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5 Signs It’s Time to Replace Your Water Heater

replace your water heater

Your trusty tank water heater has faithfully supplied hot water to your household for years, maybe too many years. And just like all appliances, it has a limited lifespan. It is not immortal. Understanding that key point is a matter many people seem to forget, but forget it at your own peril because when water heaters fail, the failure is often spectacular and expensive.

There are always signs that failure is imminent. Learning what to look for is the key to know when to replace your water heater because you have to replace it before it fails to avoid an expensive mess. Let’s dive into the 5 signs it’s time to replace your water heater, but first we need to understand why water heaters fail.

Why Water Heaters Fail

Tank water heaters can fail due to various reasons, including natural wear and tear, aging components, lack of maintenance, and external factors. Some of the most common failure points in tank water heaters are:

  1. Sediment Buildup: Over time, minerals and sediment in the water supply can settle at the bottom of the tank. This sediment buildup can cause the tank to overheat, leading to decreased efficiency and potentially damaging the heating elements or burner. If you’ve got hard water in your area this can be a big problem for your water heater.
  2. Corrosion: The metal components inside the tank can corrode over time, especially if the anode rod (a sacrificial rod that attracts corrosive elements) is not replaced regularly. Corrosion weakens the tank, making it susceptible to leaks and eventual failure.
  3. Leaking Pressure Relief Valve: The pressure relief valve is a safety feature that releases excess pressure from the tank. If the valve becomes faulty or starts leaking, it can result in improper pressure regulation, compromising the safety and functionality of the water heater.
  4. Failed Heating Element: Electric water heaters have heating elements that heat the water. These heating elements can fail due to age, sediment buildup, corrosion, or electrical issues. A failed heating element will result in inadequate hot water supply or no hot water at all.
  5. Gas Control Valve Issues: Gas water heaters have a control valve that regulates the flow of gas to the burner. Malfunctions in the gas control valve can cause problems with gas supply, combustion, and pilot light ignition, leading to a lack of hot water or inefficient heating.
  6. Faulty or Malfunctioning Thermostat: The thermostat controls the temperature of the water in the tank. A faulty thermostat can result in inconsistent water temperatures and an angry wife.

#1 Old Age

The age of your water heater is honestly the biggest factor to consider. If your tank water heater is reaching or exceeding its expected lifespan, it’s time to start shopping for replacement. It doesn’t matter if your water heater is gas or electric, the traditional tank water heater has a lifespan of between 8-12 years before it dies a sad and messy death.

Check the label on your water heater see the manufacture date. It may be listed as part of the serial number in coded format, so unless the date is clearly listed it’s best to simply Google something like “How to find manufacturer date of [your brand] water heater”

Once your water heater reaches 8 years old it’s time to start watching it very closely for some of these other signs below. If it’s already past 12 years old I would just plan to get a new one…today!

#2 Rust and Corrosion

A tank water heater is essentially a big metal tub that holds water every day all day. As well as these things are built it’s just a matter of time before the metal parts start to corrode. Over time, the metal components inside the tank can deteriorate, leading to leaks and potential water damage. If you notice rusty water coming from your faucets or visible signs of corrosion on the tank itself, it’s a clear indication that your water heater is nearing the end of its life.

Don’t just look on the tank itself, but also check the elements and pipes above and below the water heater. Sometime installers mistakenly use connections with dissimilar metals that cause galvanic corrosion resulting is premature failure. If you see signs of rust or corrosion anywhere it may be time to repair or replace that item or the whole water heater depending on the area of corrosion.

#3 Strange Noises

This may sound weird, but I can assure you from personal experience that this is a sure sign of impending doom. Unusual sounds coming from your water heater, such as rumbling, banging, or popping noises, can indicate sediment buildup. Excessive sediment affects the heater’s efficiency and can cause irreversible damage. If flushing the tank (see below) doesn’t resolve the issue, it may be time for a replacement.

#4 Insufficient Hot Water

If you consistently experience a lack of hot water or notice a decrease in water temperature, your thermostat may be failing which can be easily replaced on most models, or it may be a sign of a larger issue indicating your water heater might be on its last leg. As units age, they may struggle to maintain the desired water temperature due to wear and tear. If this issue persists despite proper maintenance, it’s likely time to invest in a new water heater.

