Water Heater Repair & Buying Guide

water heater repair & buying guide

Water Heater Repair & Buying Guide

Typically, people don’t think about their water heaters until they have a leak or they don’t have any hot water. It’s true – for most people, a water heater is one of those appliances that you take for granted and don’t fully appreciate until it’s on the blink. Water heater professionals are experts about how to repair, replace, and install them. They also know all about hot water heater options, features, and pricing, so that when you are in need of their services, they can answer all of your questions and advise you whether a repair or replacement is the best course of action.

That said, it’s helpful for homeowners to have a bit of basic knowledge about these essential home appliances so that you’re able to troubleshoot minor problems (and perhaps even fix them) on your own, as well as communicate with repair technicians about the symptoms and issues your water heater is experiencing. We’ve created this water heater repair and buying guide to arm homeowners with the knowledge they need to choose the best type of water heater, understand when water heater problems warrant the services of a professional, and ask the right questions of your service technician.

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Water Heater Repair Options

There are various options when it comes to repairing a water heater. Some homeowners choose to attempt repairs themselves, while others call a local handyman or home services provider who offers water heater repair and installation. Depending on the type of water heater you have in your home and the experience you have with appliance repairs, you may be able to repair simple water heater issues yourself. We offer some of the most common repair solutions here, but we caution you to attempt only those repairs that you think you can handle without professional help.

The majority of electric hot water heater issues can be solved by replacing one or both heating elements. Remember to turn off the power to your electric water heater by turning off the circuit breaker or fuse that powers the unit. You also should shut off the water supply before attempting repairs, or you might find yourself with a bigger mess than you started with. Image via Flickr by www.homejobsbymom.com.

Typically, replacing elements is inexpensive. Water heater elements come in three primary types: screw in, bolt in, and clamp in. You can probably find elements to fit your unit at a local home center, hardware store, or appliance parts dealer. In a worst-case scenario, you might have to place a special order. If you suspect that the elements are the problem, repairing your water heater is a relatively straightforward process including testing the elements, removing them if they are indeed malfunctioning, and installing replacements.

Should you determine that there is nothing wrong with your unit’s heating elements, the problem may be with the thermostat or cutoff switch. Testing these issues is much more complex, but they are relatively inexpensive to replace if you determine one of these parts are causing your hot water problems. It’s also important to keep in mind that water heaters have a general life span of approximately 10 to 15 years, so if yours is an older model, it may be time to replace, rather than repair. Also, hard water is tougher on water heaters overall. If your home has hard water, it’s possible that your unit may fail within the warranty period. If in doubt, call a repair technician for a professional opinion. These professionals can also help you select the best model to meet your home’s hot water needs.

It also is possible to troubleshoot and repair gas water heaters. It is important to turn the gas pilot control valve to the “pilot” setting for safety before you attempt to repair these types of water heaters. You also want to shut off the water supply to the unit.

Possible repairs for gas water heaters include checking the gas pilot flame and pilot operation; retightening, repositioning, or replacing the gas thermocouple; replacing the gas pilot control valve; checking for proper flame from the burner; replacing a sacrificial anode rod with a magnesium anode rod; replacing the anode with a zinc-alloy anode; removing sediment by flushing the water heater; or replacing the temperature and pressure relief valve.

Keep in mind that certain signs indicate that it’s time to replace your gas water heater. If there are water marks or heavy rusting in the bottom of the tank, or if there is water in the bottom of the combustion chamber, for example, a replacement is in order.

Types of Water Heaters

If you or your repair professional determine that your water heater must be replaced, this section will help you understand the various types of water heaters and the differences between them to determine the best type of water heater for your family’s needs. There are many options for water heating products today, including traditional storage tank water heaters, solar hot water systems, and tankless units, as well as heat pump water heaters. Of course, there are a few important things to know about each type of water heater.

Traditional Storage Tank Water Heaters – Traditional storage tank water heaters are manufactured to high safety, energy, and air quality standards. They usually are available in natural gas, propane, or electric models. Most traditional storage tank water heaters include a six or ten-year warranty.

