Water Heaters: Repair or Replace?

When deciding whether to repair or replace a water heater, consider its age, the severity of the problem, and how much money a new energy-efficient unit will save.

Palml Coast, FL – May 3, 2010

Article From Houselogic.com
By: Joe Bousquin
Published: August 28, 2009
When deciding whether to repair or replace a water heater, consider its age, the severity of the problem, and how much money a new energy-efficient unit will save.
Chances are you don’t give your water heater much thought-until you get hit with that first icy-cold shower, or go down to the basement to find the unit sitting in a puddle of water. Then you have to think fast: Repair it or replace it?
If it’s a conventional storage-tank water heater nearing the end of its 10- to 13-year life span, the answer is easy. New models are up to 20% more efficient, saving as much as $700 in energy costs over the life of the unit. If your water heater is only a few years old, whether it’s worth fixing depends on the severity of the problem and the cost of the repair. Not sure whether to repair or replace? Here are some considerations to help you decide.
A conventional water heater is simple. Cold water enters the tank, where it gets heated by an electric element or gas burner. A thermostat regulates the temperature (usually between 120 and 140 degrees). As the water heats up, pressure builds inside the tank. When you turn on a tap, the pressure is released, sending hot water to the faucet.
Because there are few moving parts, not much can go wrong. Before you even pick up the phone to call for service, check the basics, such as the pilot light in a gas unit and the circuit breaker in your electrical panel for an electric one. "Make sure it’s not a control issue first," says Mike Rogers, senior vice president at home performance firm GreenHomes America(https://www.greenhomesamerica.com/). "It could be an easy fix."
Other possibilities include a burner or element going bad, the thermostat failing, or a stuck valve. Repairing or replacing those parts is usually not expensive; pros like Sean Hicks of home warranty company Warrantech say a plumber should be able to do the job for between $150 and $300. If the water heater is relatively new, that might make sense. But if it’s more than 10 years old, or if the tank is leaking, that’s another story.
Over time, water heater tanks can corrode, the result of naturally occurring minerals in the water reacting with the steel. Once a tank springs a leak, repair isn’t an option.
The good news here is that today’s models are far more energy-efficient than those of even a few years ago. Manufacturers now inject foam insulation between the tank and its outer shell, resulting in much higher heat retention. Glass liners on the inside mean the tanks are less prone to corrosion, too. "Today, that water heater is more like a giant Thermos," says David Chisholm of manufacturer State Water Heaters.
Expect to pay between $500 and $1,500 to purchase and install a new conventional storage unit. A high-efficiency model that meets Energy Star(https://www.energystar.gov/) standards saves up to 20% in energy costs. Tankless, heat pump, and solar units offer even bigger savings and also qualify for a federal tax credit (tax-credits-solar-water-heaters) of 30% of the total cost of equipment and installation, up to $1,500. While substantially more energy efficient, these types of water heaters can cost three to five times more to buy and install, so consider payback carefully. "If you’re going to be in the home 15 or 20 years, you’ll get your money back," says Warrantech’s Hicks. "If you move a lot, you won’t."
Even with a conventional water heater, replacement might not be as simple as hauling out the old one and hooking up the new. Many cities have updated their building codes in recent years, so if you replace your water heater, you may have to upgrade the mount it sits on, the size or type of its venting system, the drain pan underneath it, even the supply pipes. Before work starts, ask your installer to tell you about any additional costs.
If you know your way around plumbing tasks, you may be able to install the new unit yourself. Most manufacturers provide detailed instructions. You’ll need to turn off the water and gas or electric before you begin, and take particular care to vent gas models properly.
Whether you repair it or replace it, your water heater will perform better and last longer if you flush the tank once a year to remove sediment. A bonus: Without all that gunk inside, it will operate more efficiently, saving you money. Also, check the anode rod-sometimes called the sacrificial rod-every three years. An aluminum or magnesium probe inside the tank, it collects corrosive elements and should be replaced when it gets caked or eaten away. A new one costs about $30. Stay on top of these simple maintenance tasks, and you can avoid thinking about your water heater again for a good long time.
Joe Bousquin’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, and Men’s Journal. The happy owner of a 79-year-old home in Sacramento, Calif., he has a new reverence for his water heater.
Reprinted from HouseLogic (houselogic.com) with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS (R).
Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.
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