Water Heater Repair and Buying Guide

water heater repair and buying guide
(Last Updated On: June 2, 2016)

Everything a Homeowner Needs to Know About Repairing and Purchasing a Water Heater

When is the last time you thought about your water heater? While water heaters make our lives easier and more comfortable, we often take them for granted. It’s when a water heater leaks or stops producing hot water that we really pay attention to them. If you’re a homeowner who is looking for information on how to repair a water heater or how to know when it’s time to replace your existing water heater, we offer this water heater repair and buying guide. We cover everything from types of water heaters, to water heater repair options, to which features to consider when purchasing a new water heater, to water heater costs, so you can make an informed decision about your water heater needs no matter what issue you might be facing. Image via Flickr by USDAgov.

The information in this water heater repair and buying guide also is helpful for those homeowners who want to troubleshoot minor water heater issues and communicate with professional plumbers about their water heaters’ problems. With the help of this guide, homeowners will have more knowledge of the water heater the professionals recommend and be able to ask the questions that matter when the professionals arrive to help.

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Types of Water Heater

There are several different types of water heaters, and people often separate them into two main categories: storage water heaters and tankless water heaters.

Storage water heaters remain the most common type of water heater. These are referred to as storage water heaters because they include insulated storage tanks, which typically hold between 30 and 80 gallons of heated water. Storage water heaters may be powered by natural gas, propane, oil, or electricity. These units operate when a gauge inside the tank reads the temperature of the water and alerts the unit to begin heating the water when the temperature drops below a set threshold. The water heating process continues around the clock, so families have hot water whenever they need it. But, some homeowners do not enjoy knowing that they are paying to heat water that isn’t necessarily used; these energy-conscious homeowners are increasingly choosing tankless water heaters. Storage water heaters have an average lifespan of 10 to 15 years.

Solar water heaters are powered by the sun and are a type of water heater that works in any climate. Solar water heaters contain two components: a solar collector and an insulated storage tank. In some installations, the unit goes on the roof, and in other installations, the unit goes in the yard. Solar water heaters have an average lifespan of 15-20 years. There are two types of solar water heaters: active and passive. Image via Flickr by Jason Pratt.

Active solar water heaters employ a pump to distribute the water. In direct circulation active solar water systems, the pump circulates the water through solar collectors and into a storage tank. This type of active solar water tank is appropriate for areas of the country that do not experience extremely cold temperatures. Indirect circulation active solar water systems feature a pump that circulates antifreeze through solar collectors and a heat exchanger, which heats the water. Indirect circulation systems are more suited to regions that experience freezing temperatures.

The less expensive type of solar water heater is the passive solar water heating system. There also are two types of passive solar water heaters: integral collector storage systems and thermosyphon systems. Integral collector storage passive solar water systems have solar collectors in the storage tank that heat the stored water, and the water then flows into the home’s plumbing via gravity. Conversely, thermosyphon passive solar water systems feature solar collectors that heat the water in the tank from below, causing the warm water to rise and then travel into the home.

Tankless water heaters, also known as instantaneous water heaters, yield significant energy cost savings because they heat water only upon demand. The pro is that homeowners pay only for the water that they use. But, the con is that tankless water heaters have a low flow rate that typically moves between two to five gallons a minute, so they cannot handle more than one use at a time. As a solution, homeowners often install multiple tankless units, with each being dedicated to a different set of appliances or fixtures. Tankless water heaters are more compact in design, which allows for multiple units to be installed in one home and in locations where it would be impractical to store a traditional water heater with a large storage tank. They also have an average lifespan of 20 years or more, and they tend to cost twice as much, per unit, as storage water heaters.

Electric heat pump water heaters use electricity for power and draw heat from the air and then intensify it to heat water contained in its storage tank. Electric heat pump water heaters rely on the environment to function, so they are best suited for use in warmer climates. When used in the proper location, electric heat pump water heaters may be up to three times more energy efficient than traditional water heaters.

Options for Water Heater Repair

Of course, homeowners prefer to repair expensive appliances whenever possible, versus replace them. One of the best indicators that it is time to replace a water heater is when it nears the end of its lifespan. Keep in mind that traditional storage water heaters typically have a lifespan of 10-15 years, and solar and tankless water heaters typically have a lifespan of about 20 years. Newer models are more efficient and can save homeowners hundreds of dollars in energy costs, so if your water heater is acting up near the end of its life, it probably is better to replace than to repair, and doing so might result in some savings on your home energy costs.

