How to check if water heater is working

How to Tell if Water Heater is Working?

Most of us take for granted having hot water available at the turn of a faucet. But it can be incredibly frustrating when your hot water runs out or doesn’t get hot enough. A water heater that isn’t operating optimally can leave you with lukewarm showers, cold laundry cycles, and dirty dishes that won’t get clean.

The good news is that there are several easy ways to check if your water heater is working correctly. Attention to these signs can help you identify and resolve problems before they escalate into costly repairs or complete water heater replacement. This guide will walk you through how to tell if water heater is working and when to call a professional.

Check the Temperature

The most straightforward way to check your water heater’s performance is by testing the temperature of the hot water. Here’s how:

What Temperature Should the Water Be?

For most standard tank water heaters, you should expect a range between 120°F on the low and 140°F on the high end. Temperatures below 115°F indicate your heater isn’t getting hot enough. Temperatures above 150°F are dangerously hot and can lead to scalding.

Test at Several Faucets

Don’t just test the temperature from one faucet, like the kitchen sink. Check various hot water taps throughout the house, such as bathtubs, showers, and exterior hose faucets. The water temp should be within an acceptable range at each one. Significant differences in temperature from one faucet to another can indicate a problem.

Test First Thing in the Morning

For the most accurate reading, test the water first thing in the morning before anyone has used hot water. This ensures that you get the proper temperature range and not water that has cooled down while sitting in pipes overnight.

Use a Thermometer

Testing by hand can be deceiving, so use an accurate thermometer to get a precise temperature reading. Thermometer types designed specifically for water testing are available at hardware stores for just a few dollars.

If your hot water temperatures are outside the normal range, it likely means repairs are needed. Low water temperatures are usually caused by a faulty heating element or sediment buildup inside the tank. High temperatures point to a problem with the thermostat control.

Check Recovery Time

Check Recovery Time

Recovery time refers to how quickly your water heater can reheat water once it’s been used. Here’s how to test it:

Drain Several Gallons

Use a faucet, such as in the bathtub or laundry room sink, to drain out several gallons of hot water- enough to cause the temperature to turn cold.

Note the Time

Once the water runs cold, please turn off the faucet and start timing how long the hot water will return.

Check Temperature

After you notice hot water returning, double-check the temperature. It should reheat back up to the same range you verified initially.

Expect 30-45 Minutes

Allow 30- 45 minutes for a properly operating gas heater to fully recover. Electric heaters will be a bit slower, at 45-60 minutes. If it takes significantly longer than that, your water heater likely needs maintenance.

Faster than average recovery times can indicate a problem, too. That could mean you have a weakening heating element working in overdrive.

Inspect the Flame

If you have a gas water heater, inspecting the pilot light flame can provide clues into how well it’s running.

Locate the Viewing Window

Stand near the base of your heater and look for a small glass window. This lets you see the pilot light and main burner flame when the heater operates.

Check the Pilot Light

You should see a small, steady blue flame at the pilot light. If the pilot is out or flickering, you must relight it by following the manufacturer’s instructions. A persistently unstable pilot indicates an underlying problem, like blocked gas supply lines or a faulty thermocouple sensor.

Observe the Burner

When hot water is in use, the main burner will ignite. The flame should burn evenly across the burner surface with a bright blue or blue-green color. Small amounts of yellow at the tips are regular, but widespread yellow flames or sooting indicate inefficient gas combustion.

Know When to Call for Help

If you see any significant issues with the pilot or burner flames, don’t use the water heater until it can be serviced. Abnormal flames are a symptom of critical safety issues that a technician can properly diagnose.

Check for Leaks

It’s important to periodically inspect your water heater for any signs of leaking in the tank and connected pipes. Here are a few things to look out for:

Check Below the Tank

Stand around the base of your water heater and look for water puddling on the floor. Check beneath pipes for dripping as well. Even occasional drops can be a red flag.

Look for Rust Coloring

Carefully examine the bottom and sides of the water heater tank. Rust-colored staining, mineral deposits, or water trails indicate a leak.

Monitor the T&P Valve

Ensure the temperature and pressure relief valve pipe isn’t dripping or leaking steam. This can happen if the pressure gets too high or the valve is broken.

Sniff for Gas Odor

If you have a gas water heater, smell near the unit for any trace of rotten eggs or sulfurous odors, which are signs of a dangerous gas leak.

Even minor leaks should be addressed quickly to avoid more significant problems. Most leaks are faulty T&P valves, loose inlet/outlet connections, or corrosion.

