Finding Out You Have an Old Water Heater

This is what an ild water heater looks like
Inspection Report Comment

One of the most common defects that I come across is, water heaters that have exceeded their life expectancy. In this picture, the water heater is:

  1. Passed its expected service life. It was manufactured and installed in 2003.
  2. The vent pipe is not pitched correctly, this can cause a water heater  too not draft or cause the combustion products to vent improperly.
  3. It has scorching on the front cover which is an indication that the flames are running up the outside of the water heater instead of through the internal flue.

What do you do if you’re buying a home and your inspector tells you this? Well it could mean several different things, depending upon the purchase agreement that you have. It may mean that although this information is useful, the seller is not very concerned about it, especially if it’s completely functional. On the other hand, the prospect of getting a getting a large repair bill shortly after you move in may be very alarming to you. So, what does it mean that a water heater has reached the end of its life expectancy? Most experts agree that a typical gas, tank style water heater has an average life expectancy of approximately 12 years. Many water heaters will run quite a bit longer than this, particularly if you have favorable water quality, only a couple of people living in the house, and a good quality tank. On the other hand, it is very common for water heaters to fail much earlier than 12 years, particularly if it’s a cheap or defective water tank inside the water heater. Additionally, many municipalities do not require installing an expansion tank. An expansion tank is a device with a rubber bladder inside of it that absorbs the pressure change when a water heater cools or heats up. Expansion is what happens every time your burner fires to create more hot water.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. If you are a newer home buyer, you don’t want a big repair like this or the possibility of a flood in the area of your water heater haunting you right at the beginning of your home ownership experience. Consider replacing the water heater either at the seller’s expense or at your own, or even possibly seeing if it can be wrapped into the mortgage.
  2. Always check to make sure that there is a shut off valve on the water supply going into the water heater. This will be super important because when the water heater fails it will start leaking all over the floor. Additionally, look to make sure you have a floor drain or moisture alarm on the floor. It will probably be useful to make sure that you also located the main water shut off, once again to shut down the water supply if you start leaking. They also make moisture sensing valves that can shut off the water supply to your water heater.
  3. If this isn’t your first rodeo, and you negotiated a super sweet deal on your new home purchase, you may consider putting off the water heater replacement until you can do a more advantageous job of replacement and ensure that you actually arrive at the closing table. You could decide to wait a little bit and save up some money for a new water heater. You may decide it’s time to upgrade the water heater with a better quality, more efficient, or larger water heater.
  4. Someone may advise you to purchase a home warranty to protect yourself against water heater failure. I caution you to be very careful with that approach. Warranty companies are notorious for making it difficult to get coverage. Some of them have all kinds of exclusions that will prevent you from getting service on appliances and systems over a certain age. Some will have large deductibles. And some will just be difficult to deal with the company that honors the warranty. So read the fine print and be realistic.
  5. Verify with your home inspector that the water heater is operating in a safe manner currently and make sure all carbon monoxide detectors are operating correctly and in the appropriate places.

You may be wondering what causes a typical water heater to fail. Well the culprit is corrosion. Inside a tank style water heater is a thing called a sacrificial anode. It is a magnesium or aluminum rod that sits inside the tank. Sacrificial anodes corrode easily. When the rod is completely corroded, the corrosion quickly goes after the steel tank and it’s only a short time before you spring a leak. Other causes of water heater tank failure are super thin tank walls to cut costs and make the water heater more efficient. Sometimes it is improper welding of the tank that has caused the tank wall to be too thin also.

At this point you might be wondering: what if I have an electric water heater? Electric water heaters are similar except that they have electrodes for heating the water instead of a gas flame. One nice thing about electric water heaters is that you can have a partial failure and still repair it economically by replacing the electrodes. It is common for electrodes too fail and they are an inexpensive repair for a plumber or homeowner with some knowledge of electricity to replace. But they are still susceptible to the same type of tank failure as gas tank style water heaters.

Are you in ardent DIYer? Here’s a couple videos that should give you an idea what you’re getting into: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvpnBWbyy94, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28EJjUDtKiE, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQ1FSw2xVUs.

Here some other great resources to learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kjabzIcLRA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEBFk7S_Suk.