But, if your water heater is just a few years old, there are some options for water heater repair. The first step is to diagnose issues, which sometimes can be done by the homeowner before calling a professional plumber to complete the repairs. Common water heater issues include a pilot light on gas water heaters going out, a circuit breaker tripping for electric water heaters, burner or heating elements failing, thermostats breaking, and valves sticking. Most of these repairs typically can be completed for much lower prices than the cost to replace a water heater. Image via Flickr by Mr.Thomas.

If you want to avoid repairs and issues with your water heater from the start, be sure to maintain the water heater. It’s a good idea to flush your tank once a year to remove sediment. It’s also recommended that homeowners check the anode, or sacrificial, rod every three years. These rods, sometimes made of aluminum and sometimes made of magnesium, collect corrosive elements and should be replaced when they are caked with sediment or corroded.

Many homeowners enlist the help of professional plumbers to maintain their water heating systems if they are uneasy about taking care of such an important family appliance. Additionally, it’s wise to call in a professional if you’re unable to pinpoint the precise problem your water heater is experiencing or if you’re not comfortable attempting repairs on your own. A professional plumber can also offer recommendations for the best type of water heater for your home’s needs and determine whether it is more economical for you to repair your existing unit or if it’s time for a replacement.

Water Heater Features: What to Look for When Purchasing a Water Heater

Because there are hundreds of models of water heaters available today, it’s a good idea to understand their general characteristics in order to meet your family’s hot water needs.

One of the major distinguishing characteristics of hot water heaters is their energy efficiency. It’s a good idea to consider high-efficiency models, because water heaters are the second highest source of energy usage in homes. Look for the Energy Star rating on your next water heater purchase because these certified water heaters save energy and often perform better with more reliability. Energy Star water heaters use less energy than standard models, which saves you money on your utility bills and helps to protect the climate.

Another important feature to consider when purchasing a water heater is its capacity. The majority of water heaters are sold based on how many gallons they hold. However, it is more beneficial for homeowners to consider the first-hour rating (FHR) of storage water heaters, or the gallons-per-minute rating (GPM) for tankless water heaters. These ratings tell consumers the amount of hot water that a water heater is capable of delivering in a certain amount of time. Consider your family’s hot water needs to make the best decision, or enlist the help of professional plumbers who can estimate the FHR or GPM that would be best for your household.

Don’t forget to measure your existing water heater and the amount of space you have, versus the new water heater and the amount of space it will require. Storage water heaters that hold the same amount of water are rarely the same size as older models because of increased insulation and other improvements. Various models differ in height and width, even if they hold the same number of gallons. Image via Flickr by brianc.

Other water heater features to consider when purchasing a new water heater include:

  • Warranty – Most water heaters include warranties of anywhere from three to 12 years. It’s usually recommended that homeowners purchase water heaters with the longest warranty available, which offers more protection should your unit malfunction within a few years.
  • Drain valve material – Some water heaters have plastic valves while others have brass. It is better to choose a model with brass drain valves because they are more durable than plastic.
  • Glass-lined tanks – Older water heaters leak because of corrosion. Newer models feature glass-lined tanks that reduce the amount of corrosion with their protective, porcelain-like layers.
  • Digital displays – Water heater digital displays are useful for homeowners wishing to monitor levels and customize operation. For example, some water heater models include a vacation mode for added efficiency while homeowners are away. Other water heater digital displays display tank and collection temperatures, plus pressure readings and other useful information.

Water Heater Average Costs: How Much Should You Expect to Pay?

When the time comes to replace your water heater, you can expect to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to purchase and install a traditional storage tank water heater. It’s difficult to estimate costs exactly because there are so many models available, and installation costs vary by individual project. Remember that Energy Star models can save homeowners up to 20% in energy costs, so while these units may cost more upfront, they can cut down on your home energy costs over time.

Tankless, solar, and heat pump water heaters often cost anywhere from three to five times more to purchase and install, but they commonly produce larger energy savings than traditional storage tank water heaters. It’s also important to keep in mind that installing a tankless water heater may take a full eight to ten hours, while installing a traditional storage water heater may take only two to three hours.

Costs for replacing your water heater may increase if you need to upgrade your water heater mount, size or type of venting system, drain pan underneath the heater, or supply pipes. It’s important to keep in mind that the professional plumbers who cost the least may not actually be the best choice. Consider warranties, work guarantees, emergency service availability, installer credentials and qualifications, and customer reviews before making your final decision.

Making the right choice to repair or replace your water heater can be difficult, because it is such an important household appliance. Replacing a water heater that is nearing the end of its life is wise, so that your family is not left in the cold. When the time comes to repair or replace your water heater, consider contacting plumbing professionals who understand household water needs, water heater components, repair and installation requirements, and regulations.

Additional Reading on Water Heaters

For additional information on water heater repairs and buying information, visit the following resources:

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