Water Heater 101: 10 Things Home Inspectors Need to Know

Home inspection

Whether you call it a water heater or use the colloquialism, “hot water heater,” these appliances need serious attention to match the serious work they do every day. Like many other workhorses in and around the home, most of them go unnoticed unless there’s a problem.

Water heaters run on electricity or a combustible fuel, and most of them are always switched on. There’s a lot that can go wrong under such high demand. Here are some of the basics to help track down defects.

#1: New Regulations in 2015 Changed Water Heater Design

Water heaters that have been manufactured since 2015 conform to a new energy code designed for higher efficiency. Some of the dimension requirements changed, which means new water heaters might not fit properly into the old spaces. Installation guidelines changed in some circumstances, as well. Check out a condensed breakdown of the new standards at Rheem.

#2: Some Tankless Water Heaters Have Tanks

It seems counterintuitive until you think about the limitations of a tankless water heater. In a busy house, tankless styles can’t always keep up with the demand for hot water. Also, Green Building Advisor says tankless styles sometimes give a shocking burst of cold water when you least expect it. An expansion tank keeps hot water steady and dependable under varying demands.

#3: Tankless Water Heaters Require Regular Maintenance

As appliances go, water heaters get very little attention. With tankless styles, everything changes. Routine system descaling, purging or flushing, often done annually, keeps lime scale out of the system to keep water flowing. The maintenance schedule varied based on the model and usage. Without flushing, tankless heater supply lines can clog.

#4: Tank Style Models Have a Shorter Lifespan Than Tankless

You’ll probably note appliance age during the home inspection. That information helps give your customers a ballpark idea of the appliance’s remaining lifespan. Tank-style water heaters usually survive about 10 to 14 years, according to Oliver Heating and Cooling. Tankless styles fare better, with a lifespan of about 19 years.

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If the home uses a boiler and radiators, the boiler might also provide hot water.

#5: Homes with Geothermal Energy May Have a Completely Different System

Geothermal water heaters rely on heat from the geothermal heat pump to warm water for the whole house. If you spot a new water heater alongside a new heat pump, chances are you’ve found a super high-efficiency geothermal water heater. Not all combination units are geothermal devices; some homes have a traditional boiler, which provides hot water.

#6: Older Water Heaters Don’t Have Auto Ignition

New models have an automatic ignition. According to Angie’s List, models manufactured before 2002 require a little help from a match to light the pilot.

#7: No Water Heater? Check the Roof

In sunny, hot locations, some homes may have no water heater at all. That’s because passive solar water heating systems use only the sun to heat water in a series of roof-mounted tubes. Active solar water heating acts more traditionally. In either case, many homes that use solar also have a small traditional water heater for backup purposes.

#8: Sometimes, a Leak isn’t a Leak

At first glance, puddles standing under a water heater look like a leak in action. Rightly so, but sometimes, condensation is the real culprit. Rule out condensation before citing a water leak defect.

#9: Traditional Water Heaters Need Maintenance, Too

Tank-style water heaters might not enjoy regular maintenance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it. Plumbing Help Today says “tank water heaters should be drained and refilled on a regular basis” to help extend the lifespan. Draining gets rid of sediment, which can contribute to corrosion and clogged lines.

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As smart homes get smarter, appliances, including water heaters, forge ahead.

#10: Some Gas Water Heaters Need Electricity

While it’s true that a gas water heater typically doesn’t need electricity for normal operation, some models use electricity for different functions. For example, power vent models use electricity to boost the unit’s ventilation. Some water heaters, including gas models, are smart home/Wi-Fi-ready.

Like most appliances, it’s common to rely on water heaters without considering all of the work that they do. In many cases, a home inspection serves as the first real checkup that a water heater gets, even after years of service.

With new regulations in place, good repair is more important now than ever. Water heaters are much more expensive than they were before 2015. Regulatory compliance wasn’t cheap to implement, and neither are the ongoing technological advances. The longer the unit lasts, the better.

If you’re ready to serve your community as a certified home inspector, ICA School is the place to be. Our online program lets you work at your own pace, which means education doesn’t have to disrupt your life. Enroll now and get started today.

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