life: extending the life of a household water heater

My home has a gas-powered hot water heater located in the walk-up attic (3rd floor). I’d like to give the architect a dope-slap for doing that. Especially when the master bath directly below the water heater takes the longest to receive the hot water. But the real reason why the attic location is an issue is because there have been four incidents where the water heater has leaked which ended up sending water spilling down the lower two floors. If only they could have put it in the garage. Sigh.

Anyway, one of the leaking incidents occurred recently. I just woke up the kids for school. I’m standing in their bedroom on the 2nd floor and asking myself, “why do I hear water running above me?” So I grab a flashlight and dash upstairs to the attic. There is water flowing out of the top of the water heater and down the sides, as if it has ruptured. At least the water heater is surrounded by a drip pan which drains outside the house. The drip pan was full to the brim, and just a little bit had spilled out. I quickly shut off the inlet valve on the water heater and the pan continued to drain. It looked like less than half a gallon had spilled outside of the pan, I consider myself very lucky. Time to call for a replacement water heater. I also take note to make sure the drain on the outside of the house for the drip pan is free of debris that may interfere with draining.

Since the water heater is in an attic closet bounded by the A-frame roof, there is limited height. It turns out that my water heater is a few inches shorter than the typical short model, so it is a bit of a specialty product that the typical big-box retailers don’t carry. So I need to call a real plumber. Although the plumber did a first-class job and was done within 4 hours of when I called them, it also cost me $1100. Ouch.

So while the plumber was working, I was my usual inquisitive self and was asking questions. And I had done some research on the net before calling the plumber. The typical lifespan of a water heater is about 8 years. Mine had died at about the 9 year mark, so it wasn’t out of bounds. The most common cause of water heater death is a build-up of sediment at the bottom of the tank. This sediment is present in the water supply, and simply settles while in the heater. There is a relatively easy way to flush out the sediment, which until then I had never heard of. Here is what the plumber told me:

The water heater should have on it what looks like a spigot near the bottom where you can attach a garden hose, just like the hose bib on the outside of your house you use to wash your car and water your garden. And once a year, you should do just that – a power flush. Get a garden hose (make sure it doesn’t leak before you do this), connect it to the spigot on the water heater, run the hose to a safe location (ie, a bath tub or out a window to outside), open the spigot on the heater and let the water blast though the hose for about 5 minutes. The water will be hot, so be careful that the hose and water output doesn’t hurt anyone or anything. Do not shutoff the inlet of the water heater, you want the water to blast out of the garden hose at pressure instead of simply (partially) draining the tank without pressure. The reason you want it to be pressurized is because of what is behind the spigot – a tube that causes the water flow to stir up the sediment on the bottom of the tank so it can be flushed out the spigot. When the 5 minutes are up, close the spigot (make sure it is fully closed), and remove the garden hose. Be careful of hot water that may still be in the garden hose while you are removing it.

You should do this once a year. I got a Sharpie pen and wrote on my new water heater “flush on March 15”. Had I known about this earlier, I would have done it and would expect a longer lifetime of my water heater. The plumber said that it should be possible to get several more years than average from a water heater that is well-maintained.

3 thoughts on “life: extending the life of a household water heater

  1. Just a little note to say thanks for the info you gave about the hot water heater. It was very helpful. I have been wanting to do this for a while, but, was’nt quite sure how. This is when a man around the house comes in handy!
    Thanks again.

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  2. We opted for a tankless heater this time around. It costs a lot more, and the payback time for saved utility bills is a long time–about 10 years. So perhaps it never pays back. But it does never run out of hot water, once it gets going.

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  3. Marcelk, also there is a sacrifical annode in most water heaters that attracts the ions that would normally eat the tank itself. You can replace that every 3-4 years and the heater should last longer than its design life. That reminds me, I need to do it on my heater really soon. You can contact the manufacturer to get a replacement. Keep in mind that if you let it go too long the corrosion gets so big in diameter that you cannot get it out of the hole.

    One other thought, a second place to check for odd sized water heaters if the home center fails you, would be a real plumbing supply store (Ferguson, etc). But keep in mind the reason your plumber’s fee was so much higher than just buying a water heater at HomeD ($280 typically) is that they charge more for commercial brands, I found that they were charging $500 -$600 for the same capacity and warranty, but it was a heftier product…. I think the maker was something like “State”

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