons every month to clean the tank from dirt. Draining is a simple operation that helps the heating system run smoothly.

  • The drain valve is located at the lowest point of the electric heater. Before starting the maintenance, turn off the water using the shut-off valve and electricity on the circuit breaker.
  • You will need a garden hose and a bucket, and if water is still hot, gloves. Connect one end of the hose to the drain valve and the other to the floor drain or outside. Open the valve to release the water from the electric heater.
  • Open a pressure relief valve so that air can get into the tank and water can drain out smoothly. The other way is to open the nearby hot water faucet.
  • Don't be surprised if you see dirty (brownish) water; it is normal. This is because of all the minerals and sediments that had built up.
  • Depending on the capacity of the storage tank, it can take several hours before the tank is empty.
  • Flush the rest of the sediments out by turning on the cold water to the tank and turning off the hot tap. When the drained water is clear, you are done.
  • To refill the tank again, close the pressure relief valve and drain valve and open the main water valve to let the water in. The tank has to be full of water before resuming power.

You can also follow the detailed instructions found in the articles about draining and flushing.

How to clean the heating elements

Draining and flushing will also remove the scale buildup from the heating elements, so the energy transfer is almost as high as the new element. Draining/cleaning will also eliminate the hissing or singing sound produced when the heating elements are covered with the limescale.

Alternatively, you can refer to this guide and check out how to remove the heating elements. Once removed, use a vinegar/water solution to remove the scale buildup.

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Testing the thermostat

Use the multimeter to test the thermostats for the proper work. Larger water heaters have two thermostats, while smaller, with the capacity of fewer than 30 gallons - only one. Testing should include both. The idea is to check if there is power coming to the elements and tighten the wires if these are loose. Refer to an article about thermostats to learn more about installation, testing, replacing...

Check the settings on the thermostat – you want it in the range from 120-125 F, which is factory set to prevent scalding burns and reduce the high energy bills. If the water heater is older, put an insulation blanket around the tank to reduce the energy loss.

Anode rod maintenance

An anode rod protects the water heater from corrosion. It is known as the sacrificial rod for a reason. It sacrifices itself (deteriorates), so the metal tank is protected from the aggressive water action. It is made of steel and coated with magnesium or aluminum-zinc compound, making it softer to be used up before the metal tank.

It can last an average of 5 years, sometimes longer (depends on the water quality and usage), so if not maintained regularly and replaced when needed, the lifetime of a water heater gets shorter.

As part of the regular unit maintenance, simple checking of an anode operating status can make the difference in the unit's condition and performance. Also, when replacing the old ord, the proper selection of an anode can make the difference between the rotten egg smell and no odor.

An anode rod installed on top of the heater and submerged into the water can be easily removed for checking using the right tool, such as the wrench or 1 1/16 socket (most often).

Before removing the rod, turn the power off on the circuit breaker and shut the water off on the main valve. Drain a few gallons of hot water through the drain valve, and only then you can remove it.

Inspect the rod and if more than 6" of the core wire is exposed on either side of the anode, replace it. Refer to an article that explains how to replace an anode rod and get more information.

Some manufacturers recommend frequent inspection – at least once a year, but it depends on water quality, like hardness and water softener usage.

Checking the dip tube

The dip tube or the cold water inlet brings the cold water inside the water tank heater. Cheaper heaters have low-quality dip tubes, while more advanced have better dip tubes that can last longer and help in reducing the scale buildup inside the tank.

As the water heater ages, the dip tube, like the other elements, loses its functionality and can break, crack, or split. So instead of bringing the cold water to the bottom of the tank, the deformed tube does it at the top of the heater, where it mixes with the hot water and delivers not as much hot water, resulting in cold showers.

As the element is brittle, it can break into small pieces, leaving the white fragments clogging the fixture aerators and other elements, affecting the efficiency and performance of the unit.

Considering the above, it is important to inspect the dip tube at least once a year or when experiencing a problem such as described above.

Removing the dip tube for testing or replacing is easy; just follow the instructions.

Test the TPR valve

TPR valveTPR valve (photo: wikimedia.org)

It is crucial to have the temperature and pressure relief valve working correctly – because this is a safety element that will protect the unit from extreme pressure development. It is not recommended to repair it but replace it.

It should be tested at least once in six months or often if there is a reason, such as a scale buildup due to hard water and well water supply.

If the water is dripping from the TPR valve and cannot be closed properly, it should be replaced.

If the TPR valve doesn't work, the pressure inside the tank can build up so high that it will cause damage, unit rupture, even explosion.

This is how a TPR valve should be tested:

  • Shut off the electricity.
  • Turn off the cold water supply to your electrical heater.
  • Put a bucket under the drain tube connected to the pressure release valve.
  • Lift the lever on the pressure release valve for a few seconds. If there is no vapor, air, or water coming out, or it doesn't shut off, you have to replace it. Be careful as the vapor/water coming out is hot. Test the lever several times to ensure that there is no debris that could prevent the valve from closing.
  • Replacing the pressure release valve can be combined with the above step when the tank is empty and before you flush the heater.

To unscrew the TPR valve use the pipe wrench.

What to do when on vacation

If the heater remains idle for a while (you are on vacation or absent for some time, for example), the electrical power and water should be turned off. A water heater should never be left empty.

Proper electric water heater maintenance is essential for efficient and economical water heating. It is not as difficult as maintaining the gas unit, but it still takes a few hours. Maintenance becomes simpler with the listed and explained procedures, as seen in the above text, resulting in plenty of hot water and fewer problems and complaints.

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