Check Pressure

Monitoring water pressure at your taps can also indicate issues with your water heater. Here’s what to look out for:

Verify Static Pressure

Static pressure is the baseline water pressure in your home’s plumbing system when no water flows. Attach a pressure gauge to an outdoor hose faucet and turn it on slightly. The reading should fall between 30 to 80 psi.

Note Pressure Drops

Now check the pressure when multiple fixtures, like a shower and washing machine, are running hot water at the same time. If you experience a significant drop in pressure greater than 10-15 psi, it likely means an insufficient hot water supply.

Isolate the Problem

To test if the water heater is the culprit, turn off the cold water supply to the heater. Then, check the pressure again while the hot water is running. If the pressure drop only happens when hot water is flowing, your heater isn’t keeping up with demand.

Inadequate pressure can mean sediment buildup in the tank, a heating element not firing at total capacity, or a unit too small for your needs.

Monitor Hot Water Volume

Monitor Hot Water Volume

In addition to checking water temperature and pressure, pay attention to the overall quantity of hot water you’re getting.

Here are some warning signs:

Hot Water Runs Out Quickly

If you aren’t spending as much time in hot showers or running the dishwasher depletes your entire hot water supply, it likely indicates that the heater is underperforming and unable to keep up with usage.

Hot Water Needs Perky Up Over Time

Even if you are getting adequate hot water initially, notice if you need to turn up the heat on appliances like your dishwasher gradually. This decrease in temperature can indicate sediment buildup.

Low Flow at Faucets

Check the strength of hot water flow at sinks around your home. Low flow or sputtering pressure that wasn’t an issue before can mean a blockage or heating problem is reducing hot water output.

Rumbling Noises

Listen for rumbling or percolating noises coming from your water heater. This often means sediment accumulation is interfering with heat transfer.

Decreased hot water volume should be addressed quickly before lack of heat causes the tank to crack or leak.

Check the Anode Rod

The anode rod is a crucial but often overlooked water heater component. This metal rod absorbs corrosion instead of allowing it to damage the inner tank lining.

Here’s how to inspect it:

Locate the Anode Rod

On most standard water heaters, the anode rod sticks out of the tank’s top. It looks like a thick bolt protruding through a metal hex nut.

Remove It

Use a socket wrench to unscrew and remove the anode rod. This takes some muscle but can be done by a DIYer.

Check for Damage

A properly functioning rod should be straight and shiny with a whitish-gray color. It must be replaced if the rod is bent, pitted, or black. Significant diameter reduction also indicates depletion.

Replace if Needed

If the anode rod shows wear, have it replaced? This inexpensive part preserves your tank’s life. Refit the rod snugly without overtightening.

Schedule Annual Inspections

Before checking your anode rod, don’t wait for hot water issues. Plan to remove and inspect it annually to catch damage early. Setting a yearly calendar reminder is helpful.

Consider Upgrading

Some homeowners upgrade to an aluminum anode rod, which is more durable than the standard magnesium rod. You can also install an electronic anode rod that actively counteracts corrosion. Ask your plumber about these enhanced options.

Check for Sediment Buildup

Over time, scale and mineral deposits accumulate at the bottom of your water heater tank. Excess sediment buildup hampers heat transfer and water pressure. Checking for sediment annually helps avoid more costly repairs down the road.

Drain the Tank

Carefully drain a few gallons of water from the tank’s drain valve. Do this when the heater is off and the water has thoroughly cooled.

Examine the Water

Check the color and clarity of the drained water. Rusty, cloudy water, or visible sediment particles indicate that scale needs to be removed.

Remove the Heat Traps

For a more thorough inspection, unscrew the “heat traps” near the tank inlet and outlet pipes. Then, shine a flashlight inside to look for sediment coating the tank’s bottom.

Flush the Tank

A tank flush is needed if you confirm a buildup of scale, mineral deposits, or rust. Hire a plumber to backwash the tank and clear out accumulation professionally.

Annual tank draining and flushing maintenance can help combat scale before it causes more significant functionality issues.

Know When to Call A Professional

Call A Professional if Water Heater is Working

While handy homeowners can perform the checks in this article, there are certain situations where it’s safest to call in a trained plumbing technician:

  • You smell gas coming from the water heater
  • The pilot light repeatedly goes out
  • Burner flames look abnormal
  • Leaks are coming from the tank itself
  • The pressure relief valve is dripping
  • The electronic control panel is malfunctioning

Certified plumbers have specialized expertise, tools, and safety knowledge to diagnose complex water heater problems properly. Don’t take risks attempting repairs on gas lines, valves, gas control systems, or electrical components on your own.