Gas storage tank water heaters typically have an energy rating between .54 and .62, based on the tank’s internal insulation and gallon capacity. It’s worth noting that gas water heaters with a .62 rating are energy efficient and will save homeowners some money on annual operating costs, though they usually cost a bit more to purchase. Gas storage tank water heaters usually have more insulation and are wider, so they may not fit all installation applications. Be sure to ask your water heater professional if a gas storage tank water heater would be appropriate for your home given your space restrictions, hot water needs, and other specifications.

Electric storage tank water heaters typically have an energy rating between .90 and .94, based on the tank’s internal insulation and gallon capacity. While electric water heaters are energy efficient, they often cost more to operate than gas units simply due to the fact that electricity typically costs more than gas. Electric water heaters also are easier to install in more applications because they are available in tall, medium, and short models and do not require a flue vent system or gas hook up like gas storage tank water heaters do, making them more suitable for small or tight spaces.

Solar Water HeatersSolar water heaters provide a cost-effective way to provide hot water for your home. Also called solar domestic hot water systems, solar water heaters are appropriate for use in any climate. These hot water heaters include storage tanks and solar collectors. There are two types of solar water heating systems: active and passive. Active solar water heaters have circulating pumps and controls, and passive do not.

Active Solar Water Heating Systems – Active solar water heating systems are available in two types, direct circulation systems and indirect circulation systems. Direct circulation systems include pumps that circulate water through the collectors and into the home. That’s why direct circulation solar water heating systems work best in areas that rarely freeze. On the other hand, indirect circulation systems circulate a non-freezing, heat-transfer fluid through the collectors and a heat exchanger, which heats the water before it flows into the home. Indirect circulation systems are better suited to areas that commonly have freezing temperatures.

Passive Solar Water Heating Systems – Passive solar water heating systems are less expensive and less efficient than active solar water heating systems. Yet, homeowners choose passive solar water heating systems because they tend to be more reliable and typically last longer. As with active solar water heating systems, passive systems include two types: integral collector-storage passive systems and thermosyphon systems. Integral collector-storage passive systems are better for homes in areas that rarely see freezing temperatures, as well as those that have significant daytime and evening hot water demands. Thermosyphon systems are reliable but include heavy storage tanks. Thermosyphon systems also include collectors that must be installed below the storage tank so that warm water will rise to the tank while the cooler water sinks. Image via Flickr by RJL20.

Tankless Water HeatersTankless water heaters provide endless hot water, as they heat water on demand. These units are known for their space saving features, energy efficiency, and long expected lifespan. Consumers also tend to choose tankless water heaters because they do not have to worry about leaks, as their tankless design means that no water is stored within the unit that could potentially leak, leaving you with a water disaster to clean up in addition to having to replace or repair your hot water heater.

Tankless hot water heaters are ideally suited for tight spaces and are increasingly the water heater of choice for new home construction, thanks to their ability to produce an endless supply of hot water. This makes tankless water heaters especially useful for large families or homes with higher hot water demands, such as those that have soaking tubs or spa systems. If you have a small hot water heater currently and find that you often run out of hot water when multiple family members take showers consecutively, a tankless unit is a good choice when it’s time to replace your existing unit – particularly if you don’t have the space to store a larger tank.

Tankless hot water heaters are compared based on flow rate, so homeowners choosing tankless water heaters should consider those that have a maximum flow rate that is higher than the home’s required flow rate. It’s important to keep in mind that tankless units provide instant hot water taking into account the amount of time it takes the hot water to flow from the unit to its destination. True instant hot water requires a recirculation system. Contact your local water heater professional for more information about installing a circulation system in your home.

Heat Pump (Hybrid) Water Heaters – Heat Pump, or Hybrid, Water Heaters work in a similar fashion to refrigerators, but in reverse, capturing heat from the surrounding air and transferring this energy to the water stored inside the tank. A heat pump water heater can be remarkably efficient in the right location and setting, transferring up to 2.5 times as much energy as it consumes.

