What you need to know about your water heater

July 27, 2015

A water heater is an essential part of any home, and yet many Canadians don't know how to safely maintain theirs. Here's what you need to know about water heaters, and how you can keep yours running smoothly for years to come.

What you need to know about your water heater

Water heaters: what are they and how do they work?

A water heater (often called a "hot-water heater") is basically an insulated bottle with a heater.

  • One pipe carries cold water to the heater; another pipe carries hot water out.
  • As hot water is drawn out of the tank, cold water enters.
  • This lowers the temperature in the tank, causing a thermostat to activate and call for heat.

Your water heater will be one of two models:

  1. Gas model: In a gas model, a burner beneath the tank kicks in and heats the water to the desired setting. Harmful by-products of combustion are drawn out via a flue that runs up the middle of the tank and out of the house.
  2. Electric model: In an electric model, heating elements inside the tank perform the same function. The tank is insulated on the inside to hold the water temperature as steady as possible to limit the number of times the burners must turn on. Because they do not produce fumes, electric heaters require no venting.

Your basement is more than likely the location for appliances that heat and condition your water. Not only do these systems need regular maintenance, the basement itself needs to be defended from incoming moisture.

Keep up with regular maintenance

Water heaters actually require very little attention. There are just a couple of precautions you should take.

  • Drain your water heater every year or so. Near the bottom is a small tap to which you can attach a garden hose. By draining a few litres (or quarts) of water, you remove scale, sediment, rust and mineral deposits that settle on the bottom and reduce heat transfer. If you find a significant amount of sediment, repeat this every few months until the drained water runs clear again.
  • Check the anode rod, a sacrificial metal piece that diverts corrosion from the sides of the tank, every few years; replacing one that is encrusted will extend the life of the water heater. Some newer water heaters don't have this rod.

Check the flue for fumes

If the flue on your gas water heater is not installed correctly, harmful carbon monoxide fumes will enter your house. A quick check to see if it is drawing properly:

  • Light a match, blow it out and hold it near the base of the flue (at the top of the water heater). If the smoke is quickly sucked up into the flue, it is drawing well.
  • Check the pipe at all points to make sure there are no large gaps where fumes can escape; make sure each joint is tight and connected with two screws.

To be completely sure, have your gas company send someone out to check for carbon monoxide. They should do this for free.

Try using a water heater blanket

An insulating blanket made with 2.5 to five centimetres (an inch or two) of fibreglass bonded to a vinyl cloth backing can keep your hot water hot for longer, saving on the cost of reheating it.

  • Available at home centres, they are designed to fit specific sizes of water heaters.
  • They are available for both electric heaters and gas heaters.
  • Blankets for electric heaters cover the entire unit.
  • Gas heater blankets surround only the middle of the tank so that the material has no chance to block the flue or get near the open flame of the burner.
  • Some gas heater manufacturers, in fact, prohibit the use of these blankets with their product.

Understanding and maintaining your water heater may be less complicated than you think. Follow these tips and get the most out of a water heater that will last for years!

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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