7 Common Water Heater Problems and How to Solve Them

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Categories Water Heating
Low pressure, smelly water, water too hot, and more. Find out how to fix these water heater problems.

Did you wake up this morning to no hot water? Has your water heater been making some strange noises lately? These are just two of the many water heater problems that can arise.

Problems with household appliances are part of another day in the life of homeownership. But what are you supposed to do when these issues present themselves? Do you call a plumber or deal with the problem yourself?

We’re going to go over common issues with water heaters and how to fix them. We’ll also let you know when it may be better to call in a professional.


Traditional Tank vs. Demand Type

Regardless of whether you have a traditional tank or a tankless, demand-type, you’re going to run into the same or similar issues. Let’s take a minute to go over the difference between these two units.

A traditional tank water heater is what you’ll find in most older homes. A large tank is filled and heated to provide a home with hot water. The temperature of the water is constantly maintained so it’s available when needed.

Tankless water heaters, on the other hand, provide hot water only as needed (1). Since you don’t need to maintain the water temperature in a tank, this option reduces your carbon footprint. It also saves cash on your bills too.

Many people are now changing to demand-type water heaters. This is largely due to the efficiency they provide.

The issue with tankless options, though, is that even the largest models may not efficiently heat enough water for a large family. You may need to invest in more than one depending on your usage.

Gas vs. Electric Units

Diagnosing and handling a problem will depend on whether your unit is gas or electric powered.

When you experience any water heater problem, the first thing to do is to check the power supply. In many cases, power supply issues are the cause of water heater problems.

When Your Water Is Too Hot

So, what do you do when you turn on your faucet and the water is scalding hot? Start by checking the thermostat on your unit. If the temperature is too high, crank it down a few degrees.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), recommends setting your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (2). Not only will this prevent scalding, but it’s much more efficient and cost-saving too.

Depending on your unit type, there’s a different way to check the temperature and set it lower.

Electric

If you aren’t comfortable doing it yourself, you can call your electric company to do it for you. In some cases, they will do this at no extra charge.

However, if you’re feeling confident, resetting your electric water heater temperature is fairly easy.

You should make sure not to use any hot water for at least two hours prior to resetting the temperature. Before proceeding, turn off all water and power to your system.

Your electric system will probably have two thermostats, so make sure both are set at the same temperature.

There should be instructions provided on your unit showing how to properly adjust your thermostats. To get to them, you’ll need to remove the upper and lower access panels.

Once done, turn the power and water back on. Use a meat thermometer under a faucet to check that the water is now at an acceptable temperature.

Gas

Thermostats on gas systems differ with each unit. Call your gas company for special instructions or consult the owner manual to make sure you adjust it correctly.

When you’ve set the thermostat to an acceptable temperature, check the water coming from your faucet with a thermometer before use.

Regardless of your energy supply, If adjusting the thermostat does not resolve the problem, call in a professional.

When There’s No Hot Water

Where you live and a lack of proper maintenance can play a major role in why you may not have hot water. It’s also possible your water heater isn’t big enough to keep up with your household needs.

1. Frozen Pipes

Frozen pipes are a common problem in colder climates. It’s especially prominent in pipes located in garages, attics, and basements (3). Frozen pipes can become problematic if they aren’t dealt with right away.

If this is your issue, we recommend investing in pipe insulation. You can get this inexpensively at any hardware store.

You can also prevent frozen pipes by leaving cabinets open and garage doors shut.

Letting your cold water drip and leaving the thermostat at the same temperature throughout the day will also reduce the risk. We would, however, recommend that these be temporary solutions as they’re not energy efficient.

2. Over Usage

You may also experience your hot water running out or becoming too cold. This could be down to using too much at once.

What was adequate when the water heater was installed may not be enough to keep up. With a lifestyle change, like additional household members, it might be time for a change. You may need to invest in a larger heater or buy an extra unit for your home.

3. Poor Maintenance

Maintenance of your household appliances is probably the last thing on your mind. However, without it, your appliances are going to have a shorter shelf life and give you an onslaught of problems.

So, it’s recommended to flush out your water heater system at least once every year. You can call a professional to do this, but it’s relatively easy to do yourself.

4. Unit Is Too Old

Water heaters are only meant to last so long. If you’ve maintained yours properly but are still experiencing issues, it’s probably time to invest in a new one.

Many heaters have a shelf life of between 10-15 years (4). Water heaters can come with a pretty hefty price tag, so be sure to check your warranty. This may also be a good time to invest in a tankless water heater if you don’t already have one.

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Inadequate Water Pressure

If you turn on your faucets only to find low water pressure, you may have an issue with parts on your water heater. These can include blocked plumbing, a closed shut-off valve, blocked faucet, or water leaks (5).

When you run into this problem, there are a few ways to troubleshoot it.

1. Checking the General Water Pressure

Check if there’s low water pressure in all areas of your house. If you find it’s only in one room, it’s possible you just have a clogged pipe in that area.

But, if low water pressure only occurs with your hot water faucet, it’s an issue with your water heater.

2. Checking Pressure Relief and Water Shut-Off Valves

Often, low water pressure is due to the pressure relief or water shut-off valves. Check the pressure relief valve first. This is the valve that’s shaped like a bell.

Adjust the pressure relief valve by turning the screw. To increase pressure, tighten the screw by turning it clockwise. If the valve is damaged or broken, you’ll need to replace it.

The water shut-off valve can cause water pressure issues even if it’s only been adjusted a little bit. Ensure your shut-off valve is completely open and then check if your water pressure is normal.

