Water Heater 101

Hot water is one of the precious luxuries in our homes that we often forget about. When the hot water goes out, we recognize just how much of our comfort relies upon the warmth of our showers and sinks. Behind all of this hot water is a particularly mysterious appliance called a water heater. How does it work? What is this whole tankless water heater thing? Do I need to pay attention to it? HOW DO I SHUT IT OFF?! Why isn’t my water hot instantly if I have an “instant water heater”? If any of those questions sound familiar, you’re in the right place.

Tank vs Tankless Water Heaters

You’ve probably heard about tankless water heaters somewhere before, but what is the big deal? I’ll help you to understand both kinds a bit better. The main thing to know is that efficiency and installation costs are the two main factors people evaluate before choosing one solution or the other.

Tank based water heaters are what most of us are familiar with. It probably looks like a large white cylinder encasing a volume of water ready to be used. Anyone who has had guests over knows that it only takes a couple showers to deplete all of the hot water. Before it is ready again, everyone must wait until the water heater has “recharged” the supply of hot water.

A tankless water heater is a less common solutions in the United States, and functions entirely differently from a tank based system. The tankless water heater doesn’t maintain a reservoir of water at all, but rather it heats a small amount of water incredibly fast. A properly sized tankless water heater will provide a limitless flow of hot water. This means you can successfully chain multiple showers in sequence comfortably. It is incredibly important to establish that a tankless water heater requires a more skilled installer due to the requirements of the gas lining and providing a properly sized unit. The size of the gas line in most homes is generally not large enough to accommodate the increased gas flow.

If you need to have your water heater maintained, repaired or replaced, we can provide those services for you. To schedule a service call, you can reach us at (805) 316-4409

Expected Life Of a Unit

How long do water heaters last? This question can often be a quagmire of misinformation. To bring forth the real answers, we consulted our specialists here at Dutton Plumbing. They told us that a a tank based system is expected to last around 10-15 years where a tankless unit is expected to last around 15-20 years. The life of a unit is dictated by a number of factors, but one stands out from the rest, water quality.

Water Quality

Water quality in this context is best explained by the volume of sediments and minerals found in the water. As you can imagine, the more of these sediments and minerals in the water, the worse it is for the system. Almost all manufacturers recommend having a “guardian” to reduce the amount of these materials from flowing into the appliance.

Sediments and Minerals

Water that enters into a water heater often brings with it sediment and minerals like calcium and magnesium. Calcium essentially builds up in pipes and appliances like plaque on one’s teeth. This crusty material restricts flow and makes the heating process less effective. A good metaphor to help understand is to imagine a coffee maker, it heats water up on a regular basis but eventually it will become less effective as minerals build up that needs to be rinsed away with vinegar and scrubbed out. Once they’re removed, the unit can go back to a fully operational status unimpeded by the mineral build up.

Maintenance for Tank Water Heaters

Although it may seem like a dull and dreary task, maintaining a water heater will save a homeowner a lot of money and avoid a catastrophe. The most common of all problems with water heaters is a malfunction of the drain valve. To keep your valves in tip top shape, it is important to exercise the valve regularly (with the necessary precautions to shut down the unit! You could burn yourself with scalding water.) Generally speaking, the easiest way to exercise this valve is through the process of flushing. Flushing is essentially draining the water heater following the manufacturer’s instructions to reduce the sediment content of the water heater. Tank based water heater manufacturers recommend flushing a water heater annually to ensure it is operating effectively.

Cleaning the Burner Assembly and Checking Ventilation

In addition to the flushing the water heater, it is important to clean out the burner chamber assembly and check the ventilation pipes. Checking the ventilation is of paramount importance. If you take anything away from this article, this should be it: If your water heater isn’t venting correctly, you’re at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is the primary reason that we recommend that you have a professional plumber install and inspect your water heater on a regular basis.

What are Anode Rods?

Unlike tankless water heaters, tank based systems rely upon a reservoir of hot water to distribute throughout the home. Water causes rust when in contact with metal. Rust can severely impact the integrity and useful life of a water heater. Therefore, protecting against rust is a hugely important task that a water heater must be capable of. Water heaters employ an intriguing system to avoid rusting, anode rods. Anodes are metals that rust more easily than the material they are protecting, therefore the properties of water that rust metal will only affect the most susceptible metal. Anode rods are most commonly made of aluminum or magnesium, and will need to be replaced once they are depleted in order to provide proper protection. The window of time required between replacements varies based upon water quality.

Here at Dutton Plumbing, we are proud to deliver a full water heater tune upfor an economical $79! We’d love to hear our customers are performing preventative maintenance! Call today! (805) 316-4409

How does a tankless water heater work?

How does a tankless water heater provide instantaneous hot water without a reservoir? A tankless water heater works in a fundamentally different way than a tank based system, which focuses on keeping a reserve of water ready at a moments notice. A tankless water heater instead heats a small amount of water incredibly fast rate, allowing it to supply hot water a moment after the demand is made. This is triggered by a release of water, pulling cold water into the unit signals for the heater to begin heating water.

