Weekend DIY: Water heater tuneup

Tips and tricks to keep the hot water flowing

By Jay Somerset

water heater

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In my house, there never seems to be enough hot water, or, especially if someone’s been doing laundry, it seems to take forever before the cold turns to hot–and then it’s scorching. Like your well-used shop tools, it’s time for a hot-water tune-up. Heating water typically accounts for up to 20 per cent of your monthly utility bill, so there’s more to be gained from this simple, Saturday afternoon job than a bit more hot water.

Hot water heaters are big, ugly tanks that typically sit unnoticed; collecting basement dust until there’s a problem.

But it’s a good idea to check it over once a year just to make sure there aren’t any cracks or loose connections. If you seem to be getting less and less hot water, there’s a slim chance your tank might need replacing (especially if it’s more than 15 years old). If this is the case, and you notice small leaks, don’t sweat it: a new, highly efficient water heater will provide more hot water for less cost while also creating little noise. The phrase “they don’t build them like they used to” applies here, except nowadays, they build them better.

While there are several causes to reduced hot water, before digging out your tools and setting aside the afternoon, do yourself a favour and double-check that the thermostat wasn’t accidentally set lower. Check the hot water temperature at the nearest faucet; it should be about 49 degrees Celsius.

Tune-up basics

Assuming your tank is in working order, the first step is to drain several litres of water from the valve near the bottom of the tank. This helps remove sediment that settles on the bottom of the tank–sediment that can accumulate to several inches of guck that works as insulation between the burner and the water, which is why it might take longer to produce hot water.

The burner itself may be dirty. Check it by looking at the flames; if they’re steady and blue, you’re good; if they’re mellow yellow, you need to clean the orifice. Rather, you need to call a technician to clean it. Some jobs aren’t DIY.

Once you’ve removed the sediment, the next step in your tune-up concerns the top portion of the linebacker-sized tank. The tank should feel cool, or neutral. If it feels warm, you’re losing some heat through the tank, so, like a grumpy linebacker in the offseason, it needs a jacket. Insulation jackets come in various shapes and sizes, sold at most hardware stores (about $25), saving you up to $10 per month. Get one that allows for a bit of clearance around the draft hood at the top and the combustion air inlet near the bottom.

While we’re on the topic of insulation, every pipe leading to and from the tank should be blanketed in pipe insulation, which, like the jacket, is cheap and simple to install. Here, simply cut a piece of pipe insulation to length and fit over the pipe (if the insulation doesn’t have a slit, just cut one so it fits around the pipe).

Sure, tinkering with the hot water heater isn’t as glamorous as building a cherry hutch, but it’s one of those winter-weekend jobs that simply need to be done. So do it now, before it’s warm and sunny and you just want to be outside.

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