Everything You Need to Know About Water Heaters

Hot running water is one of the great conveniences of the modern household. From showering and bathing to cleaning dishes and doing laundry, water heaters give us the ability to take care of a slew of daily tasks with the utmost comfort.

Despite this all-purpose utility, it’s easy to take these unobtrusive appliances for granted. After all, water heaters are built for functionality and durability, so chances are that once you’ve purchased one you will have little interaction with it afterwards apart for making minor adjustments in temperature and settings. That is until the day your heater starts malfunctioning or stops working altogether, which is when you realize just how important it is to have hot water on demand at all times. At this point you have three options: you could try to repair the device yourself, call in an experienced handyman, or buy a replacement water heater.

For anyone facing up to this scenario at the moment, we’ve put together a handy primer to help you make the best choice moving forward.

Types of Water Heaters

The first thing to note is that there are a wide variety of water heating options available depending on your specific requirements. A few questions you should ask before starting your search are:

• What sort of fuel sources are you using in your home? Do you prefer gas and propane, or electricity?
• Are you looking for energy efficiency?
• Do you have a large family, with many devices that use hot water? How much hot water does your household require on a daily basis?

Once you’ve figured out the answers to these queries, you can start planning your heater hunt accordingly. Here is a brief run-down of some of the more popular types of water heater on the market.

Water Heater Home Inspection

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Water heater

Conventional Storage Tank

These traditional heaters have been widely used in households across the country for decades now. Units come with an insulated tank that can hold anywhere from 20 to 80 gallons of water. These versatile appliances can be powered by electricity, gas, propane, and fuel oil, so pretty much any home can make use of them.
Each unit comes equipped with a thermostat which records the water temperature inside the storage container, whenever readings drop below a pre-set level, the heater kicks into action heating the water back up to prescribed temperatures. In situations where water becomes super-heated and air pressure builds up, it can be released through pressure release valves located on the tank.
Because these heaters are always working to ensure that water remains at optimum temperatures, a large capacity storage tank can pretty much always assure hot water when required. However, a smaller tank may run out of heated water quickly if used heavily, when this happens you will have to allow some time to pass before newly supplied water can be heated again. These appliances use up more energy than other types of water heaters as they are often constantly in operation.

Price
Costs for conventional storage tanks range from $300-$2000 for 40 gallon and 75 gallon units respectively with other units falling side of this range. Gas water heaters are generally less expensive to operate but more expensive to purchase and install (around $400-$700), while electric water heaters are less expensive to purchase and install ($300 – $600), but more expensive to operate. Installation costs generally fall around $300-$500.

Tankless Water Heater

Also called on-demand water heaters, these devices use heating coils to deliver hot water on-demand which cuts down on the requirement for an additional storage tank. This ability to provide hot water only when required, allows tankless water heaters to save you significant amounts of money on your annual energy expenditure.
While these units are available in both gas and electric powered models, in practice natural-gas fuelled heaters are far more common as they allow for a greater flow of heated water.
If you use a large quantity of hot water across your household on a regular basis, then a single tankless water heater may not be enough for your family. These units move around two-to-five gallons of hot water every minute, so you could soon find yourself short if you plan on doing the dishes at the same time as someone else is taking a shower.
Price
Tankless water heaters cost around $900-1500 to purchase with around $500 for installation costs. Electric models are available for around $500-$700 but you may need to upgrade your home’s electrical capacity to safely operate these machines. Gas units are more costly at around $1000-$1500; they also require a safe ventilation unit to be installed. Gas units are generally less expensive to run, although they do require more regular maintenance.

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Water Heater Home Inspection
Water Heater Home Inspection

Hybrid Water Heater (Heat Pump)

If you’re looking to combine the energy efficiency of tankless water heaters, with the larger storage capacity of storage tanks then the hybrid water heater is the way to go. These devices come with a storage tank, and an additional heat pump installed on top of the water heater. This pump draws in cooler air from the external environment, and feeds it into the insulated storage tank through a compressor using an electronic system.

The effect is similar to an air conditioner in reverse, with water being heated at 60% greater efficiency than in conventional storage tanks, which of course results in significantly lower energy bills. Because of the water pump, hybrid water heaters are taller than other appliances; they generally require about 7 feet of clearance for a clean installation. They will also work less efficiently in cold or cramped spaces.

Price
These water heaters cost around $1200-$1500 with installation costing another $500. Despite these expenses, units can save your household an average of $330 per year in annual energy bills.

Water Heater Maintenance
Prevention is always better (and less expensive) then the cure when it comes to household appliances and that adage certainly holds true for water heaters. If you want to make sure that your device stays in peak condition for as long as possible, then you should follow some of these maintenance routines on a regular basis.

Remember, water heaters contain a lot of fragile parts and electric models can create their own particular risks. If you’re unsure about your ability to deal with these concerns then hire a licensed and experience plumber of HVAC technician to handle your water heater maintenance instead.

Maintenance for Conventional Storage Tanks
These appliances are expected to provide 10-12 years of functionality with regular maintenance.

