When should you replace them?
Hot water is my favorite creature comfort, by far. It’s so critical to daily life that many of us in developed nations don’t think twice about turning a faucet and having not only safe, potable water spew forth…but heated, potable water! It’s incredible.* It’s so incredible that I want to share how to prepare for replacing your hot water heater, because it’s pretty awful to be unexpectedly without it.
Case in point: a few years ago we purchased our camper van. We were eager to take her on a test trip, but it was early May so we decided to wait for more comfortable weather. Then our water heater died 4 days before Memorial day and flooded the basement. We turned off the water to the house, cleaned the mess, and called the plumber. He quoted us the base price, plus an $800 surcharge to install a new one on the holiday weekend. Cue impromptu camping trip!
Our commitment to frugality meant we spent the long weekend in Rocky Mountain National Park enjoying alternating sunshine and sleet. Though we used “lemons to make lemonade,” if I’m being honest it was only half fun and way too cold. I wish I had realized that the slight rusty tinge to bathwater was a tell-tale sign that our water heater needed to be replaced, as three nights at altitude with plenty of wool but almost zero preparation had us all a little overwhelmed.
Signs It’s Time to Replace Your Water Heater
Getting Old. Most electric water heaters last an average of 10 years. Gas heaters usually have a shorter 8-year lifespan. We knew that our gas water heater was nearly 9 years old when we purchased our house, but I’ve never been one to replace something before it dies.
While I stand by this approach as a way to avoid waste, a “just-in-time” approach really needs to be paired with vigilance and a replacement plan (neither of which we practiced!). If you’ve been in your home for a while, I suggest you keep tabs on your water heater. You can determine its age by the serial number on the manufacturer’s sticker. The first two numbers after the letter indicate the year it was manufactured. You might want to consider replacing it before it causes other issues (rust, noise, leaks, and loss of heat), but if you want to squeeze all the useful life out of it, have a replacement and monitoring plan!
Getting Rusty. Whether you have rusty water from your faucets or rust on the outside of your water heater near the valve, it’s not a good sign. That means the steel is rusting, on the inside or outside, and that means the potential for a damaging water leak. This was the sign I missed that our water heater was nearing the end of its life: when I would fill the bath for my daughter, I started to notice a slight orange tinge to the water. I (intellectually) knew that this is a common sign of immanent water heater failure, but I didn’t put 2 and 2 together!
Making Noise. If you hear rumbling and loud noises coming from your tank every time you need it to heat up water, then it’s no longer efficient. It’s a sign of sediment buildup (you should flush sediment each year as part of your regular maintenance routine). If it still makes noise after flushing, then it’s getting old and the potential for leaks from cracks increases. Time for replacement!
Leaking Water. When you see a pool of water around your water heater, it could signify a crack or a fracture and you’d have to replace the tank. However, there could be something wrong with the fittings, which can be fixed. This is cause for alarm either way: you ought to have it checked out ASAP. If the tank cracks, you will be replacing your hot water heater in a hurry, because if it fails it will flood the immediate area.
Not enough heat. If you find your water heater isn’t heating up enough or working too hard and too long, then it’s time for some detective work. Have it checked out to see if something is wrong with the thermostat or the heating element – it might be fixable! However, it you consistently don’t have enough hot water, then your tank could be too small for your household’s current needs. If it’s getting older and you have this issue, it might be worth replacing it sooner than later.
Replacing Your Hot Water Heater
Even if you’re not replacing your water this month, I suggest you make a plan for what you’ll purchase next. Knowing that these have a limited lifespan means you will likely replace it during your ownership. Planning now can help avoid over-spending later. Ignoring our water heater’s slow death meant we made our choice under duress and were not intentional about the replacement.
Know your water needs
Determine what size of water tank you need. Do you need to have a larger tank with a higher volume capacity that can handle your household? 40-50 gallon heaters are the most common size, but there are other options.
Know your home
Determine the width and height of the space for your new water heater. A larger tank may not be an option if you need more hot water. This could limit you to tankless water heaters.
Consider Tankless vs. Traditional
A traditional water heater stores and preheats 30-50 gallons of water in an actual tank. This preheated water will be ready in the tank for your needs, whether it’s a shower or washing clothes. It refills and reheats during the day. It can be electric or gas. Some things to consider:
- The initial cost to purchase the unit is low, but the ongoing operating/ utility expenses are high. You use energy to heat that mass of water, and to keep it at the temperature. It’s how the water is ready for you at the flick of a faucet.
- The tank needs to fit your home’s dimensions for its allotted space.
- It can run out of hot water and you’ll need to wait for the tank to refill and reheat.
- It needs to be replaced more often since it has a shorter lifespan (around 10 years) than a tankless.
A tankless water heater does not have any “stored” hot water. Tankless water heaters use gas or electricity to warm water on demand. They can provide 2-3 gallons of hot water per minute. A few things to consider:
- Tankless hot water heaters are more expensive to purchase and install. The install costs could involve retrofitting the space and plumbing.
- Tankless units require less energy to provide the hot water needed for a household, as they only heat up the water you demand in any given day. They also don’t waste energy keeping a massive volume of water hot just in case someone wants it.
- Tankless units can be installed in tight places, take up less space, and can even be installed outside.
- Tankless water heaters have a longer lifespan (20+ years) so they don’t need to be replaced as often.
As you can see, replacing your water heater will most likely happen at some point if you live in your home for a while. Maintain your current water heater to help prolong its efficiency, and actively plan for its replacement! You don’t want a surprise expense of $1,000+ for a new water heater, or to make the decision under duress.
If you need recommendations of a few good, local plumbers, please be in touch…I can even give you hints on ones to avoid.
*My husband and I backpacked for 4 months through Central America and Mexico. We quickly learned how very unsafe (and fatal) water can be, and that washing our hands didn’t make our hands “clean.” After washing, we’d have to wait for them to dry, and then further sanitize before we could eat. The joy of washing my hands in potable hot water, delights me to this day.
I'm Libby Earthman. I specialize in helping first-time buyers and sellers pursue financial security on the Northern Front Range.
825 Delaware Ave, Suite 208
Longmont, CO 80501