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How to Know When a Water Heater Is About to Go Out

Updated on: September 20th, 2021

Virtually all American homes have some kind of water heater, whether it is an electric water heater or a gas water heater. This is in large part because humans have become quite reliant on hot water; it’s used for bathing, dish cleaning, hand washing, laundry, and many other purposes. Many critical functions of everyday home life could not be carried out easily without hot water.

Smart homeowners pay attention to how their water heaters are performing—they don’t want to be caught off guard and without hot water for an extended period of time. Plus, reliable water heater installation and repair aren’t always easy to find!

Regular water heater maintenance may not be enough

Many homeowners preempt water heater malfunctions by maintaining their systems regularly, that way they never have to experience undesirable circumstances like cold water for showers or cold water for washing dishes.

But knowing when a water heater is about to malfunction is not always easy to spot. In fact, sometimes professional assistance is required to handle hard-to-detect problems. There are, however, several key signs which indicate when an electric water heater or gas water heater is about to fail, and these signs can be discerned even by people who don’t possess a thorough knowledge of how a water heater works.

Contents

  • What are the key signs of water heater failure?
  • Turning hot-water handles further than usual
  • Cloudy water
  • Pilot light problems
  • You smell gas
  • An increase in your energy bills
  • Your water heater is making strange noises
  • How much will a repair cost?
  • How much will a new water heater cost?
  • Can I install a water heater tank myself?
  • Where to go for reliable water heater repair
  • Thinking about a tankless water heater?

What are the key signs of water heater failure?

By regular inspection and observation, you can have a good idea of how well your water heater is functioning. If you want to know the observable signs which indicate when a water heater is about to malfunction, read on!

Turning hot-water handles further than usual

Showers and sinks utilize different mechanisms to gauge water temperature, but in most cases, these mechanisms are easy to understand. Most American showers use a dial system to control water temperature, and typically there are two settings: hot and cold. Most showers don’t require you to turn the dial far into the “hot” region to receive a comfortable amount of hot water, so if you’re finding this is not the case with your shower, there may be a problem with your water heater.

If you’re trying to gauge how much hot water you have access to, turn on the hot water tap for a bathroom or kitchen sink for a few minutes. If the water is cool or lukewarm after several minutes of running, it’s best to check out your water heater. Your system may be producing hot water but not distributing it to the necessary locations. 

Cloudy water

The next time you wash your dishes, do a load of laundry or take a shower, check to see if the water you’re using is cloudy. Also, check for a metallic scent in the air. If you drink the tap water, try to see if you can taste metal. Cloudy water and metallic tastes and smells are commonly associated with a water heater that’s on the fritz.

This is what’s happening: the water heater is releasing mineral deposits, and these deposits are clouding up the hot water that flows from your taps. Problems with mineral deposits should be addressed immediately, for these can impact faucets and water-flow control.

If you notice murky orange or red tinges in your water, this may be because the water heater, or the pipes connected to it, are rusty. Rusty pipes should be monitored closely, and professional assistance should definitely be sought if rust is penetrating into the water you shower, wash, and clean with.

Pilot light problems

Homeowners that rely on gas water heaters prefer these systems for many reasons. One downside to gas water heaters, however, is that some of them rely on pilot lights to function. A pilot light is a small gas burner, one that’s kept on continuously so a larger burner can be lit when requested.

On some gas water heaters, particularly the old ones, the pilot light switches are very sensitive. If you’re someone who keeps your water heater in a crowded space, you may experience pilot light failures quite frequently, possibly because things—whether they be boxes, laundry baskets, etc.—keep bumping into the pilot light sensor and knocking it out.

There may also be a problem with the water heater’s thermocouple, the thermoelectric device used for measuring temperature. Most homeowners cannot diagnose problems related to the thermocouple on their own, and therefore they often require help from professionals.

You smell gas

If you ever find yourself smelling gas around your water heater, the first step is to close the valve supplying the system with gas—this step is critically important. Once the odor has subsided, you can begin to diagnose the problem. If there’s a problem with the pilot light, the result may be an emission of a gas smell.

Any gas-related problems should be approached with extreme care and caution. If you suspect there’s a problem with how your water heater is receiving or utilizing gas, you may want to err on the side of caution and hire a professional to figure out what’s causing the smell of gas to be emitted from your system.

An increase in your energy bills

If a problem that’s unseen to the naked eye is affecting your water heater, your monthly energy bills will reflect this. There are instances where a water heater may seem fine but in actuality its wasting a ton of energy due to a malfunction.

If you’re trying to identify abnormal energy costs, implement the following strategies around the house:

  • Don’t run water while scrubbing dishes.
  • When washing your hair, only use water to wet and rinse.
  • Do laundry only when your wardrobe is seriously depleted.

If you conserve water, and hot water by extension and your energy costs are still high, it’s quite likely your water heater is experiencing an unobservable malfunction. Gas heaters are more prone to such malfunctions than electric heaters, and such is one of the many reasons why many homeowners prefer electric water heaters over gas heaters.

Your water heater is making strange noises

If there are rumblings or popping sounds emanating from your water heater, a failure may be on the horizon. Hard water and mineral buildup have also been known to cause unpleasant noises. If you’re hearing what sounds like popping, it’s likely there are minerals on the surface of your water heater; these minerals collect and form a thick layer.

