Best Practices in Water Heating
Learn more about your water heater and what to consider for your building codes, climate and safety measures.
When you turn on your faucet or shower, have you ever wondered how you actually get hot water? Ever consider how fast it happens, or how hot the water is? It’s all thanks to your water heater. A traditional water heater is a large tank of water found in your home or place of business that heats and holds water for as-needed purposes. It heats water with either a gas or an electrical heating element and stores it for whenever you want to shower, wash the dishes, or do laundry. A water heater is an essential component of modern plumbing and requires routine maintenance and a few add-ons to keep running smoothly throughout its lifetime. Add-ons include an exhaust vent, earthquake straps and an expansion tank, which are all mandatory for most water heaters and boilers as mandated by the state of California.
Water heaters are constantly (and repeatedly) being filled with water and heated. Filled and heated. Over and over again. If left unchecked, this process causes several adverse things to happen to the integrity of the tank – all of which can be avoided if it is properly serviced at least once a year. The service includes an inspection of all the connecting pipes and valves, a flushing out of the tank to clear it of sediments, and an inspection of the anode rod. Flushing out the system helps clear unwanted sediment and calcium from building up and helps to raise the efficiency of the water tank. It also helps to keep the tank functioning properly and increases the hot water quality. The inspection of the anode rod is especially important. The anode rod, also known as the sacrificial rod, is designed to corrode so that your tank doesn’t. Checking the state of your rod assures its proper function. The rod should be changed if more than six inches of the core steel is visible, if the rod is less than ½ inch thick, or if it is corroded with limescale buildup.
Gas-fired traditional storage water tanks produce fumes and carbon monoxide, which is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, but highly toxic. To avoid fatal air poisoning,
it is imperative that tanks have an exhaust vent to allow these dangerous fumes to be released. It also ensures that the tanks will not explode. One of the most dangerous potential occurrences for a gas fired water heater is a phenomenon called backdrafting. Backdrafting occurs when oxygen is rapidly re-introduced into an oxygen-depleted environment. Much like when a window breaks during a building fire, the new oxygen from the outside causes the fire to get bigger and burn faster. A few warning signs of a backdraft are smoke pulsating through small gaps in openings, blue flames, soot-blackened windows, and air being drawn in that makes a whistling sound. Poor ventilation around the tank and heating element is a primary reason why a water heater would start to backdraft. Always remember that proper ventilation is crucially important when dealing with any kind of gas.
Due largely to the frequency of earthquakes throughout the state, California requires that all water heaters, regardless of whether they are gas or electric powered, be equipped with earthquake straps to resist motion during a seismic event. Since 1982, the uniform plumbing code has also mandated that seismic safety straps be used for most water heaters. If a water heater were to topple during an earthquake, water damage, fire or even an explosion could be the result. Earthquake straps are metal, anchored to the wall, and wrap completely around the circumference of the tank. If you purchase your own straps, make sure that they do wrap completely around the tank, as some strapping kits available at hardware stores fail to comply with this requirement. The straps should be tied at the top third and bottom third of the tank and rest at a minimum of 4” above the water heater control unit. They need to be anchored to the wall with quarter inch by 3-inch-long lag bolts to ensure proper strength and compliance with California state regulations.
One of the most overlooked issues for a water heater is the excess amount of water caused by thermal expansion. Thermal expansion occurs when water molecules heat up. As they heat up, the molecules move faster and as a result, water expands. On average, when a 50-gallon water heater heats up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the amount of liquid in the tank expands to approximately 52 gallons. Those two extra gallons of water are a big deal. They can create unnecessary strain on your plumbing system, cause premature wear and tear to the pipes and ultimately diminish the integrity of the entire system. They create more volume and pressure, which puts a lot of stress on the plumbing leading to and from the tank, and often cause water to leak from the temperature and pressure (T&P) valve at the top of the tank. But all is not lost. The simple solution to these common issues is what plumbers refer to as an expansion tank.
An expansion tank is a small tank, roughly two gallons, typically installed closer to the cold line source. It is divided into two main compartments: the first contains water, the second, an air bladder or diaphragm. The air bladder and diaphragm create breathing room for the thermal expansion process. Expansion tanks are used mainly in what are called closed systems. A closed system is built the way it’s named – closed, with anti-siphon or anti-back flow valves preventing excess water from ever being pushed back to the original water source - either the city water main or well water line. The result is, the new thermally expanded water in the system has nowhere to go. With an expansion tank, when the pressure builds, the extra water now has somewhere to go, and stress on the whole system is relieved. Pinhole or slab leaks are much less frequent as a result, and most water heater manufacturers now require the use of an expansion tank for the warranty on the water heater tank to be valid.
