How to tell if your water heater's dying

When a car is breaking down, it's usually pretty obvious: It makes awful noises, spits smoke, stops running. But when an appliance starts to go, it's sometimes harder to tell it's going, or even what is wrong.

That's the case for a reader in Baltimore County, who asked, "What are the symptoms of a dying water heater, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of a traditional tank-style heater compared to the systems that heat the water instantly so you don't have a tank to keep warm?"


Since the message was e-mail, we were able to write back and ask a couple of questions: Is the water heater powered by gas, oil or electricity? Is it doing anything strange, like leaking, making noises or not keeping water as hot as it used to? Has anyone been in the basement and turned down the heat selector?

"It's gas-fired, about 10 years old, it doesn't seem to be making noises or leaking, but it seems to be having trouble keeping up with demand," the reader replied. "After I wrote you, I went down to double-check and discovered that the thermostat had in fact been lowered, probably by people we had in to put a liner into the furnace chimney. So that has improved things, but it's still a general concern for us."


By coincidence, Karol is also having water-heater problems that sound similar. For the past couple of years, it's worked, but hasn't really provided enough hot water. It's OK for washing dishes, but there's never enough hot water to last through a shower or to fill the tub for a bath. However, in the past week, a new and more ominous sign of trouble has appeared: the water " is rusty.

That's definitely one of the signs of a water heater going bad, said Robin Bryan Culver, president of Walter H. Bryan Plumbing Inc., of a Baltimore. According to Ms. Culver, water mains in Baltimore and in most older, large metro areas are loaded with metal filings. Water heaters are one of the first places the filings can build up. Over a 10-year period, the buildup can grow to as much as 12 to 18 inches, enough to reduce the capacity of the water heater substantially.

Opening the drain valve at the bottom of the water heater will not remove the filings. In fact, Ms. Culver's company recommends that the valve be opened only occasionally, because she believes it weakens with use and could begin to leak if it's opened repeatedly.

The only remedy for an impaired water heater is to replace it.

Ms. Culver noted that water heaters come with two types of warranties, 5-year and 10-year. If you live in the older part of a big city, where the water mains could be real antiques, paying for a 10-year warranty may not be worthwhile. You will get 10 years of use, but possibly at a greatly diminished capacity. However, in areas where the mains are new and filing buildups are not a problem, the 10-year warranty is fine.

Electric water heaters have another problem that may lead to an inadequate hot-water supply: The heating elements can wear out. Fortunately, the elements are fairly easy to replace.

To answer the rest of the reader's question, Ms. Culver said "tankless" water heaters that work through the same boiler that heats water or steam heat work well, and can offer a lot more hot water than the tank type. However, they're most cost-effective if you have four or more people in the house. The boiler will run all summer, but Ms. Culver said it could actually be good for the

boiler not to be shut down for several months.


Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at, or write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 4/06/96