Water Heater Burner Assembly
Inspection, Maintenance, and Cleaning

Gas water heater - anatomy

How properly to maintain a water heater burner assembly and keep the efficiency and performance high. Find out how regular gas burner inspection and cleaning reduces the heating problems, such as no heating, not enough hot water, low performance, and others.

Storage or tank-type gas water heaters are the most popular devices for water heating in North America. One of the reasons for its popularity is the simple design, also reliable and easy-to-use features.

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The main elements in the tank-type heaters are the gas control valve and gas burner assembly, so the regular inspection and maintenance will provide steady performance, efficient operation, and years of trouble-free work.

If these elements are not working or working with the reduced capacity, the odds are you will experience problems, uncomfortable showers, and a lack of hot water.

How water heater burner works

To understand gas burners better and solve potential problems, let's first see how they work.

Whenever you open the hot water tap, hot water leaves the tank from the upper section, through the pipes, and to the fixture, while at the same time, cold water through the dip tube goes to the bottom of the tank. While the water goes down the line, the water temperature in the tank drops.

Once the thermostat senses that water is below the set temperature, it sends the signal to the gas valve to open gas, and the pilot light fires the water heater burner to heat the cold water. Even if you are not using hot water, and due to the standby heat loss, the temperature inside the tank drops, and once it is below the pre-set temperature, the gas burner will come ON.

The most popular way of lighting the gas burner is utilizing the standing pilot light, while other more advanced methods include electronic or spark ignition and hot surface.

Every water heater burner, either using natural gas or propane, produces carbon dioxide and water vapor, resulting from gas combustion. From the water heater burner and combustion chamber, combustion by-products will leave the heater to the outdoors through the flue and chimney.

Most of the gas burners will burn the gas and heat the water with the efficiency of 60-70%, using the energy from the combustion chamber. In addition, condensing water heaters, such as AO Smith Vertex or Polaris can take advantage of the energy from the flue gases and increase the efficiency to 90% or more while reducing the temperature of the flue gases.

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Burner assembly

A water heater burner assembly consists of several elements:

  • Main burner
  • Main burner orifice
  • Main burner gas supply tube
  • Pilot light to ignite the gas
  • Pilot burner orifice
  • Pilot burner gas supply tube
  • Thermocouple

As the safety element, the thermocouple is used to determine if the pilot flame is present or not and will shut off the gas supply to the main gas burner if the flame is absent.

TCO or Thermal Cut-Off switch is an integral part of the thermocouple, and it will shut off the pilot burner and main burner when activated. The element is activated when the temperature inside the combustion chamber increases significantly. One of the reasons for the excessive temperature is due to the flammable vapor ignition.

Problems and troubleshooting tips

A gas burner is located in the combustion chamber, where, for the proper work, should get a sufficient supply of fresh air. If the oxygen is not available in the right amount, the water heater burner will not burn the gas correctly, causing the following: 

If the wrong size of the orifice is installed, it is dirty, or the gas tube is unclean, the main burner flame will be too large or very small. If the burner flame floats and lifts off the port, check the orifice as it might be too big, or the pressure is high, or there are cold drafts, or the flue and vent system are blocked.

Black or red granules found on the main gas burner are symptoms of the condensation when mild acid water is dripping, which corrodes the steel and makes a sizzling noise. In the case of excessive condensation, water runs down the flue tube and onto the main burner, putting out the pilot flame. Keep in mind that condensation is common at the time of start-up after installation and due to cold incoming water.

Also, if the water heater is cleaned and flushed periodically, this will prevent sediments and lime deposits from rising to a level when it is hard for the gas burner to heat water.

How to inspect the burner flames

A soft blue flame is the sign of the correct gas combustion. Use the viewport at the bottom of the water heater to examine the burner flames at least twice a year. If you see blue tips with the yellow inner cones, it is still OK. If the flame is all yellow or with some orange colors or there is sooting, something is wrong.

Did you know that the licensed plumber will ensure that your water heater is permitted and up to code upon installation! 

Contact your local professional water heater expert today!

Gas burner cleaning procedure

Every time you clean the water heater burner assembly, the control knob on the gas valve must be in the OFF position, and the main valve located beside the water heater is also turned OFF.

The procedure is as follows:

  • Remove the outer door.
  • There are usually two screws holding the manifold/burner door assembly to the combustion chamber. Remove them.
  • Disconnect the gas valve, main burner and pilot feed line, thermocouple, and pilot tube.
  • Remove the burner assembly from the combustion chamber (it uses two screws to secure it).
  • Visually check the burner and burner ports for any damages and clean it if dirty or clogged; use hot water, soap, and a soft paintbrush.
  • Clean the rest of the burner assembly elements, including the pilot tube, flame arrestor, combustion chamber... You can also use compressed air (vacuum) to remove any deposits from the burner and a screen.

Today, all gas-powered water heaters are designed with the FVIR system, which reduces the risk of accidental fires when the flammable vapors enter the combustion chamber and are lit by the burner. Low NOx water heaters are becoming more and more popular as they are equipped with environment-friendly gas burners that have reduced NOx emissions. The perfect example is the Promax Ultra-Low NOx water heater that utilizes the Enhanced Green Choice gas burner.

Summary

Nobody likes to have a broken water heater, an under-performing unit, and no hot water. This is why clean and efficient gas combustion is required and can be achieved if you adequately maintain and service the elements.

Keep in mind that the gas burner operates only when there is a call for heating. As a safety precaution, it won't ignite when the pilot is not lit; the thermostat is set too low, there is dirt in the gas main burner or pilot line, if there is a lack of fresh air or due to the thermostat and thermocouple malfunction.

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