Heat pump water heaters must be installed in locations where the temperature remains within the 40º–90ºF (4.4º–32.2ºC) range year-round, and they also require a minimum of 1,000 cubic feet (28.3 cubic meters) of surrounding space in the immediate area around the unit. These units function best when installed in an area with excess heat, such as a furnace room. They don’t operate efficiently in a cold space, as they rely on the heat in the surrounding air to transfer energy; heat pump water heaters do not actually generate their own energy.

Water Heater Features to Look For

Once you know the type of water heater that you want for your home, you should know which features to look for when making your final purchasing decision. This section outlines the key buying considerations and important features to compare when selecting a water heater for your home.

Warranty – Warranties for water heaters vary both in length and coverage options, so be sure to check the warranty specifications when comparing products. In some cases, extended warranties are available. If you are purchasing a water heater from a company, you may want to ask whether they service the brands they install. Not all water heater installation companies provide service, so it’s important to be an informed consumer and know who to call should something happen within the warranty period.

First Hour Rating (FHR) – A traditional storage tank water heater’s first hour rating (FHR) rates how much hot water the tank will produce in the first hour of usage. This accounts for the hot water in the tank plus how much new hot water the tank will make while in use. FHR helps homeowners understand how much hot water they will be able to use.

Typically, units with higher FHR have more BTU input and have a better recovery rate, meaning they will reheat more quickly so that household members do not have to wait for the tank to refill and heat up water between showers or baths. One thing consider is whether you want to increase the gallon capacity of your hot water heater when it is time for replacement, especially if your family often uses the full amount of hot water stored in the tank, essentially “running out of hot water.” For tankless hot water heaters, the Gallons-per-Minute (GPM) rating is the specification you want to look for, a number that indicates how much water the unit can deliver over a specified amount of time.

Capacity – The capacity of a water heater is one of the biggest buying considerations, as hot water needs can vary significantly from family to family. It’s not uncommon for a family of four to use 100 gallons of hot water daily, but because this consumption is spread throughout the day, it’s not necessary to have a 100-gallon hot water heater. That’s why capacity and First Hour Rating are two specifications that go hand-in-hand. Ideally, you want a hot water heater with a capacity ample enough to meet your immediate needs with a FHR sufficient for a reasonable recovery time for ongoing use.

Energy Efficiency – Traditional storage tank water heaters are less energy efficient than tankless water heaters. On average, tankless water heaters save between 20% to 40% energy use when compared to storage tank water heaters. Traditional gas storage tanks have a maximum efficiency of 62%, tankless units have an average efficiency of 80%, and the most efficient tankless water heaters have a 92%-95% efficiency rating.

“Water heating amounts to nearly 20 percent of a home’s energy costs,” explains ConsumerReports.org. “As the result of new efficiency standards from the Department of Energy, smaller water heaters (under 55 gallons) will see a modest boost in efficiency of about 4 percent, while larger water heaters (55 gallons or more) may cut your utility bills by 25 to 50 percent depending on the technology used.” For more information on energy efficient hot water heaters, this guide from EnergyStar.gov is a helpful resource.

How Much Should You Pay for a Water Heater?

Because there are so many options in hot water heaters, water heater pricing ranges vary a great deal. Remember that gas-powered water heaters may cost more upfront, but can save you money on energy costs over the life of the product. It’s worth comparing and calculating the potential savings to determine whether a gas or electric water heater is the more economic choice.

Everyone’s home water heating needs are different, and deciding whether to repair or replace your water heater is sometimes a difficult decision. You may be comfortable with repairing your hot water heater yourself, or you may seek the help of a home services professional offering water heater repair and installation services. If you’re unsure of the root cause of your water heater’s problems, and your tests have been inconclusive, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of a professional who can determine whether your unit is repairable.

Generally, it is best to replace your water heater if it is approaching 15 years of age. Once you decide to replace your water heater, you will need to consider the options, energy use, features, and cost. Home services professionals are available to help in your water heater buying decision-making process as well.

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