Five Common Water Heater Problems and How to Identify Them
A water heater is the most expensive part of a home’s plumbing system. Working around the clock to ensure there’s always hot water available for the home’s occupants, water heating units need periodic attention to ensure they’re operating safely and efficiently. Even after being in service for years, however, an examination by a certified home inspector is often the first time a home’s water heater is checked for problems.
About Home Water Heaters
Most water heaters run on either electricity or a combustible fuel such as natural gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), propane or fuel oil. Energy efficient, space-saving tankless water heaters are gaining in popularity, and there are also some water heaters that use geothermal heat pumps. In warmer climates, water is sometimes heated by the sun as it circulates through a series of tubes mounted on rooftops. The majority of today’s homes, however, have traditional water heaters with storage tanks.
Regardless of the way the water is heated, the unit’s cold water intake, hot water outlet and drain valve are usually visible and easily accessible.
The following are the heater’s internal components that can’t be inspected without at least partially disassembling the unit:
- The heating element (electric water heaters) or burner (fuel-fired units)
- A dip tube that takes incoming cold water to the bottom of the tank to be heated
- A metal “sacrificial rod” that chemically promotes rust and corrosion in the water to prevent the body of the holding tank from rusting or corroding
Damage to any of these items can cause the heater to fail. Before inspecting or testing them, however, the holding tank needs to be drained.
What Home Inspectors Look For When Checking Water Heaters
- Sediment Build-Up
A foul odor similar to rotten eggs is an indication of excessive sediment at the bottom of the tank. Since sediment takes up space, it can reduce the volume of water the tank will hold. It also makes the unit work overtime to heat the water, which results in higher utility bills. Most sediment issues can be resolved by draining and flushing the tank. If the sediment isn’t flushed from the tank periodically, the heater will eventually be seriously damaged.
Another sign of sediment build-up within the tank is a popping sound that results from small pockets of air trapped in the sediment. The popping noise is created when the water is overheated, which disturbs the layer of sediment as the air bubbles rise. Noise also results when the internal burner or heating element overheats and causes the sediment to burn.
- No Hot Water
In gas-fired water heaters, this can be something as simple as a pilot light that’s gone out. It can also be due to a failing thermocouple, which is a safety device attached to the pilot light. If the thermocouple senses the pilot light is lit, fuel flows through the gas valve and is ignited by the burner. A faulty or failing thermocouple tricks the gas valve into thinking the pilot light is out, which shuts off the gas supply, extinguishes the pilot light and prevents the burner from igniting. A blocked vent can also cause the pilot light to go out, since the oxygen supply needed for combustion is cut off. When electric heaters don’t produce hot water, it’s usually a sign that the heating element, which is sometimes called an immersion heater, is faulty. Heating elements are relatively inexpensive and easy to replace.
Water accumulating beneath a water heater usually comes from one of the three following sources:
- Condensation. Puddles under a water heater may appear to be leaks, but that’s not always the case. In some situations, the presence of water beneath the unit may be due to condensation, which the inspector needs to rule out before citing a water heater leak in the inspection report. During winter months when the incoming water is coldest, it’s normal for condensation to form on the outside of the tank. If there are only small amounts of water on the floor and it doesn’t reappear shortly after being wiped up, chances are the moisture is due to condensation rather than a leaky tank.
- Valves. Water can also leak from the tank’s cold water inlet valve, drain valve and T&P (temperature and pressure) valve. To locate a leaky valve, turn off both the source of heat and the water supply, and clean up the water on the floor. If the source of the leak is found to be from one of the valves, tightening the connection may resolve the issue. If the leak continues, the faulty valve may need replacing.
- Corroded Tank. After eliminating condensation and leaky valves as the source of the water, it’s likely that the tank itself is leaking, which means the heater needs replacing as soon as possible. If there are visible signs of rust or corrosion on the bottom of the tank, it’s an indication that the tank’s inner lining is deteriorating and can burst, spill its contents and flood the surrounding area.
- Tripped Circuit Breaker
An electric water heater that continually trips the circuit breaker can be extremely dangerous. It means the heater is drawing too much power, which overloads the circuit and trips the breaker. The cause can be from a bad heating element, broken thermostat or faulty wiring. Repeatedly resetting or replacing it with a higher rated breaker is unsafe, since overloaded circuits can cause the wiring to overheat and start a fire. If a plumber determines the heater is functioning properly, the next step is for an electrician to check the wiring. Home inspectors should include these and other issues having to do with circuit breakers in the final inspection report.
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