Water that passes through a tankless water heater is pulled through the unit through coiled pipes which wrap around an incredibly hot burner chamber. The water quickly increases to the desired temperature before it exits the unit. The unit continues this operation and regulates itself to more efficiently heat water as the burner heats up and the flow of water increases or decreases. This means that the water will be ready a second or two after turning on the tap. As we address in the myths section, although the term “instant water heater” is misleading. The cold water in the pipes leading to the tap will still need to be released from the pipe leading to the tap before the hot water arrives, meaning that while the water is hot a second or two after the unit activates, it still has to travel to the tap, resulting in the delay before it arrives.

Why does this all matter?

Hot water is a matter of comfort, but it can be a source of frustration when hot water is inconsistent. A tankless water heater offers one distinct advantage over a tank based system which is the promise of a continuous flow of hot water. Consider the classic holiday example 2-3 showers or so in the morning might be fine for a 40-70 gallon tank, 3+ showers in a morning will quickly exceed the capacity of a tank based system. The same situation allows for all of the members of the family to enjoy hot showers in quick succession.

Let’s talk about cost saving for a little bit here. While a tankless water heater can provide hot water on demand, is it really a more efficient system? Absolutely. A tankless system doesn’t have to maintain the heat of the water in the unit like a tank based system. This means that the system can reduce its power and gas consumption to zero in periods of inactivity. This means that your unit is saving money in the periods of inactivity. The cost of natural gas is generally one of the lowest bills a homeowner will pay. As a result, the savings will primarily come from the longer lifetime of the unit itself.

Maintenance forTankless Water Heaters

Tankless water heaters are fancy little boxes, do I still need to maintain it? Absolutely. A tankless water heater is an impressive piece of technology, but it isn’t perfect and it needs a little help every once in a while. It is important to establish that any maintenance should be performed on a unit that has been properly shut down to avoid serious skin burns or damage to the equipment. Manufacturers recommend that a tankless water heater is flushed roughly every 12-18 months. Around this time, there is a high likelihood that calcium and other sediments are beginning to impact the effectiveness of the unit. Going back to the idea of flushing, the process of doing so is fairly straightforward, but as all units are slightly different, we recommend following the manufacturer’s instructions or having a professional perform the flush for you.

Just like a tank based water heater, it is important to disassemble the burner chamber, clean it out and unclog any blocked or clogged burners. If these burners are clogged up the unit will begin to struggle when heating water, putting wear on the system. Unlike a tank water heater, the tankless unit has fans that need to be checked, cleaned, and maintained. These fans help provide the oxygen needed to mix with the natural gas for combustion. If these fans slow down or stop working the unit will not be able to provide enough heat to the coils, resulting in less than hot water.


“Water Heaters are a Viable Source of Drinkable Water”

It has been purported that having a tank based water heater is an ideal solution to a drinking water crisis after an earthquake or natural disaster. However, there are various reasons why it is a very bad idea to drink the water stored in a water heater. The primary reason is because of the chemicals present from the anode rods. The compounds resulting from aluminum anode rods can be very hard on your stomach and intestines when ingested. Magnesium anodes don’t create dangerous compounds like the aluminum rods, but it can serve as a food source for odor creating SRB bacteria (sulfur reducing bacteria) growing in a water heater. This bacteria is the second reason why we recommend not drinking this water from a water heater.

“I have an ‘instant water heater’, why isn’t my water hot instantly?”

One of the most infuriating problems with any water heater, is the delay one can experience before receiving hot water at a faucet, shower, or appliance. Although it has been said that tankless water heaters provide instantaneous hot water, that is not necessarily saying that hot water will be ready the moment that you turn on a tap in one’s home. The reason for this delay has nothing to do with the type of water heater, but rather the distance between the water heater to the point of use.

The further the distance between the water heater and the point of use, a longer delay one can experience before hot water arrives at the tap. If a homeowner has a unit installed directly adjacent to the point of use, they can expect instantaneous hot water. If a point of use is on the other side of the home it will take significantly longer for hot water to arrive. Another method of reducing this delay in hot water is to use what is called a recirculation pump. As the name implies, the pump keeps hot water flowing through your pipes so there is a supply of hot water ready at a moment’s notice instead of water that has already cooled down.

Solutions: Recirculation pumps, point of use water heaters, reduce distance to point of use.

We hope that this was a valuable guide to understanding water heaters, the value of maintenance, and some of the myths that are out there. If you have information, myths, or corrections to this material, reach out to us with an email via service@duttonplumbing.com.

WATER HEATER EMERGENCY SHUTOFF (General - Follow Manufacturer’s instructions)

Shutting off your water heater in an emergency is a simple process that can save your home from a lot of unintentional damage in a catastrophic failure. To walk you through the process, follow the steps below:

  1. Unplug the unit’s electrical cord. This will ensure that any functioning of the unit ceases.

  2. 1/4 turn on the gas valve will cease any gas from entering the unit.

  3. 1/4 turn on the water valve will stop new water from entering the unit.

  4. The unit is now disabled, but is still full of water. Should you need to drain the unit, please follow the manufacturer's instructions for draining the water heater.

Have an emergency situation? Call now to schedule emergency service (805) 316-4409