A leaking water heater means it’s time for replacement.
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Water heater world

Should I Replace My Water Heater?

Steve Hansen
August 24, 2023

Your water heater is one of those things that you’d like to never think about. It’s just supposed to be there, quietly delivering that nice hot water you need for cooking, bathing, and laundry. Then one day you notice that it doesn’t seem to be keeping up with your needs. Running out of hot water while doing dishes is one thing, but a cold shower is intolerable! What should you do?

Signs to Look For

Water heaters don’t have a particularly long lifespan. If yours is around 10 years old, it’s wise to consider replacing it. If you don’t know for sure, you can check the serial number of your unit at any of these sites:

You might notice some telltale signs of a water heater on the fritz, as well.

  • Lack of hot water: First, as I noted, you might not be getting enough hot water. A standard water heater holds something like 50 gallons of water in a tank, and that’s usually enough for a family of four’s needs. If you’re running out of hot water fairly often, the tank may be slowly filling with sediment, which reduces its capacity.
  • Leaking water: if you see water leaking from any parts of the water heater, you can bet there is corrosion within the unit that is breaking down the components. This tends to happen on older units, as corrosion takes time.
  • Rusty water: if you see rusty water coming out of your faucets, that’s another indication of corrosion within your system. The rust could be coming from any iron component in the plumbing system, but the water heater is a likely suspect.
  • Rumbling noises: those noises often indicate a buildup of sediment that is causing the unit to strain and work improperly.
  • Visible corrosion: this condition also tends to happen with older water heaters, but if you live in a salt-air environment with high humidity, visible corrosion could be accelerated. You could have a water heater that is working fine and also has some exterior corrosion, but this is a clue to pay attention to.

When you determine that your water heater does have a problem, then how do you decide whether to fix it or replace it? Most warranties will be for five or six years, but high-end units can carry a 10-year warranty. If you’ve determined that your water heater is around 10 years old, it’s simply reached the end of its lifespan and it’s not worth fixing, especially with how efficient new water heaters are. Water heaters use lots of energy (only your HVAC system uses more), and savings can really add up to cover the cost of a new unit.

If you mess around trying to get another year out of it, you’re putting yourself at risk of a couple of unpleasant scenarios. One is living with no hot water for a day to a week or so until a plumber can get your new unit installed. You might be a bit cranky and stinky but you’ll get by just fine.

Another scenario involves 50 gallons of lukewarm, possibly rusty water gushing out of your failed water heater into the rest of your house. Maybe that does no damage if the unit is located in a basement with a good floor drain. Maybe it floods an area and wrecks some carpeting and drywall. Either way, this doesn’t need to happen if you decide to be proactive.

Common Repairs

Sometimes it does make sense to repair a water heater. Both gas and electric tank-style water heaters have common repair items that your plumber will be able to diagnose and repair quickly. For electric water heaters, those include:

  • The thermostat
  • The heating element(s).

With gas water heaters, common issues include:

  • The gas supply
  • The gas valve
  • The thermocouple.

Either way, when you are not getting enough hot water, you’re calling a plumber, and then you have to decide whether to repair or replace. If you’re going to replace, you can do a basic swap, or consider replacing with a more energy-efficient style of water heater such as an on-demand or a heat pump water heater.

Tankless/on-demand water heater

This type of water heater does not maintain a bunch of hot water in a tank, ready for you to open the faucet. Instead, it heats the water as you need it and sends the hot water to you. This can save you money. Depending on how much water you use, a tankless water heater can be 24–34% more efficient than a tank-style water heater, according to the US Department of Energy. These units do cost more upfront, but they also last longer than tank-style water heaters. Also, they’re available in both gas and electric models.

Heat Pump Water Heater

These units are more expensive than standard water heaters, but have lower operating costs so will pay for themselves in a few years. How quickly they pay off depends on your water usage. If you use a lot of hot water, the payoff will be faster.

A heat pump water heater works like an air conditioner in that it pulls heat out of the air and transfers it elsewhere. In this case, it transfers the heat from the air to the water in the tank. That also tends to cool the room where the unit is located, as well, which could be a bonus in warm climates. These units need to be located in rooms with an air temperature of 40–90° F to work properly.

Inflation Reduction Act Incentives

You can receive up to $2000 in incentives through the Inflation Reduction Act when you purchase a heat pump water heater. A quick search shows many models that cost less than that, so it’s possible that your new heat pump water heater will cost you nothing!

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