The easiest way to maintain your hot water heater is to schedule an annual tune-up as part of your regular seasonal home maintenance. A plumber or certified technician from an HVAC company or home heating fuel provider will inspect your unit, drain and flush the system to remove corrosion, and test the pressure relief valve. Regular water heater preventive maintenance improves the heater’s lifespan. Homeowners can also make upgrades — like adding insulation to cold and hot water pipes — to improve efficiency.
DIY water heater preventive maintenance
Homeowners usually don’t need to do very much in between annual tune-ups to ensure the health of their hot water heater. That tune-up is very important, especially so for on-demand or tankless hot water heaters. “On-demands should have an annual cleaning of the burners, heat exchanger, and igniter,” says Mandie Hagan, owner of Rowell’s Services in Northfield, NH. “This will help prolong the life of the heat exchanger,” which is the device a hot water heater uses to warm up the cold water coming into your home.
It’s a good idea to perform periodic visual checks for leaks and other signs of water damage. An unusual sound coming from the unit or soot around an oil-fired hot water heater could indicate a problem. Discharging the temperature-pressure relief (TPR) valve once or twice a year can ensure there are no leaks, but this isn’t necessarily a critical to-do list item.
Signs your hot water heater needs maintenance
Sounds from your hot water tank can indicate an issue if you’re hearing them more often. The system might be working harder to keep the water heated to the thermostat setting. Another warning sign is hot water that seems cooler than usual. Whether you have an oil, gas, or electric heater, an unexplained rise in your fuel or electric bill can also alert you to water heater issues.
Gas water heater maintenance tips
Working with an oil- or gas-fueled hot water heater can be very dangerous because of the potential for releasing harmful fumes and causing fires. You can visually inspect your home’s gas shut-off valve, the water heater’s gas shut-off valve, and the venting for the hot water heater to make sure they appear in good condition, with no rusting holes or damaged pipes. Your homeowners insurance likely won’t cover the damage if you suffer damage due to improper pipe maintenance. Learn more about when homeowners insurance covers plumbing-related issues.
More experienced do-it-yourselfers may shut off the gas supply to the hot water heater and then open the bottom of the water heater to clean out any rust or debris there. The air intake grate can be cleaned as well.
Electric water heater maintenance tips
As opposed to gas- or oil-fired water heaters, electric water heaters tend to produce more sediment and debris. “Have your water heater flushed yearly to get rid of all sediment that builds and sits at the bottom of the tank,” Hagan recommends. “The sediment can corrode the tank and clog the water lines. This will help prolong the life of the tank.” To do this yourself, shut off the cold-water supply to the tank and drain a portion of the tank’s water to help flush it out. Then give the tank a burst by turning the cold-water supply on and then off again to stir up more of the sediment and drain until the water runs clear.
Other tips for maintaining hot water systems
You can improve the efficiency and longevity of your hot water heater with a few simple steps.
- Install a whole house water filter. “Water quality is very important with all water heaters,” Hagan says. “If your water quality is poor, the life expectancy of your water heater will be shorter.” Connecting a whole house water filter to the main water supply line will help improve your water quality.
- Lower the temperature. 120 degrees is a commonly recommended thermostat setting, which makes your hot water heater do less work and is friendlier for your finances.
- Use a vacation setting. If you’re going to be away from home for multiple days, you can lower the thermostat setting even further.
- Insulate the pipes. This applies to both the hot water pipes to prevent heat loss and cold-water pipes to prevent condensation.
Newer hot water tanks are well insulated but wrapping the tank with a reflective fiberglass jacket can also help for efficiency purposes. Check with your local plumber or other hot water heater technician for how to do this properly for your tank.