Water heater installation 101: a basic guide

With a little research and some moderate plumbing skills, a water heater installation shouldn’t be a daunting prospect. However, depending on the water heater you choose, installing it yourself may require a level of comfort working with gas, electricity and hot water. If these are not areas you wish to explore, it is always a smart (and safe) bet to consult a professional. [Photo credit: istock.com: Minerva Studios]

Water heater installation 101: a basic guide

Time: 1 day
Frequency: As required
Difficulty: Moderate
Tools: Adjustable wrench, Teflon tape, tube cutter, electrical tape, soldering torch, safety glasses, pipe wrench, appropriate piping, pressure-relief valve, discharge pipe, solder, fittings.

It’s best to replace an ailing hot water heater early on before you’re faced with an emergency replacement job. Installation can be challenging, but once done, you’ll be rewarded with reliable hot water and fewer maintenance concerns.

Step 1: Does your water heater need replacing?

The lifespan of the average hot-water heater is about seven-15 years. Even if yours has been going strong past this range, it’s worth keeping up on maintenance and you may consider replacing it to ensure its efficiency and longevity. Signs of concern include:

  • Leaks and drips, especially if the water is rust-coloured.
  • Rusting around the top, sides or bottom of your water heater.
  • Living in a hard-water environment, where scale and rust can build up on the inside of your water heater and prevent efficient functioning (or turn water brown).

Step 2: Out with the old

You might want to grab an extra pair of hands for the removal since hot-water heaters tend to weigh around 68 kg (150 lbs). Gas- and electric-water heaters are similar to remove and install.

  • Make sure you’ve got all your tools, a permit (if required), and have an inspector check out your set-up if you notice anything that requires special handling, such as aluminum wiring
  • Turn the shutoff valve to stop the water and gas or power, drain the pipes by opening a faucet and wait until the water has cooled.
  • Drain the water heater with a garden hose attached to the drain valve.
  • Use a tube cutter to cut off the hot- and cold-water lines as low as you can if they’re hard-plumbed. Adapters can just be unscrewed and disconnected.
  • Have someone help you move the old heater away or use a dolly and proper lifting techniques.

Good to know!

Prior to the installation, check local codes to discover if you need a permit, and ask a plumbing inspector for any advice that might be helpful.

Step 3: In with the new

Installing a brand new water heater is fairly challenging, but being thorough will save the need to go back and make adjustments.

  • Screw in the temperature and pressure relief (TPR) valve wrapped in Teflon tape using a wrench and then attach the copper discharge pipe. It will open automatically when the pressure or temperature gets too high.
  • The hot-water outlet and cold-water inlet need copper adapters soldered to the ports of the hot-water heater, but if you have particularly corrosive water, you can add plastic-lined nipples to decrease erosion.
  • If you have an electric water heater, make sure the electrical rating is high enough to handle the connections.
  • Get the hot-water heater in place and attach the copper adapters to the old tubing. You can use copper slip couplings to solder the tubes together.
  • Put the vent snugly over the draft hood and fasten the vent with sheet metal screws, ensuring that the vent rises at least 30 cm (12 in.) before bending at the elbow.
  • Attach the gas line again, using two wrenches. Make sure the threaded ends are wrapped in Teflon tape or joint compound for a tight seal with no leaks.

Good to know!

Tankless water heaters have their pros and cons as well, and require the same amount of installation work with a higher upfront cost. They are more efficient than traditional gas- and electric-water heaters, but don’t have the capacity to handle multiple hot water users at once.

Step 4: Inspecting your work

If everything’s connected correctly, you should now have hot water flowing.

  • Fill the tank. You can do this by closing the drain valve, turning the shutoff back on and opening the cold-water valve. Test out your results by opening a hot-water faucet and then inspect your newly jointed hot-water heater for any leaks.
  • For gas water heaters, you’ll want to check the backdraft to make sure dangerous fumes like carbon monoxide are venting properly. With a faucet still open to spark the gas burner, wave a smoking match around the edge of the draft hood. If the smoke doesn’t vent up, turn off the gas and have a licensed plumber fix the issue.
  • If the backdraft is drawing fumes up, it’s time to check for gas leaks at points of connection. A diluted solution of dishwashing liquid and water will bubble when brushed over the joints. Tighten or reconnect to fix this.
  • Gas water heaters will have a pilot light that will either be lit with an ignition button or a match. Once lit, you can adjust the temperature. Electric water heaters will have a panel for you to turn the power on so the water will heat.

Good to know!

Before lighting the pilot light or turning on the power, it’s a good idea to have an electrical or plumbing inspector ensure all connections were made safely, especially if you’ve had any leaks.

Proper planning, the right tools and a little elbow grease can ensure your water heater installation is completed safely and securely. With only minor maintenance, your new water heater should provide you with hot showers and clean dishes for years to come.

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