At the end of a long, hard day at work, we all love to take a steamy hot bath or shower. Think how bad it would be if you turned on the shower and got a blast of freezing cold water. The only thought that springs to mind is, “There must be something wrong with the water heater.”
Just like any other home appliance, your hot water heater will eventually break down and need to be replaced. You don’t want to find out you need a new hot water heater when you have to take a cold shower or hear a loud rumbling noise from the basement.
Occasionally, the common source of a water heater’s problems is electrical, and sometimes it’s something else. Below, I will discuss the most common problems your water heater may experience, as well as if it’s time to repair or replace your hot water heater.
Lifespan of Tank and Tankless Water Heaters
Standard storage tank water heaters typically last for 8 to 12 years. However, with the right care and upkeep, they may hold on for 15 years or more. The anode rod in the tank functions as a magnet for any corrosive substances in the water and helps to keep the tank’s interior in pristine condition.
After a lengthy period of use (approximately 10 years), the rod becomes eroded and no longer functions properly. Corrosive particles collect on the inside lining of the tank, including the bottom, and destroy it. At that moment, the tank may begin to leak.
Tankless water heaters use innovative technology that allows them to outlast tank water heaters. These heaters have a 20-year average lifespan. When properly maintained, some may continue working for up to 30 years.
A tankless water heater only heats water when it’s needed. This has earned it the moniker “on-demand water heater.” Unlike tank water heaters, they do not have to operate continuously to keep the water warm, which extends their longevity. However, tankless water heaters will corrode over time, although the process is significantly slower compared with tank water heaters.
Signs of a Failing Water Heater
No matter how top-of-the-line your water heater is, no water heater lasts forever. These are the common signs to look out for to know when it’s time to get a new water heater.
1. Loud rumbling noises from the heater
A hot water heater should typically create very little, if any, noise. If you hear weird or loud sounds coming from your tank, this might signal a problem that you should address right away. A rumbling noise may indicate sediment buildup at the bottom of your unit, making it harder for the hot water heater to operate properly.
Homeowners should have their tanks cleaned once a year by a professional. This removes the silt and extends the life of the water heater. If you continue to hear weird sounds from your hot water heater after it has been recently flushed, it is probably close to the end of its lifespan and no amount of flushing will enhance its odds of recovery.
2. Brownish, rusty, or cloudy water
When the water flowing out of the faucets is murky, this can also be a warning sign. Rust deposits or a metallic stench emanating from hot water may indicate corroded pipes or rust inside the water heater. Leaks are inevitable if rust is eating away at the metal from the inside.
Draining several buckets of hot water from the tank will help you establish whether the rust is coming from your pipes or the water tank. If the water is still rusty after the third bucket load, the fault is most likely with the tank rather than the pipes. This is a clear indicator that it’s time to replace your water heater. After all, if the rust eats through the steel, water leaks will eventually appear.
Also, if you see rust around the water intake or pressure relief valve on the water heater, it is possible that rust has penetrated the tank as well. If this is the case, the only solution is to immediately replace the tank.
3. Water temperature variation
The best temperature range for a water heater’s thermostat is between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. After you adjust the thermostat, it will take a while for the water heater to warm up the water in the tank. Give it 30 minutes to an hour, then check the faucet again to see how hot the water is.
If your hot water heater isn’t making much or any hot water, it could be because the thermostat is set wrong. If you were working around the thermostat recently, it’s possible that you inadvertently left it at a setting that isn’t preferable.
However, if you find yourself rummaging through the settings on the thermostat a lot, there may be an underlying problem with your hot water heater and you may need to replace it.
Other reasons for this problem are a broken heating element, the location of the water heater, or the tank size. In the case of a broken element, call a professional plumber to have it replaced. The heating element in an electric water heater is a coil that can be easily replaced. Gas water heaters use a burner to heat the water, which, if not properly maintained, may deteriorate with time.
If your water tank is positioned outside or in a section of your property that’s not insulated, cold weather might impact the temperature of your water. It might be that the temperature is too low for the water heater to heat the water quickly. If the issue of cold water only happens during inclement weather, you may need to identify methods to better insulate your tank or pipes from the cold air.
Also, if you recently added more water fixtures to accommodate a growing family, you might find that you’ll need to replace your water heater. You may just need a larger water heater tank to meet your household’s hot water demands.
4. Water leaks
If water is collecting around the tank or the pipes going to the water heater tank, this issue must be addressed immediately. These leaks may cause considerable property damage if neglected. In addition to damp furniture, rugs, walls, and other possessions, you may also have to contend with creeping mold. A hot water tank leak should be addressed as early as possible.
There are a number of potential causes for a leaky water heater. One of the causes may be expansion problems with the tank structure. After repeated cycles of heating the water in the tank, with the metal expanding each time the water is heated, the metal may begin to develop cracks. These cracks may initially allow a few small leaks, but when the pressure gets too much, the results may be catastrophic.
5. Expensive repairs and maintenance
Regular water heater maintenance should not be expensive. As it ages, a water heater’s components wear out. However, the cost of upkeep will also undoubtedly increase. Savvy homeowners are aware of the escalating cost of repair versus the expense of replacement. When repairs become too costly, replacement of the water heater is the obvious choice.
If you recently moved into a home with a water heater that displays any or all of these issues, it could be that the water heater is too old. A conventional gas- or electric-powered hot water heater will need to be changed every 8 to 12 years. If properly maintained, tankless and solar water heaters may last up to 20 years. The best way to find out how old your water heater is is to look at the serial number, which is usually on a sticker on the upper half of the tank.
Repairing vs. Replacing Your Water Heater
A new hot water heater, installation included, may cost several thousand dollars. Therefore, it’s generally prudent to attempt repair before replacement. Nevertheless, depending on the issue, this may not always be feasible. Before deciding to repair or replace your hot water heater, you may want to examine the potential issues.
Not every maintenance issue with your hot water heater will tear a hole in your pocket. Some problems are rather cheap to resolve. Broken heating elements, pressure relief valves, thermostats, and other tiny components, for instance, are easy to replace and do not justify purchasing a new tank water heater.
If your unit has corrosion, excessive sediment buildup, cracks, or leaks, you will certainly need to replace it. If you are uncertain about how to solve the problem, a licensed plumber should be able to offer you an estimate of the cost of repair vs. replacement.
If a repair can make the hot water heater work for at least a few more years and you plan to move soon anyway, it might make sense to fix it instead of replacing it. But if you plan to stay in your home for a long time, you should compare the cost of repairs to the cost of replacement, which is a better long-term solution.
If your unit is getting close to 10 years old and you know you will have to replace it eventually, a water heater replacement could be the cheaper option in the long run. Plus, you won’t have to worry about leaks from an old water heater causing damage to your possessions.
The Final Verdict
If your water heater is still working and has been for 8 to 12 years, it may be possible to fix it. If your unit is much older than this or if it leaks, it might be time to get a new one.
Keeping a close eye on your water heater is the only way to know when it needs to be replaced. Start saving money for a new water heater if your current one starts to leak, rust, or make strange noises. You don’t have to wait until the whole thing breaks down. When shopping for a new water heater, you should look for one that uses less energy so you can save money on heating costs.
Read my review of the 7 best water heaters to find out which brand and model are best suited for your home.