Many homeowners are paying higher energy bills because of an electric or gas water heater that is operating inefficiently. A common cause of water heaters using more energy is sediment in the bottom of the hot water tank or because of a scaled up heating element. In order for it to work efficiently you should clean sediment out of the hot water heater at least once a season. This is especially the case for rural homeowners who may be using well water that contains high amounts of dissolved solids such as calcium, or fine sand. This is true in my case, so I drain my hot water heater every year without fail.
Dirty Hot Water Heaters and Heating Elements Waste Energy
Most hot water heaters have a drain valve at the bottom of the tank. This is to allow periodic cleaning of the sediment that builds up in the tank. You can attach a garden hose to the faucet at the bottom and run it outside and clean out your hot water heater once a season. It’s a really good idea to turn off the hot water heater and wait until you get back from vacation, etc, before doing this, since you don’t want to be dealing with scalding hot water running through a garden hose not made to handle the heat. You’ll likely ruin the garden hose, burn your grass or hurt someone if you don’t wait until the water in the tank has cooled off.
The first step in draining sediment from your hot water heater is to turn the breaker off. This is very important since if you have the power on to a dry water heater, you’ll burn up the elements. Next turn the supply water valve off. Then then wait until the water cools down to lukewarm. To drain your hot water heater, you’ll need to attach a good quality garden hose to the faucet at the bottom of your tank and run it out into the yard. You might want to place the hose in a five gallon bucket, just to see what kind of sediment comes out. (Hot water heater drain valves usually accept a garden hose. Some require a screwdriver to open, others open like garden faucets.) Next, slowly open the tap to which the drain hose is attached and also lift up on the pressure release valve lever on the top of the tank to give the tank some air. If you don’t give the tank any air, only a trickle of water will come out. Opening a hot water faucet in the home is also a good idea. Once the tank is fully drained you can close the drain valve, put away the garden hose, and begin to fill up the tank, keeping the handle on the pressure relief valve up until you hear water begin to come out of it. In most homes the pressure relief valve is connected to a pipe leading outside. Once the tank is full and you are sure that it is by water coming out the pressure relief valve, you can turn on the breaker. You’ll most likely have some air in the hot water pipes in your home, so gently open faucets and allow the air to escape. If you are in doubt about any part of draining your hot water heater of sediment, have a plumber come and do it. The fellow in the YouTube video below does a good job of showing how to drain a hot water heater.
Note: If you choose to do the next step, do it while the breaker is off and before you fill the tank back up.
After you clean the sediment out of your hot water heater it’s a good idea to take a look at the heating element. Most electric water heaters have a bottom and a top heating element. Both may become scaled up by hard water, so each should be checked. It’s a good idea to check your hot water heater’s heating element every few seasons. To do this, you’ll need to safely drain your hot water heater as shown above. Make sure you turn off the water supply and the breaker and follow all the precautions I described. Remove the metal cover that covers the heating element with a screwdriver and use a multimeter to check that there is no power on the circuit. Once you have confirmed the power is off you can remove the wires, making sure you remember where they are to be reattached. Now you can use a special hot water heater element wrench to unscrew the element. You can get these at most hardware stores. Once you have unscrewed the heating element, take a look at it for signs of calcium buildup, pitting, etc. If your water heater was working fine you probably don’t need to replace it yet. On the other hand, it you were having problems making enough hot water, you might want to replace both elements and see if it helps. If you have any doubts about your ability to do this job, have a plumber do it for you.
Below is a photo showing corroded hot water heater elements, and what a new heating element looks like.
We tend to take our hot water heaters for granted. They work hard day after day providing us with hot baths and clean dishes, yet we barely pay any attention to them until they quit working. You can often avoid the high cost of replacing one by following these procedures to drain your hot water heater of sediment and by checking your hot water heater’s heating element for scale every couple of years. A cleaner hot water heater is a greener hot water heater since it will use less energy.