If you want to rid your system of mineral buildup, flush it from the tank. Be advised, there’s probably a larger problem that needs to be addressed. Don’t wait until the system fails and a costly leak wreaks havoc—replace your water heater or have it inspected by professionals if strange noises are emanating from it.

Some basic maintenance tips

The best way to keep your existing water heater running smoothly is to perform regular maintenance. While it's easy to ignore water heaters when they're not giving you trouble, regular maintenance is key to extending the service life of your electric or gas water heater.

Three smart maintenance tips you should perform regularly are:

  • Flush water from the storage tank every three months.
  • Inspect your TPR (pressure relief valve0 twice a year
  • Inspect the anode rod every few years (electric water heaters only)

How much will a repair cost?

Water heater repairs can vary greatly in cost, depending upon the problem. As a repair becomes more expensive, it may be more economical to purchase a new water heater instead of repairing the old one.

With electric water heaters, failure of the heating elements is a common problem. Replacing a heating element. A typical heating element replacement will cost about $200-300.

For a gas water heater, most repairs involve the pilot light, thermocouple, or the gas control valve. Because the repairman will need to do some troubleshooting to identify the problem, a typical gas water heater repair will cost about $400-600.

How much will a water heater replacement cost?

When it's time to replace your water heater, energy efficiency is a major determinant in what you choose as a replacement.

There are two main types of replacement water heaters. Standard storage tank water heaters (probably like your old water heater), and tankless water heaters.

Tankless water heaters are more expensive, but boast greater efficiency, while storage tank water heaters have lower upfront costs. Expect to pay about $600-2000 including installation costs for a storage-tank water heater, or about $600-4000 for a tankless system, including water heater installation. The size of the tank or the capacity of the system will have a major effect on how much you pay.

Can I install a water heater tank myself?

If you're prepared and have the right tools, you should be able to replace your hot water heater in a day. Read through these steps to get an idea if water heater replacement is a job you want to undertake.

Preparation :

Shut off the water, gas, or electricity leading to the tank.

Drain the old tank:

Attach a garden hose and then open the drain valve to empty the water out of the old tank.

Disconnect the water lines:

Use a pipe wrench to disconnect the hot and cold water lines.

Disconnect the fuel source:

Disconnect the gas line or electricity line to your water heater. Be sure that you've shut these off at the source before doing so.

Disconnect the vent pipe:

The vent pipe is only on gas water heaters. Disconnect the vent pipe from the water heater.

Move the old tank:

Move the old water heater and then position the new one in its place.

Install the necessary fittings:

These include the pressure relief valve, gas control valve, and other fittings.

Connect the water lines:

Both the hot-and cold-water lines will need to be connected to the new water heater. You'll need pipe wrenches for replacing water heater water lines.

Connect the gas pipe or electric line:

Your fuel source - either natural gas (or propane for a propane water heater), or electricity will need to be reconnected.

Reconnect the vent pipe:

To properly vent exhaust gases, you'll need to reconnect the vent pipe for a gas water heater.

The steps listed are simple summaries of the process. If the list looks daunting, water heater replacement may not be the job for you. Best in this case to get professionals on the job.

Where to go for reliable water heater repair

Are you concerned that your water heater is about to fail? Is your home or business dependent on its access to hot water? Nobody should be without hot water, and this is something we here at Team Enoch believe deeply. Don’t wait until it’s too late! We can come to your home or business and check out your system. Our experts are highly experienced, licensed, certified, and personable, and they’ll be able to tell you what’s wrong with your system, how it can be fixed, how much repairs will cost, and how malfunctions can be prevented in the future. Make sure you always have access to hot water with help from Team Enoch!

Thinking about a tankless water heater?

Are you a DIYer? We put together this short video so you can get the basics on the installation of an energy-efficient Tankless Water Heater. Please be mindful, since working with gas and or electricity can be dangerous, and is best to let qualified experts handle this type of job.

Are you a DIYer? We put together this short video so you can get the basics on the installation of a Tankless Water Heater. Please be mindful working with GAS and or ELECTRICITY can be dangerous and is best to let qualified experts handle this type of job.

Want to know more about Water Heaters? We have written the following articles on this subject:

GAS VS. ELECTRIC TANKLESS WATER HEATERS

TANKLESS WATER HEATERS VS. STORAGE WATER HEATERS

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5 comments on “How to Know When a Water Heater Is About to Go Out”

  1. Thanks for mentioning that your water heater may be making odd sounds if hard water and minerals are beginning to accumulate within the system. When I was showering after work last night, I noticed that the water heater started making popping sounds as soon as I turned on my shower, and I am worried that taking a shower this winter will be uncomfortable if I lose access to hot water. Maybe I should look for a repair service that can help me ensure that my water heater is operational.

  2. I didn't know that your water may appear cloudy if there are mineral deposits in your water heater. My wife and I have noticed that the dishes we received at a birthday present haven't been looking as clean recently, and we think that it may be because our water is foggy and smells metallic. It may be best for us to consider hiring a professional that can help us fix our system.

  3. Recently my mom has noticed unusual noises coming from our water heater. I like how you mentioned that if a water heater is regularly making weird rumblings or popping sounds that there is a chance of potential failure. I will be sure to have my mom find a good water heater repair service that will fix any issues before it can break for good.

    1. Hey Ziba, That would indeed be a good sign your water heater is bad. Please get in touch with us, one of our experts can help you get your water hot again! Warm regards.

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