#5 Leaks and Moisture

Water pooling around the base of your water heater or visible leaks are red flags that demand immediate attention. Even small leaks can escalate quickly, causing significant water damage to your home. A small leak in the morning can result in a catastrophic failure by lunchtime so do not hesitate.

Tank water heaters have a drip pan below them to catch minor leaks, but that pan will not hold the entire 60 gallons of water inside the tank. If you see standing water in the pan or signs of rust or dried water marks from past leaks then it may be time for replacement especially if your water heater is on the older side.

Water Heater Maintenance

How can you extend the years before you need to replace your water heater? Regular maintenance! It plays a major factor in how long your water heater lasts. Neglecting any kind of maintenance will mean you’ll be replacing it early and often; whereas keeping up with what’s required can buy you years of faithful service. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you should be doing to maintain your water heater.

water heater anatomy

Flush the Tank

Sediment buildup can affect the efficiency of your water heater. Flushing the tank annually or every six months (depending on water hardness) helps remove accumulated sediment. Here’s how to do it:

  • Turn off the power supply (for electric heaters) or set the gas control valve to pilot (for gas heaters).
  • Attach a hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the tank and place the other end in a suitable drainage area.
  • Open the drain valve and allow the water to flow out until it runs clear, indicating sediment removal.
  • Close the drain valve, remove the hose, and restore the power supply or gas control valve.

Replace Anode Rod

The anode rod helps prevent tank corrosion by attracting corrosive elements. Inspect the anode rod annually and consider replacement if it is heavily corroded, typically every 3-5 years. Follow these steps:

corroded anode tube
Corroded water heater anode tube vs new tube
  • Turn off the power supply (for electric heaters) or set the gas control valve to pilot (for gas heaters).
  • Locate the anode rod’s access point on the top of the tank and use a socket wrench to remove it.
  • Inspect the rod’s condition: if it is heavily corroded or less than 1/2 inch thick, replace it with a new anode rod of the same type and size.
  • Apply teflon tape on the threads of the new anode rod and install it in the tank.
  • Restore the power supply or gas control valve.

Check Pressure Relief Valve

The pressure relief valve ensures the safe operation of the water heater. Test it annually to verify proper functioning:

  • Turn off the power supply (for electric heaters) or set the gas control valve to pilot (for gas heaters).
  • Locate the pressure relief valve on the side or top of the tank.
  • Place a bucket under the valve to catch any released water.
  • Lift the valve’s lever or twist the test knob to open it momentarily. Hot water should discharge forcefully into the bucket.
  • If the valve fails to release water, it may be faulty and requires replacement. Consult a professional plumber if that’s the case.

With water heaters it’s best not to risk it. The cost of a new water heater pales in comparison to the damage they can create, especially if they are inside the home or upstairs where water can cascade throughout the house. If your water heater is in an unfinished garage or basement then maybe you can be a bit more cavalier with your replacement schedule, but remember you’ll still be without hot water once it fails until you can get it replaced.

Hopefully you feel better prepared to to know when to replace your water heater after this post. If you happen to have a great water heater story please share it below in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

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3 thoughts on “5 Signs It’s Time to Replace Your Water Heater

  1. Hey Scott,
    You might want to mention when having your plumber replace your water heater to install a flow stop device on the cold water inlet side and pan under the new water heater. These devices work great to prevent house floods. The flow stop device detects the presence of water in the water heater pan immediately shuts off the water supply to the water heater preventing a flood.
    Well worth the investment.
    It is best to have a duplex electrical outlet to power the unit but most can be powered with batteries.
    Best regards

  2. Upon the advice of my new water softener company, I invested in an electric anode rod when I had to replace my water heater. (Sediment!) The rod was about $30, I think, and I got it on Amazon. I was going through anode rods in about 6-8 months with my very mineralized well water. It’s been 2 years now and that rod is as good as new. I highly recommend it. Given the lack of sediment when I flush it yearly, it’s paying for itself by extending the life of my water heater! Living and learning the hard way!

  3. This was a very informative piece. I had a water heater failure which flooded our basement. Thank you for the tips.

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