Your water heater is probably the most costly component in your home’s plumbing system, but thankfully diagnosing and fixing the problems your water heater will likely experience are easy and not too costly.
The big exception and one of the worst water heater problems you can run into is a leaking tank. Unfortunately, once that happens, that tank is done and you will need to replace it. There are no fixes for a leaking water heater.
Water Heater Parts and Function
A typical water heater consists of a large holding tank, with a 30 to 60 gallon capacity; a cold water intake; a hot water outlet; and a drain valve. Chances are that all of these components are at least partly visible if you were to go an examine your water heater as it currently is.
Inside, there are a few key parts that can't be seen, including the heating element; a dip tube, which transports the incoming cold water toward the bottom of the tank and away from the outlet so that only hot water will be used most immediately; and a metal rod or anode known as the "sacrificial rod" that works to chemically promote its own rust and corrosion in the water so that the body of the actual tank doesn't experience those problems.
Any damage or deterioration of one these elements can cause the hot water heater to have problems.
Draining the Hot Water Heater
To effectively test, or even observe, any of these parts for performance issues, the tank needs to be emptied.
Start by turning off the heat at the electric panel or the gas supply, then give the water inside some time to cool.
Close the cold water intake and attach a hose to the drain valve located near the bottom of the tank. Finally, open a hot water tap somewhere in your home to ensure that air gets in to the tank and open the drain valve.
WARNING: It's possible that the water inside that you are draining will still be quite hot despite leaving time for it to cool. Be careful not to drain the water too quickly, and be sure to direct the water somewhere safe, like outside, down a basement drain, or into a series of buckets.
Wash Away the Sediment
Once the tank is empty, open the cold water intake valve again and fill up the tank halfway. Let the stream of incoming cold water rinse, lift, and clean away any sediment that you may notice. Flush the cold water through the drain valve, and then repeat until any sediment is gone. This can also be done as a part of routine maintenance, even when a problem isn't present.
Sediment Build Up
Excessive sediment left in your hot water heater could cause problems, such as the rotten egg smell many people observe around water heaters, low amounts of water because the sediment was taking up space in the tank where more water couldn't be, and noises of the sediment literally burning up from the heating mechanism inside the tank.
Water Temperature Issues
One cause for water not heating enough is that the thermostat on the tank was changed. Simply raise or lower the temperature a few degrees to get your tank back to functioning properly once again.
If you have absolutely no hot water, the heating element, whether electric or gas thermocouple, is probably not working. These are components you can replace on your own to replenish your hot water supply.
As stated above, noises coming from inside the tank could be the sounds of sediment being burned by the heating element, or the heating element itself could be slowly burning out and becoming noisy in its deterioration.
Your water heater spends its life hiding out of sight in your home, and like most of us, you probably don’t think about it until it stops working properly. Using this criteria to maintain and check on your water heater will greatly extend the life of the appliance.