When to Replace a Water Heater
If it ain't broke, then don't, um… you know how this goes.
That's pretty much our advice when it comes to water heaters. As long as it's still making your water hot, then let it do its thing. If you're wondering when to replace a water heater and want the simplest possible answer, well, there it is!
More often than not, the right time to replace a water heater is when it stops working for some reason. If that hasn't happened yet, then your water heater is most likely fine.
But there is one big exception to that rule. Ok, four big exceptions.
We'll get to all four in just a bit. But first, let's consider some of the most common water heater problems that do indicate it's time to replace the unit.
1. Things are looking rusty
Over time, older water heaters can develop a lot of rust and corrosion. That's especially true when the water heater lives in a crawlspace or basement where there's a lot of moisture in the air.
Large amounts of visible rust are problematic. If the rust hasn't caused a part to fail yet, it's probably only a matter of time. Sure, you can wait for it to fail. But then you'll be stuck without hot water for an indefinite amount of time.
When a water heater is over 10 years old and has lots of visible corrosion, many people choose to replace it rather than gamble on its continued longevity. We think that's smart.
2. Leak in the tank
Some water leaks are fixable! Any time they involve a washer, valve, or pipe connection, there's a good chance we can pop off the bad part and replace it with a good one that doesn't leak.
But a leak in the tank is a whole other thing.
This can result from age and corrosion over time (see #1 above) or from something else entirely. Whatever the case, a leak in the tank itself is rarely worth trying to repair. It will be more cost effective to replace the water heater.
3. Other types of leaks
A lot of things have to go right for your water heater to make water hot and not leak while doing it. Over time, it's common for parts to wear out and cause a leak. Sometimes, we can fix the leak pretty easily. Other times, fixing it might require significant parts and labor costs.
When repair costs are equal to around a third of the cost of a new water heater, replacing the unit is usually more cost effective.
Remember: Water heaters that need significant repairs are usually pretty old. You'll likely end up fixing the water heater at a significant expense only to see it break down yet again in the not so far off future. For this reason, it's usually better to just replace it.
4. The element in your electric water heater goes bad
Here's a problem that doesn't involve water leaks. It involves the failure of a critical part.
Conventional electric water heaters contain a heating element. The element gets really hot, which in turn makes the water in the tank really hot. On a long enough time horizon, that element is going to fail. When it does — and hopefully this only happens many years after you bought the water heater! — replacing the unit is almost always more cost effective.
Does it ever make sense to replace a perfectly functional water heater?
Maybe! Remember how we mentioned that there are four exceptions to the "if your water heater ain't broke" rule? Well, here they are:
1. You want a more efficient water heater
Sometimes, water heaters last a really long time! That's good because you don't have to replace them. But the last 15 to 20 years have seen major improvements in appliance efficiency. It's not irrational or uncommon to upgrade a relatively inefficient water heater for a unit that consumes less energy.
2. You're already replacing your HVAC system
This might not be true for every HVAC contractor, but it's certainly true with us! We install and service water heaters, so if you're already replacing your HVAC system, you can often save on labor costs when you replace your old water heater at the same time.
In certain situations, the location of your water heater might even be impeding the HVAC installation. When this is the case, replacing the water heater may also expedite the HVAC system installation.
We usually wouldn't recommend this option if you have a relatively new water heater that's working fine. But if the unit is already nearing the end of its life, replacing it along with HVAC is a smart choice.
3. You're encapsulating your crawlspace and have a gas water heater
Old school natural gas water heaters and encapsulated crawlspaces don't mix.
That's because standard water heaters that use natural gas rely on a process called atmospheric combustion. They need to live in a well ventilated space so that there's enough air for the combustion process to occur safely and without the release of excess carbon monoxide.
When you encapsulate a crawlspace, you're sealing off all of the outdoor ventilation. So if there's a natural gas water heater down there, it's not going to have enough air for safe combustion.
The best way to address this issue is to replace the old water heater with a sealed combustion type, a tankless unit that mounts outdoors, or a more efficient electric unit, like a heat pump water heater.
4. Your old water heater ties into a chimney
Now we're getting into the realm of "things builders used to do that are actually really unsafe and would never fly nowadays." In older homes, it's not uncommon to see combustion appliances that vent into chimneys.
First of all, if this is your situation, have a pro perform a combustion safety test. Depending on your exhaust/chimney situation, you could have a carbon monoxide backdrafting problem. Whether or not you replace the water heater, this is a hazardous situation you should fix right away!
But even if you don't have a backdrafting issue today, you could have one down the line — especially if the chimney is an exterior type with a clay and mortar interior. This setup almost always violates contemporary building codes because it introduces a needless safety hazard.
Since there are newer, better water heaters with newer, better installation methods available, it's usually a good idea to replace the one you've got with something more modern. And safer.
5. Your water heater could cause a whole lot of damage if it leaks
When a water heater is in a crawlspace, unfinished basement, or garage, a leaky water heater usually results in minimal damage to your home. But that's definitely not the case when the water heater is located in:
- A finished basement or on the main level: The leak could destroy sections of your floor, subfloor, walls, or other interior furnishings.
- A condo or high rise building: If you have people living below or next to you in a multi-unit building, a leaky water heater could damage your condo and their condo.
In either of these situations, it can be smart to replace an old water heater even if it still works. After a certain point, the likelihood of it leaking and causing damage will become too high (and risky) for comfort.
Still unsure about when to replace a water heater? We've got you.
Most of the time, there's no reason to touch a working water heater. Just let it heat your water and don't think about it! But other times, it may not be totally clear whether you need to replace your water heater or just have it serviced.
If you live in Metro Atlanta and you're having trouble with your water heater, get in touch with us! We'll send an experienced technician to your home to diagnose the problem and point you in the right direction.