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Make sure water heaters have about two feet of clearance around them to keep air circulating freely. Image: Mr. Rooter/HouseLogic
Hot water is one of life’s conveniences that’s always there — except when it isn’t. Hot water heater malfunctions are rare, but when they happen, life gets turned upside down, especially during the colder months.
Water heater maintenance isn’t on everyone’s radar, which is why taking the time to help someone out with this little chore is such a good idea. Here’s what you need to do to keep the hot water flowing:
Make sure there’s at least 2 feet of clearance around the water heater so air can circulate freely and there’s no combustible materials near the heating element.
Flush the appliance to remove any debris and sediment in the bottom of the tank. Hook up a garden hose to the drain valve and put the discharge end of the hose next to a floor drain. Run until the water is clear. This also helps the appliance operate more efficiently, saving money on energy costs.
Check the temperature-pressure relief valve by putting a pan or heavy towel under the end of the valve discharge pipe, then quickly opening and shutting the valve a couple of times. After the test, check for leaks from the valve.
Check the sacrificial anode rod by loosening the screw that holds it in place — look for a large, hex-head (six-sided) cap on top of the tank. Unscrew the cap and remove the rod. (The purpose of the rod is to attract corrosive elements inside the tank so those elements won’t attack the tank itself.)
If the rod is eaten away (this is normal) and more than six inches of the inner core wire is exposed, replace the rod. Replacement rods are readily available at home improvement centers or heating supply stores, and cost $20 to $30.
Here are some tips to keep a water heater running safely and at peak efficiency:
Set the thermostat to 120 degrees to reduce wear on the heating elements and to avoid accidental scalding.
Insulate the water heater with a fiberglass jacket (about $25) to improve thermal performance.
If you’re leaving town, set the thermostat on a gas heater to the “vacation” setting; that’ll keep the pilot light on without heating up the water in the tank.
When you’re done, give your loved one a bonus gift by washing their dishes!
Got an idea for helping out a neighbor or family member with home improvement and maintenance chores?
has written seven books on home improvement and hundreds of articles on home-related topics. He’s been a residential builder, the editorial director of the Black & Decker Home Improvement Library, and the executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine.