Let’s take a minute to sing the praises of one of the miracles of modern living: Hot running water throughout your home. Hot water is the reason we have many moments of domestic bliss: Sparkling, sanitized dishes and other kitchenware. Bright, clean laundry and bedding. Long, comfortable showers and luxuriant baths. And none of this would be possible without the humble, hardworking water heater.

If there’s one “install it and forget it” appliance, it’s got to be that water heater. Each one is designed to do its thing, day in and day out, for more than 10 years without incident. However, they also don’t really have a product life longer than 15 years without just a few minutes of maintenance every year. Here are three steps to provide the basic care that will add years to your water heater’s life span.

1. Check for Sediment and Flush as Necessary

If you’ve got time to do only one thing to maintain your water heater, this is it. Flushing out any sediment from inside your tank can double the life of your heater and maintain its energy efficiency.

So where does this sediment come from? As your water heater works 24/7, impurities in the water are also heated to the point that they clump together into chunks or silt. Then they collect in the tank, coating everything inside and settling to the bottom, where this sediment covers the lower heating element or burner. At best, this process compromises the efficiency of the whole unit; at worst, it causes the tank to overheat, which damages the lining and weakens the tank.

The fix is easy, however. At least once a year, open the heater’s drain valve and let a couple gallons out. This probably goes without saying, but be careful — that water is hot!

If the water runs clear, congratulations! Your tank is in good shape. However, if it runs cloudy, gritty or chunky, you need to do a full flush:

  • Flip the circuit breaker for the heater and shut off the cold water inlet valve.
  • Put a hose on the heater’s drain outlet and run it to a floor drain or outside.
  • To drain the tank quickly, open the pressure relief valve.
  • When the tank is completely empty, close the pressure relief valve.
  • Turn on your hot water faucets in the house. (That’s right, nothing will happen.)
  • Open the cold water inlet valve to fill the tank.
  • Turn the faucets off once water starts flowing out of them.
  • Flip the water heater breaker back on to start heating your clean tank.

2. Check the Anode Rod

If you have time to add a second maintenance chore, make it checking the anode rod (or rods, if your unit has more than one).

Never heard of an anode rod? It literally sacrifices itself to protect the life of your tank. This is important because where you have water and steel, you’ll eventually have corrosion, and rust is death to water heaters. Some units are designed to resist corrosion by lining the tanks with glass and also submerging anode rods inside the tank. These rods are made of aluminum, zinc or magnesium – a lighter metal that attracts all the corrosive elements in the water and thereby protects the steel. However, once the rod has rusted away, the steel will begin to corrode. And that’s why it’s important to check that rod. Once it’s been replaced, the chemical process starts over and you’ve extended the life of the steel inside your tank.

You’ll notice we said just check the rod; your manufacturer’s instructions will likely explain how. Every three to five years, you’ll likely see major corrosion. When you do, the replacement is really a job for a licensed, professional plumber. (If you don’t want to bother with checking the rod yourself, read on.)

3. Check the Other Elements

There are other important parts of your water heater that benefit from regular examination.

The pressure relief valve

This is an easy one; you simply want it to open and close smoothly. (Make sure the drain outlet is clear, put a bucket underneath, and watch out for that hot water!) If the valve sticks, that means it might not open in case of a water-pressure emergency; then the pressure inside the tank could build until the tank ruptures. Even if pressure doesn’t build to the breaking point, it can still damage the internal workings of the heater. Check your manufacturer’s instructions for more details, but if the valve does stick, it’s potentially very dangerous. This replacement is another job that could be best to leave to a licensed professional plumber.

The flame

If you have a gas water heater, take a close look at the burner flame. If it’s burning efficiently, it will be mostly blue; if it’s mostly yellow or orange, your heating element is burning inefficiently and should be adjusted or replaced.

The temperature

This is a matter of family preference, but don’t set the temperature of your hot water above 120 degrees F. Higher temperatures increase both sediment buildup and the risk of scalding injuries.

BONUS: Cleaner Water Means a Cleaner Tank

Now that you know the damage sediment can do, you may be interested in minimizing its potential. You can do this by having a scale inhibitor and/or sediment filter installed in your home’s water system before the water reaches the water heater. A scale inhibitor filters your water to protect all your appliances and plumbing from the effects of hard water. A sediment filter cleans other natural debris out of your water.

Entrust Your Water Heater to the Professionals

If doing periodic maintenance isn’t your ideal way of spending free time, consider signing up for Horizon Plumbing Services’ Water Heater Protection Plan. This worry-free program includes an annual water heater checkup with flush and clean, preferred customer pricing, an annual whole-house plumbing inspection, and more. Our total protection plan even comes with free unit replacement if your existing water heater can’t be repaired. For more information on how Horizon’s experienced, licensed professional plumbers can make things easier for you around the house, contact us or call 817-790-9595.

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