Hot Water Heater Maintenance Guide
DIY Maintaining Tips
(updated 2018)

Check out how proper gas water heater maintenance increases the performance, efficiency and longevity. Can any of the frequent problems be prevented? Maintaining tips and the checklist. Find out which components should be checked and cleaned, and how often.

Either you own a gas or electric water heater that was recently purchased or it is a few years old, the following problems can be prevented by doing the regular maintenance:

  • Leaky temperature and pressure relief valve
  • Smelly water due to deteriorated anode rod
  • Rusty water heater and brown water
  • Noisy operation
  • Not enough hot water
  • No hot water
  • Sediment buildup
  • Pilot light goes out or doesn’t want to turn on
  • Cannot lit the gas burner

Maintaining a water heater is a simple but important DIY project that doesn't require any special skills or tools. This is a very useful operation so your hot water heater can perform as new, keeping the efficiency high and provide years of safe, worry-free and reliable work.

Note: if you are not comfortable working on a gas or electric heater, always contact a professional technician.

What is the cost?

If it is done by you and you have all the necessary tools and material, it will cost you only your time, but if planning to call a technician, the price will then depend on the region and what needs to be done on the unit. More complex work – higher cost.

Tips, checklist, preparation and more

This article explains how to keep the water heater in a good shape and what kind of problems can occur if you don't. Here is the checklist of what should be inspected and cleaned regularly, with the schedule, which also depends on the manufacturer recommendation for a certain component.

  • Venting system
  • Gas burner
  • Anode rod
  • TPR valve
  • Dip tube

We recommend using the manufacturer's instructions as it contains all the necessary information for the correct installation, operation, and maintenance of the gas and electric water heaters.

Why periodic maintenance is important

Periodic hot water heater maintenance is necessary as the not-maintained heating unit will generate more problems, fail more often, will not perform as expected, cost more to operate, not last as long, and increase the chance of health hazard due to the escaped flue gases and carbon monoxide poisoning.

In some installations and due to the operating conditions and unit’s “abuse” it is even recommended to perform frequent maintenance.

Preparation for the maintenance

Collect all the necessary tools, such as the adjustable wrench, multi-meter, screwdriver, shop-vac, sandpaper, brush, bucket, garden hose, Teflon tape…

Turn off the power (gas and electricity).

Turn off the water supply.

Why and how to maintain the vent system

You should inspect the venting system annually, at least once, to prevent potential Carbon Monoxide gas leaking and breathing hazard. During this regular gas heater maintenance, you should look for and check the following:

  • Are venting pipes properly connected to prevent gases to escape?
  • Obstructions that might affect the proper venting of the flue gases and air draw for gas combustion.
  • Check are the proper clearances maintained from combustible materials and for proper venting.
  • Damaged, sooted or deteriorated flue pipe as it can cause the leakage of products of combustion and improper venting.
  • Rusted flakes at the top of the heater.
  • Remove any corrosive chemicals like waxes, bleach, spray can propellants, cleaning solvents, swimming pool chemical, located in the same room as a water heater. Chemical corrosion of the venting system can be very dangerous.

Note: Do necessary operation like cleaning, repairing or replacing the venting system before resuming the operation of the gas water heater.

How to maintain a gas pilot burner properly

Preventive water heater maintenance like visual inspection of the main burner and pilot burner should be done at least once a year. The thermocouple, which is part of the assembly, must be checked and cleaned regularly.

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Gas burner – what to check

Gas burnerGas burner
  • Check for any obstructions at the bottom of the water heater in the area where the opening for air is located.
  • Inspect the air intake screen (some models) and clean the accumulated lint, dust or oil.
  • Clean the orifices and related parts of any dirt and other foreign material.
  • Use the wire brush and clean the combustion chamber to remove the scale deposits and debris.
  • Check are there any products like gasoline, adhesives or solvents with potentially flammable vapor present in the same room and remove it.
  • Check for sooting as it might impair normal combustion (The fine black particles as a result of the incomplete combustion).

If the gas burner needs cleaning, always put the gas control knob to the "OFF" position and remove it from the combustion chamber.