Technicians can also access proprietary testing tools to fully evaluate your unit’s functionality if you’re experiencing intermittent or vague issues. Calling for assistance early rather than allowing problems to worsen is better.

Professional maintenance checks can also catch minor issues before they become serious. Some manufacturers recommended getting a tune-up annually.

Extend the Life of Your Water Heater

With proper maintenance and care, you can maximize the lifespan of your water heater and avoid untimely leaks or breakdowns.

Here are some tips:

  • Drain sediment from the tank annually
  • Inspect and replace anode rod routinely
  • Keep areas around the heater clean and accessible
  • Address any minor drips or leaks immediately
  • Maintain stable water pressure around 50 psi
  • Limit temperature settings to 120°F to avoid overheating
  • Leave the tank some “head space,” and don’t max out capacity

You must remove and clean heating coils and clear intake filters with tankless water heaters. Following the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule is critical.

Stay alert to changes in your hot water quality, volume, or functionality. Addressing minor issues promptly reduces risk and extends the service life.

Know When It’s Time to Replace

If your water heater is over ten years old, replacement may be preferable to continued costly repairs. Newer units are more energy efficient, with better insulation and heat transfer capabilities.

Here are signs indicating replacement:

  • Frequent sediment buildup, no matter how often you flush the tank
  • Persistent temperature fluctuations
  • Ongoing pressure issues
  • Rusty water coming from taps
  • Steady decrease in hot water volume
  • Regular need to relight the pilot light
  • Visible tank leaks or cracks

Upgrading to a tankless water heater is another option gaining popularity. Though expensive upfront, they heat water on demand, meaning you never run out of hot water. They are space-saving and highly energy-efficient.

Discuss your replacement options with a professional installer. They can help select the suitable capacity and fuel source for your home’s needs.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

To recap, here are some troubleshooting tips for the most frequent water heater problems:

Not Enough or Lukewarm Hot Water

  • Turn up the thermostat and verify the temperature at the faucet
  • Check recovery time after draining the tank
  • Remove and inspect heating elements
  • Flush tank to clear sediment buildup
  • Ensure the undersized unit isn’t being overloaded

Rumbling or Percolating Noises

  • Drain sediment out and examine for buildup
  • Make sure the tank is full of water
  • Check that the flame is burning cleanly and not obstructed

Slow Water Pressure

  • Inspect pipes and faucets for blockages
  • Monitor pressure at high usage times
  • Compare hot and cold pressure to isolate the issue
  • Drain and flush the tank to remove the scale

Leaking T&P Valve

  • Ensure the valve discharge pipe is clear
  • Check the water pressure and softness
  • Replace old or faulty T&P valve
  • Install thermal expansion tank if needed

Pilot Light Keeps Going Out

  • Check gas line valves are fully open
  • Clean or replace the thermocouple sensor
  • Upgrade to electronic ignition if continually happening


How to Tell if Water Heater is Working

Monitoring your water heater doesn’t need to be complicated or time-consuming. Focus on occasionally checking for crucial functionality indicators like hot water temperature, recovery time, pressure, leaks, and sediment buildup.

Pay attention to changes in your appliance’s average performance. Minor adjustments and maintenance can now avoid repairs or replacements down the road. Knowing when to call for professional service provides peace of mind.

With some regular TLC, your water heater can reliably deliver hot water for many years. Confirm it’s working correctly so you can stop worrying about cold showers!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can I improve my electric water heater’s efficiency?

A: Wrap a water heater insulation blanket around the tank, set a temperature no higher than 120°F, and install heat traps on inlet/outlet pipes to retain heat.

Q: Does water quality affect my water heater?

A: Hard water with high mineral content can lead to sediment buildup. Install a water softener if needed.

Q: How do I relight my water heater pilot light?

A: Turn the gas valve to the “pilot” position, push down the reset button, and hold a lit match to the pilot opening to ignite it.

Q: What color should the burner flame be?

A: A normal burner flame is blue or blue-green. Yellow, flickering flames indicate combustion issues that should be addressed.

Q: How often should the anode rod be replaced?

A: Inspect annually and replace when the diameter is reduced by 6-8mm or pitting/corrosion is visible. Standard rods may need replacement every 2-5 years.

Q: Can I replace my water heater?

A: Only attempt replacement if you have intermediate to advanced DIY skills. Gas line connections should be left to professionals. Always follow local permit codes.

About the author

Lisa Alther

Lisa Alther is a farmer of words in the field of creativity. She is an experienced independent content writer with a demonstrated history of working in the writing and editing industry. She is a multi-niche content chef who loves cooking new things.

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