Draining the Tank
• Make sure the cold water valve is closed and the power supply is switched off.
• Connect a hose to the drain valve.
• Put the draining valve near a gutter, on in a safe position where nobody will be affected by the outflow of hot water.
• Open the pressure valve and the drain valve simultaneously.
• Wait for the tank to drain completely, this will ensure that all debris and sediment drains out.
• Open up all the hot water taps in the house, and turn on the cold water valve of the tank.
• Position the draining end of the hose into a bucket.
• Run cold water through the tank, until the water coming out of the hose runs clear.
• Once you’re done, shut off both valves and turn on the power supply.
Maintenance for Tankless Water Heaters
The main thing to watch out for with tankless water heaters is mineral build-ups on the heating coils and interior of the heating chamber. If neglected, these deposits can severely hamper the efficiency and lifespan of your heating systems. Tankless water heaters are generally expected to last over 20 years with regular maintenance.

Removing Build-Ups

• Switch off the main power supply for your water heater.
• Unscrew the water heater lid.
• Turn off the main water valves connected to your water heater (one for cold water, one for hot water, and one for feeding water into your home). This will prevent water from flowing in or out of your system while you clean it.
• Remove the purge port caps from cold and hot water valves. This will release any built-up pressure within the pipes and prevent any hot water remnants from shooting out onto your skin. When initiating a removal, make sure that the rubber sealing discs stay in place.
• Attach hosing lines to each of the valves. These are usually included with the water heater.
• Open the purge port valves by twisting the valves into a perpendicular position from the main cold and hot water valves.
• Use a 2.5 gallon bottle of white vinegar to clean out the inside chamber of your water heater.
• Flush and drain following the directions on your user manual.
• Close the purge port valves.
• Disconnect the rubber hosing.
• Replace the purge port valve caps, and ensure that they are fully tightened.
• Locate the filter. Unscrew it, and clean out the sediment chamber by running it under a tap until completely empty. Re-screw the filter into place.
• Check the manufacturer’s manual for instructions on safely restarting your water heater.
• Run your hot water taps for 2-3 minutes until no more air passes through the pipes.

Maintenance for Hybrid Water Heaters
Just like conventional storage heaters, hybrid heaters require regular draining and cleaning. In addition, their air filters must be regularly cleaned out in a similar fashion to tankless water heaters. Refer to your manufacturer’s manual for specific instructions on locating, removing and replacing air filters on your unit.

Water Heater Home Inspection
Water Heater Home Inspection

Temperature Adjustments
Both gas and electric heaters have in-built thermostats which allow you to adjust water temperature, however the mechanism for doing so is different. In general, experts recommend a water temperature of around 120 °-140°, in order to prevent the build-up of harmful bacteria, temperatures that are higher than these may result in severe burns.

Temperature Adjustment for Gas Heaters

  • Open the water heater compartment and find the red dial.
  • If you see temperatures listed then adjust the reading to around 120 °-140°. If there is no specific reading provided, then you can assume that warm will be around 90°-110° while hot will be about 140°-150°
  • Because thermostats are generally inaccurate you’d be better served checking the temperature of water yourself.
  • Locate the faucet furthest from the heater.
  • Turn it on and allow water to run for a couple of minutes.
  • Collect the resulting liquid in a cup.
  • Measure the water with a thermometer.

Temperature Adjustment for Electric Heaters

• Switch off the power supply to the heater.
• Find the access panel for the heater, if it’s a larger heater you might need to remove two separate panels.
• Remove any insulation from the thermostat.
• If there is a plastic cover in place, make sure to carefully remove this using a screwdriver.
• You should see a thermostat screw located above the heating element, carefully adjust this with your screwdriver until it shows a temperature reading of 120 °-140°.
• Replace the cover and insulation, and turn on the power supply.
• Check the water temperature as detailed above.

Water Heater Home Inspection
Water Heater Inspection

Safety Features

Temperature Release Valve

Heated water in a 40 gallon tank can expand by over half a gallon in size. If your tank is already at capacity, then this extra volume will have nowhere to go, resulting in increased pressure throughout the interior system. The temperature release valve serves to relieve this excess pressure. Each valve comes with an attached thermostat which is immersed within the top 6 inches of the tank’s water.
While the valve normally remains closed, when the thermostat reading reaches a certain level the valve is pushed open and excess water and vapors is released. Most valves are designed to discharge at 150F degrees and/or 210 pounds per square inch (psi).
As you can imagine, the water released from the tank in these instances can be extremely hot, to guard against these eventualities a copper, iron or steel pipe is used to divert effluent away from the tank. Generally, this pipe should end within 6 inches of the floor. In areas where the floor may be damaged, the pipe should be extended to the outside of the house.
Seismic Straps

Relief Valve

Seismic Straps

Building codes recommend that water heaters should be braced to prevent damage during seismic activity, where earthquakes are common. To secure the water tank properly, the straps should be fitted to wood blocking strips secured against the near wall. Use heavy-duty steel brackets to support these blocks and fit them against the water heater.

Water heater
Water heater

Bollards
If you’ve placed your water heater in your garage, you should take measures to protect it against physical damage from your vehicle. Typically, bollards are around 36” high and about 4” in diameter; you can find them at any local hardware store. Your bollard should be made out of an impact resistant material, and it should be bright enough to be seen from any vantage point. Make sure to secure it to the floor by bolting it down, if you’re having trouble with the installation hire a plumber or contractor to take care of it for you.

Safety Pans
A sturdy heat-resistant drain pan should be placed underneath the water heater in indoor environments. This will protect your floor, and any nearby individuals from the effects of water heater leaks or pressure valve runoffs.