Your water heater is a hard-working and unappreciated household appliance. Slaving away 24/7, your water heater provides piping hot water as needed for baths, showers, dish-washing and laundry. Like your softener, most people don’t even realize that the water heater actually should be properly maintained to ensure best efficiency and longevity. If you neglect to properly maintain your water heater, it will eventually fail, and often that failure can be catastrophic; causing inconvenience, hassle, and even property damage. Most people simply ignore their water heater until they are surprised by it’s untimely demise.

Here are some telltale symptoms that your water heater has seen better days:

Not enough hot water – A properly sized water heater will have sufficient capacity to supply your home with enough hot water for “normal” use. If you find that you can’t get as many clean showers as before, or that the water temperature isn’t quite what it used to be, this can indicate a problem with the thermostat, heating element/s, or more likely an accumulation of hard water scale in the appliance. Ideally, every water heater should be protected by a scale control device like a water softener or valid salt-free technology. If you don’t have a water softener to protect the water heater, plan on flushing and descaling your water heater at least once a year (possibly more often than that, depending on the hardness level of your water).

Excessively hot water – When your nice hot shower suddenly becomes scaldingly hot, you could possibly have a damaged mixing valve, but also possibly problems with the water heater thermostatat, gas valve, or element/s on an electric heater. Never ignore sudden jumps in temperature, this is a potentially unsafe condition and will probably result in your next shower being icy cold.

Snap, crackle, and pop – Water heaters that make noises are water heaters with problems. Typically, the gurgling, cracking or popping sounds coming from your water heater is because precipitated water hardness, pieces of tank lining, rust particles, or pieces of sacrificial anode,  have accumulated at the bottom of the water heater, and is acting as an insulating blanket of sludge against the hot surface at the bottom. Hot spots are created where the water is “flash-heated” and gases are released that “pop” up through the sediment layer up into the water heater and make that characteristic noise.

Milky, cloudy hot water – If you notice milky or cloudy hot water, don’t ignore it. This can be an indication of a potentially serious problem. Pour some of this milky hot water into a clear glass and watch what it does. If it clears top to bottom, the milkiness is being caused by a sediment. If it clears from bottom to top, the cloudiness is being caused by gas. Sediment is most likely precipitated water hardness and indicates that your softener isn’t working as well as it should. Gases in your hot water can indicate that

Strange odors – Metallic or “rotten egg” odors in your hot water can often smell like trouble. The odors are usually caused be a decomposing sacrificial anode, or by bacteria in the water heater. Either way, you should consult with your local licensed plumber and/or certified water specialist to make sure you nor only address they symptoms, but also the cause of the problem.

Drips and leaks – If you see water dripping from the water heater, or a mysterious puddle at the base, call your plumber immediately to protect yourself from potential disaster. Small leaks turn into big leaks very quickly, so time is certainly of the essence.

Whether your water heater is tank-type or tankless, gas-fired or electric, proper maintenance and water treatment are essential to keeping it working efficiently and effectively for a very long time.

Your local plumbing professional can help you inspect and maintain your water heater every year.

A good contractor should be doing the following for you:

  • Water quality test with treatment recommendations
  • Inspect pipes, valves and aquastat/thermostat
  • Inspect anode rod
  • Flush water heater to remove sediment
  • Adjust temperature (as needed)
  • Check insulation of pipes and heater
  • Perform necessary repairs with your permission

Keeping your water heater protected and well maintained is one of the best investments you can make in the safety and comfort of your family.