Angie's List: Busted water heater. Repair or replace? Could depend on a simple number

Why age is a factor in decision to buy new

TAMPA - We tend to take for granted that hot water will be there every time we turn on the faucet or shower - until it isn't. A well maintained water heater can continue to deliver you gallons of hot water for years. On the other hand, if you neglect your water heater, you most likely will see the hot water disappear from your pipes and the dollars disappear from your wallet.

"People don't think about their water heater until it breaks," said Angie's List founder Angie Hicks. "And inevitably it breaks in the morning when everyone is trying to shower and you have to get out of the house. So you want to take special care of it because it actual loses efficiency over the years because sediment builds up inside the water heater which can actually reduce the capacity and can lead to problems."

There are a few things you can do to help prolong the life and efficiency of your water heater.

  • Use low-flow faucets and shower heads throughout your home to decrease the amount of water, and energy, used. This will make your tank of hot water go farther.
  • Check that your water heater tank and pipes are properly insulated. But, don't cover the tank thermostat.
  • Lower your water heater base temperature to 120 degrees. Your shower will still be steamy and you will save energy on heating the water.
  • Drain a quart of water from your water heater tank every 3 months to remove sediment that slows down heat transfer and lowers the efficiency of your heater. Follow the proper steps suggested by your manufacturer since the type of tank you have can determine the best procedure.

Water heaters that stop working may only need a simple fix like a new thermostat or heating element. Hard water can corrode those parts leading to break downs after only a few years.  If your water heater is 10 years or older it is probably only running at 50% of its efficiency anyway, and may need to be replaced.

Plumbing contractor Mark Weilhammer said, "Anything more than about 8 or 9 about 10 years is a good life. After that, you are going to start hearing it rumbling and carrying on.  Most people never maintain, they just put them in, they sit for ten years, trouble-free for 10 years, and all of a sudden they start leaking."

Hicks adds, "There are a lot of choices when it comes to water heaters these days, and the first thing you want to do is evaluate how much you are spending on your utility bills and how much you might want to spend on your water heater.  You could go with a tankless water heater or an electric water heater. And depending on your bills and how much you are willing spend on your water heater, there are a lot of choices that can really make your house much more efficient."

Depending on the company you use, a 40-gallon gas or electric water heater can run anywhere from $700 to $1,300. A tankless water heater is usually twice as much as a traditional one, but can also last twice as long and save you money in the long run.

You can reduce your monthly water heating bills by selecting the appropriate water heater for your home. While storage units are the most popular type of water heating systems, tankless systems offer energy savings by providing hot water only when it's needed.

Why consider a tankless water heater:

  • Tankless water heaters provide hot water as needed, eliminating the standby energy losses of a conventional tank – which constantly uses fuel to maintain water temperature, even when not needed. They can be used for a whole house or a specific tap.
  • Tankless water heaters also save space with a compact design. Just be sure the water heater is within roughly 50 feet from a power source and can be mounted on an interior or exterior wall.
  • Tankless water heaters are better for the environment because a rusty tank doesn't end up in a landfill.
  • Tankless water heaters last more than 20 years – about twice the lifespan of storage water heaters.

Angie's 4 tips for hiring a company to install a water heater:

  • Stay cool:  The need for a water heater replacement generally arises when the hot water stops flowing, making it an emergency situation. Rather than hire the first company you find in the yellow pages, take an hour to call around and compare prices. If you can hold out until normal business hours, you will avoid the after-hours emergency service charge.
  • Consider the options:  Talk to the companies about new innovations and systems that could increase your energy efficiency. Spending a little more on the unit may pay off in monthly energy savings if you plan to be in your home for 5 or more years.
  • Don't over invest:  If you plan to sell your home in the near future, don't spend a lot on a fancy system. A water heater is considered standard when purchasing a home. Like furnaces and roofs, a new water heater may be appealing to potential buyers, but it's probably not going to increase your asking price.
  • Understand the process:  Replacing a water heater can be cumbersome and involve many gallons of water. Make sure you know how it will be done. The units are very heavy and navigating small staircases can cause damage to your home. Check that your company is insured to cover any damages.
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