3. Water Leak

Water leaks can cause low water pressure since you’re losing water before it reaches your faucet. Check the floor around your unit for water. This is a solid indicator that you have a leak somewhere within your water heating system.

Look and listen for any dripping water and check your unit for any cracks or condensation around it.

Foul Smells and Discoloration

Have you turned your faucets on only to smell rotten eggs or sewage? This is extremely common and is generally pretty easy to diagnose. If you have a traditional tank water heater, the anode rod is the likely cause of the foul smell.

Anode rods are also referred to as “sacrificial anode rods” because they’re made of a material that corrodes easily. These are placed in hot water tanks to draw corrosion to the rod rather than the tank itself.

The corrosive agents on the anode rods can mix with your water and react to make hydrogen sulfide gas. So, if you’re smelling rotten eggs, you need to replace the anode rod. This is something that needs to be done periodically anyway.

Anode rods typically last between 4-5 years. And, it’s always recommended to have two anode rods with your heater to last the unit’s full shelf life.

Follow these steps to replace your anode rod:

  1. Find the location of your unit’s anode rod: You can typically find it right on top, but in some cases, you’ll need to take the lid off your tank to find it.
  2. Turn off the water and power supply.
  3. Drain the water just enough: You only need to drain enough to be able to get the rod out. You still want the weight of the water to hold the tank down for you.
  4. Use a socket to twist it off and take out the old rod: You may need help with this as the rod can sometimes be fused onto the tank.
  5. Insert your new anode rod and seal it off.

A Noisy Unit

If your water heater is making any unusual noise, chances are something is wrong. However, not all noise means the same thing. Different noises will indicate different issues that need addressing (6).

Noisy units are typically more common with traditional tanks than with tankless water heaters. Some noises are nothing to worry about. A clicking noise in a tankless heater, for instance, is usually just the unit turning on and off.

Any other noise with a tankless water heater can be down to:

  • Calcium deposits from hard water.
  • Burner issues.
  • A dirty fan system.
  • A sealed combustion leak.

Noises with traditional tanks are far more common and due to several reasons.

1. Crackles, Pops, and Rumbles

If you’re hearing these noises with your traditional tank, it’s probably due to sediment build-up on your heating elements. This is much more common in older units.

The noise comes from the water element working harder to push the water through the cracks. Steam is produced around or under the sediment and that causes the popping noises.

Fix this issue by cleaning out or replacing the affected elements. If you hear more of a rumbling sound, it’s probably time for your annual flush out. Rumbling happens when sediment is being stirred inside your tank.

It’s also possible that the noise is just expansion and contraction in your unit’s expansion tank. This isn’t an issue and doesn’t need any maintenance.

2. Humming

Humming can indicate a loose element. Elements are typically placed vertically in your tank. So, the constantly moving water can cause vibrations and the vibrations may loosen the elements. They can easily be tightened again with the right tools.

3. Screeching

Screeching or other high-pitched noises in your water heater can be chalked up to a valve that isn’t completely open.

The noise usually comes from the water trying to push itself through a small space, so this makes sense. Just check your valves to make sure they’re completely open.

Water Heater Leaks

Leaks are probably the most common and the most critical water heater problem you’ll need to deal with right away. Minor leaks won’t cause much damage if you get to them early, but over time they can get worse and cause a massive headache.

The issue can depend on where your leak is located.

Leaking from the top can be due to the parts located on your tank’s lid. A leak from the bottom can be either the drain valve or your pressure relief valve. If, however, your tank has water on its sides, pinhole leaks or condensation could be the cause.

Pilot Light Isn’t Lit

The pilot light of your water heater is what powers your system. In older systems, your pilot light is the small blue flame in your power system (7). Pilot lights provide the flame needed to get the gas working to power your gas water heater.

Most new systems don’t have a pilot light because they tend to waste a lot of gas. If you have an older system and don’t want to upgrade yet, here’s how you can relight your pilot light.

  1. Tools you’ll need: A pair of pliers, a box of matches, and a flashlight.
  2. Turn off your power supply: Wait around five minutes for all gas to clear the area. Once you can’t smell it anymore, you can proceed.
  3. If you still smell gas: Call a professional as it can indicate an underlying issue elsewhere.
  4. Open or remove your access panels.
  5. Locate the pilot light tube: Once you do this, turn your power control knob from off to the pilot setting.
  6. Light a match and place it at the end of the pilot light tube: While doing this, you need to press the reset button on the pilot light controls.
  7. Wait until you see a flame: Keep the reset button depressed for around 60 seconds of burning.
  8. Release the reset button: Turn your power supply from pilot to on.
  9. Put your access panels back on: Set your water heater’s thermostat to your desired temperature.

All Problems Have a Solution

Many water heater issues can be avoided if you perform annual maintenance on your unit. Flushing your system at least once every 12 months will prevent too much sediment build-up. Also, if you have a traditional tank, remember to replace your anode rods every few years.

No homeowner enjoys having to deal with problems when they arise. Knowing what to do when water heater problems come up will make fixing them much easier. Not to mention less stressful too.

Are you having water heater issues that we didn’t mention? Leave us a comment below and we’ll find a way to help you.

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About the Author

Peter Gray

Peter has been a homeowner for 35+ years and has always done his own repair and improvement tasks. As a retired plumber, Peter now spends his time teaching others how they can fix leaks, replace faucets, and make home improvements on a budget.
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