The gas burner must get sufficient air flow for the proper combustion. Any irregularities lead to an unstable flame and flame changing its color to yellow (light blue is perfect), pilot outage, sooting, also lower efficiency, element damages and carbon monoxide leak. Observe the gas burner operation through the opening at the bottom. Cleaning should be done yearly.

How to maintain the anode rod

Anode rodAnode rod

Keep in mind that the anode rod, usually called sacrificial anode, is consumed over time. If your water heater has more than one anodes, you should inspect every single one. The anodes are installed on the top of the heater and submerged in the water.

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

If during the regular water heater maintenance, you notice that the steel core is exposed more than 6" either from the bottom or the top, if the middle of the rod is exposed or if the diameter is less than half the original size, it is time to replace the anode rod.

TPR valve maintenance

TPR valveTPR valve (photo: wikimedia.org)

Schedule the maintenance of the temperature and pressure relief valve (TPR) at least once a year. The recommendation is to check that the valve operates freely and has not become encrusted with the lime. If water is leaking replace the TPR valve.

Lift the valve lever gently and then release it, the lever should return to its normal closed position. If it doesn't return back, lift the TPR valve lever several times until the valve seats properly without leaking. Keep in mind that any released water is very hot. Use the bucket to catch water.

If you have a closed water supply system and see periodical discharges on TPR valve due to the thermal expansion, a proper action has to be taken.

Note: TPR valve, as the safety device, is very important because if it doesn’t work the tank can be exposed to extremely high pressure resulting in deformation, rupture even explosion. It must be replaced if not working.

Check the dip tube

Dip tubeDip tube

Most of the standard, economy-value water heaters have the low-quality dip tubes. The purpose of this element is to run the cold water into the storage tank, and reduce the sediment build-up if the more advanced type is installed.

The recommendation is to replace the straight dip tube with the curved type or one with the jet ports, so the turbulent water flow swirls the sediments around and out when flushing. The cross-linked polyethylene dip tube is a good choice.

Low-quality tubes, depending on the local water quality, can break and crumble into small pieces, clogging the water filters and other elements. This can further affect normal heating operation, efficiency, and performance.

Draining as a regular maintenance to prevent the sediment build-up

Maintenance is also helping users to save the energy and reduce the energy bills. Since the fuel cost and hot water consumption are constantly increasing, deliming, for example, has become a necessity of the modern maintenance. The more you heat more lime comes out. As the lime-scale is preventing normal heat transfer and decreasing the efficiency and performance, the recommendation is to remove it by adding the chemicals, such as this Delimer solution.

The water heater tank should be drained and flushed out once a year also. By flushing the water heater, sediments that are decreasing the performance and efficiency are removed. Drain few quarts off the tank, or suggested by the manufacturer, and you may prolong a life of the water heater. The drain valve is located at the bottom of the unit.

Also, make sure to check water connections for leaking and water pressure. The pressure reducing valve (PRV) should be installed if the water pressure is higher than recommended (working pressure is around 50 psi).

Winter maintenance

During the winter time, it is a good idea to check the temperature settings on the gas control valve. Almost every gas water heater can have a thermostat set between 100 F and 140 F. If you have just bought the brand new unit, you will notice that is factory set to the temperature between 120 F and 125 F. This is where it should be; hot enough for dishes and shower but not too high to produce scalding burns. Also keep in mind that with every temperature increase of 10 F, there is 3-5% increase in an energy cost.

If the room where the unit is located cold, and the pipes are exposed to lower temperatures, it is a good idea to insulate them both – insulation blanket for the tank and foam tubes on the pipes.

Safety inspection

After the work has been performed on the water heater, either repairs, replacements, maintenance or a simple cleaning, always check is there a water, gas or gas flue leak and fix accordingly.

Summary

A regular and correctly performed maintenance on a water heating system is a must, not only because water heaters are expensive to repair, but to ensure reliable operation with the expected performance and efficiency, so hot water is always available when you needed it. The above article was focused only on gas-type heaters, while the guide and tips on how to take care of the electric units are found here.

emergency plumber

Related articles

How to maintain a tank-type water heater
Maintaining an electric water heater
How to drain a water heater
How to flush a water heater
How to extend the life of a water heater
How to winterize a tankless
Cleaning tips
How to vent a gas water heater

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