Whether you have a gas, electric, or tankless water heater, regular hot water heater maintenance is the best way to guarantee top performance and longevity. Learn how to maintain your water heater with us.
Your home water heater is one of the most essential appliances because it supplies hot water for washing dishes, cleaning clothes, and showering off after a long day. Without a supply of piping hot water straight from the tap, things can get dicey pretty quickly around the house.
You might have a gas water heater, an electric water heater, or a spiffy new tankless water heater, but in terms of maintenance, water heaters fall into two basic categories: those with tanks and those without. On average, your home’s water heater should last around 8–13 years, depending on whether it’s a traditional tank model or a tankless one. Of course, how well you maintain your water heater will have a huge impact on how long it lasts. Whatever model you have, your water heater needs regular TLC to keep supplying your family with hot water throughout its expected life span, which means giving it routine hot water heater service.
Here’s your home water heater maintenance checklist for tank and tankless models, so that you can avoid a broken water heater (aka a cold shower) and a costly repair or replacement.
A conventional tank water heater heats up water using either gas or electricity and stores that water in its tank for use. Here are a few things you should do to extend your tank water heater’s life.
The pressure relief valve is a safety mechanism that prevents your home water heater from exploding if too much pressure builds up inside of it. You’ll see a switch on the side of your water heater with a long, copper or plastic discharge pipe leading down from it. If the pressure inside your tank gets too high, the valve opens automatically to release it. The discharge pipe directs the flow of water down to the floor and, hopefully, away from your furnace, electrical panel, or other sensitive equipment.
Here's where you come in. Test the pressure relief valve during your yearly water heater maintenance by placing a bucket under the discharge pipe and lifting the lever. If water comes out of the pipe, you’re good; use the lever to close the valve. If lifting the lever doesn’t open the valve, or if the valve leaks after you test it, replace it.
Regardless of the type of water heater you have—whether it’s an electric water heater or a gas water heater—it will have an anode rod. The anode rod takes one for the team, attracting corrosive minerals so that they corrode the rod instead of the tank itself. Replacing the anode rod once every five years or so could significantly lengthen the life of your home water heater.
First, shut off the gas or power to the water heater, close the shutoff valve, open a hot water tap, open the pressure release valve, and drain your water heater. (Don’t know how to do this? Check out our article about how to drain a hot water heater.) Draining a few gallons of water from the tank should do the trick. If you see flakes of rust in the water, it may be time for a new home water heater—but orange water is not necessarily a bad sign.
Check your unit’s user manual to find out where the anode rod is; if you don’t have the hard copy, you should be able to find one online. To break the anode rod free, you may need an impact wrench and some WD-40, or at least a cheater pipe wrench. Once you have it broken free, check for leaks around the hex head—if you see any, you need to drain some more water out of your tank before proceeding.
If the rod looks corroded, or if your tank is at least five years old and you’ve never checked the rod before, you’ll need to replace it. You can buy a flexible rod for home water heaters that are stored in tight spaces. Use pipe thread sealant on the threads instead of plumber’s tape since tape can make the rod less effective. Flush the tank, or at least drain a few more gallons out, before turning the power and water back on.
You need to flush your home water heater’s tank yearly to prevent the buildup of mineral sediment deposits that can rust right through the steel.
But how do you flush a gas or electric water heater? Turn off the gas or power and cold-water supply to the tank. Open a hot water tap and the pressure release valve, then use a hose and bucket to drain the water from the tank until it runs clear and free of sediment. If you have a lot of sediment in your tank, you’ll need to empty it completely. Then, turn on the cold-water supply to the tank and let the cold water run through it until it comes out clear. Keep flushing until you see no more sediment coming out of the tank.
Tankless water heaters heat water on demand instead of storing it in a tank, but they still need regular water heater maintenance. Many of these units will indicate when maintenance is required, but you should plan to perform maintenance yearly or more often if you have hard water.
To flush a tankless home water heater, turn off the gas or power and cold water to the unit. Shut off the hot water valve that sends hot water from the unit to the house. Attach a garden hose to the outlet of a sump pump and to your unit’s cold-water isolation valve (isolation valves are used to regulate the water flow).
Attach a second length of hose to your unit’s hot-water isolation valve. Place both the end of this hose and the pump in a five-gallon bucket. Then, fill the bucket with five gallons of fresh, food-grade white vinegar.
Open both the cold and hot isolation valves on your unit, turn on the pump, and let the vinegar circulate through the unit for about 45 minutes. Throw out the used vinegar, fill the bucket with plain water, and flush the unit again for about five minutes.
While you are flushing your tankless water heater with vinegar, you should clean the air intake filter. This important part keeps debris from getting into your water heater. Cleaning it keeps air flowing smoothly into the unit.
You can access the air intake filter by removing your unit’s faceplate—check the user manual for specific instructions. Once you’ve got the filter out, rinse it thoroughly with clean water, then dry it with paper towels or a rag before reinstalling it. Disconnect your hoses, screw on all service caps tightly, open the cold and hot water valves, and restore power and, if necessary, gas to the unit. Check for any leaks and address them quickly.
Water heater maintenance may not be a “fun” weekend activity, but it can help you save the money you need to do the things you enjoy and can drastically improve its life span.
Protect your budget with an American Home Shield® water heater warranty. Many parts and components of both traditional and tankless water heaters are covered. If a covered hot water heater repair isn’t feasible, you can get a water heater replacement to make sure your household stays running properly. (A water heater repair or replacement cost can be as high as $1,200*, so this is a huge perk!) Check out our warranty plans to see which home warranty coverage is right for you.
For additional information on home water heaters, be sure to check out our Home Matters blog, which touches on topics such as how to fix your water heater or how to install a tankless water heater.
*Repair/replacement costs are the eightieth percentile of U.S. costs according to a nationwide survey of homeowners conducted in 2019 by ClearVantage for American Home Shield.
AHS assumes no responsibility, and specifically disclaims all liability, for your use of any and all information contained herein.