Just like your water heater, your expansion tank needs to be tested at least once a year, and testing it is simple. You can do it yourself. Use the tire pressure gauge from your car or bicycle. Just push it into the tank’s pressure release valve and pressurized air should come out. However, if water comes out instead, then the bladder in the expansion tank has failed and the expansion tank unit needs to be completely replaced. When you measure it, the air pressure within the expansion tank should match the water pressure, ideally between 50 to 60 pounds per square inch (PSI). Water pressure can be tested by placing a pressure gauge on a hose bib or you can simply call your water supply company and they will be able to give you this information. For accurate pressure readings in a closed system, turn on the hot water from either your sink or shower to get the water running. This will ensure the correct amount of air is added to your expansion tank bladder. On average, the lifespan of a water heater is between 10 to 12 years, while expansion tanks last anywhere from 5 to 10 years. When installing a new water heater and expansion tank system, carefully consider both the manufacturer and model, as well as the system’s location in your home or business. Without exception, systems should be installed indoors, and in an area not subject to freezing temperatures. Expansion tanks are typically designed to be installed in a vertical position. However, if a vertical position is not possible due to limited space, the expansion tank can be installed in a horizontal position, as long as it is done so with adequate support, such as strapping from the manufacturer. Routine testing and maintenance will optimize the performance of your water heater and expansion tank and extend their lifespan.
Over time, sediment accumulates inside your water heater, and will need to be cleaned out. Doing so will ensure that all the hot water being generated by the heater will actually get to you. It will also keep your pipes from corroding and damaging your property, saving you potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in costly repairs. Failure to routinely flush and clean a water heater results in faster corrosion, diminishing water quality and bacterial growth within the water heater tank, all of which you want to avoid. Poor quality water appears rust-colored, while bacterial growth in the tank causes an odor like rotten eggs. Keep an eye out for condensation on the outside of a water heater – it is a tell-tale sign that you have an issue. A licensed plumber will need to drain your water heater tank, flush out the sediment, check out all the component parts, then test the water pressure and temperature to ensure it is all up to code and performs at an optimal level. With gas powered water heaters, the gas burner will need to be serviced if the pilot light does not burn steadily or if it is yellow in color. The flame should be bright blue in color.
Hard water can be an issue in a lot of areas around the US, as it contributes to the accumulation of sediment and mineral deposits in your system. In these areas, descaling is necessary to combat hard water and improve the health and longevity of your system. Descaling removes the sediment and mineral deposits throughout the entire system by using a mixture of water and vinegar. It can take up to an hour to thoroughly flush out and fully demineralize the system. In addition to flushing the unit, its air filter and in-line water filters should both also be cleaned and/or changed. This maintenance should occur annually, or semi-annually for areas with hard water or colder climates. This is especially important for tankless water heaters.
Tankless water heaters are the current state-of-the-art in water heater technology. They eliminate the need for a storage tank by attaching a heating element directly to the water supply line in your home, making it more efficient than a standard storage tank water heater. A one-foot-by-two-feet coil is used to heat the water as it goes through the pipes, making it ideal for smaller homes with confined space limitations. Tankless heaters are still susceptible to corrosion and need some maintenance much like traditional water heaters do, however, they need them much less often. The initial cost of a tankless heater is greater than a traditional tank heater, but it has a longer lifespan and can have a lower operating cost due to its higher energy efficiency. Tankless parts are typically more readily available and are cheaper as well. A traditional water heater’s lifespan is typically around 10 to 15 years, while a tankless can last up to 20 years.
The installation of your water heater, expansion tank or tankless system needs to be done in line with your climate and building codes, and with consideration to all the safety measures required. Hiring a licensed plumber or contractor to install either type of water heater helps ensure that all the proper steps have been taken, and that all the safety codes have been met. ASAP Drain Guys & Plumbing recommends best practices for all water heating units, which include: securing the tank with earthquake straps, adding an exhaust vent, having an expansion tank installed for all traditional water heaters (especially to properties where one water heater is used for multiple units), and draining and cleaning the sediment out of your traditional storage tank or tankless water heater at least once a year. If you have questions or concerns about your tankless or traditional storage tank water heaters, it is best to always contact a professional. ASAP Drain Guys & Plumbing has been in the industry and installing water heaters since 2001. We have affordable, speedy, and professional service ready for all your plumbing and drain needs.
About the authors:
Elvira Ocampo is ASAP's Strategic Marketing and Sales Analyst responsible for developing business partnerships and providing education on their services.
Brooke Marmolejo is ASAP's Strategic Sales and RFP Analyst responsible for maintaining our strategic partnerships and analyzing bids and estimates.