It seems that we all take hot water for granted until there isn't any. The water heater sits quietly day after, week after year, gathering dust. Then one day--kaput! Can you fix a water heater? What are the plumbing costs associated with repair or replacement? How do you decide which heater is right for you?
Anatomy and longevity
Heater components include a water storage tank, cold water intake line, an electric or gas powered heating element, anode rod(s), pressure release valve, spigot drain and hot water output line. Expected life span from installation to replacement is from 8 to twelve years.
Corrosion (rust) is the number one problem associated with repair or replacement costs. Unaddressed, it leads to leaks. It can be caused by water softeners, which are salts, or by worn-out sacrificial anode rods.
Regular yearly maintenance is recommended but rarely done. Checking the anode rod(s) for deterioration and replacing it is something you can do without too much trouble. Flushing the tank to remove settled rust particles is also usually within the realm of the do-it-yourselfer. However, sometimes it is too late to prevent leaks, as many homes are purchased with an existing heater of questionable age. Replacement is the next step.
Water heaters can be gas, electric or tankless. Sizes (volume capacity) range from small units that can fit under a sink to huge commercial units that provide hospitals with hot water. Residential heaters basically range from 30 to 60 gallons.
It isn't a good idea to skimp on size; a good rule of thumb is to over-anticipate your needs. First estimate your peak usage, or the time of day you use the most hot water. A shower uses about 10 gallons of water, a load of wash uses 7 gallons and running the dishwasher uses 6 gallons (hand washing dishes uses 2 gallons/minute!). In your household, if three people take showers in the morning, you will definitely need a 40-gallon tank.
Installation is done in garages, laundry rooms, attics, basements or crawlspaces. Both gas and electric tanks come in tall and short sizes to fit the space required. Tankless heaters, installed on the household water line, take up very little space and give instant on-demand hot water without the homeowner paying to keep water heated all day. Be aware that the smaller tankless models are not designed to handle heavy workloads; if buying one, expect to spend as much as you would on a tank model.
Timers for water heaters are a great option for a household with scheduled water use. If everyone is out of the house all day, you can set the timer for several hours in the morning to cover showers, and several hours at night to provide hot water for dishes and laundry. There's an override button to push in between scheduled times for unexpected use. It takes about 15 minutes for water to heat up. If you're going on vacation, it's easy to set the timer to the "off" setting.
Do you have the option of switching from gas to electric or vice versa? Take the time to make a call to your local utility company to see if they are offering reduced prices on certain brands geared toward energy efficiency.
If you're handy with plumbing and electrical projects around the house, it's possible to replace your water heater with the help of a friend (to help you get it from store to truck and from truck into house). If you do it yourself, you will deal with the disposing of the old tank. Beware: Most landfills charge a hefty fee for taking water heaters. A plumber will surely add a disposal fee, but he will have to do all the loading and unloading work himself.
Forty-gallon tank heaters range from $400 to $1500. Expansion tanks, now required by code in Georgia, cost between $50 and $100. You'll also need a metal pan with an outside drain to put under the unit to prevent water damage to the surrounding area in case of leaks (you probably wish you had one of these under the old unit).
Here is a list of some of the tools you will need: garden hose (long enough to stretch from heater to area outside for draining old tank), appliance dolly or handcart (optional), tubing cutters or hacksaw, new copper tubing, pipe wrenches, screwdrivers, soldering torch and sweat soldering supplies, adhesives, plumbing tape, power drill and flex adaptors (water and gas).
Plan on this project taking all day if this is your first replacement. Plan on it taking most of the day if it is your second or subsequent replacement. Or, call a plumber.
If you use a plumber in Atlanta, make sure he is bonded and insured. This makes sure that the plumbing company or plumber will pay for any damages incurred. Make sure he is qualified to complete all the components of the job, including re-wiring, turning off the electric/gas supply and installing an expansion tank or valve properly.
The largest part of plumbing costs is labor. Plan on paying a service charge of around $50, although some companies waive this if you have them do the repair. Hourly labor rates can be as high as $100 for the first hour, and slightly less for the second hour. If your replacement is at night or on weekends (99 percent of the time!), you will usually pay higher service charges and hourly rates.
If the plumber has to go up or down stairs, you will pay an extra $30 or more. Work done in a crawlspace or attic can cost $75+.
Keep tabs on where the plumber is. Don't get in the way, but make sure he isn't out at his truck charging you for time spent on his cell phone. Inspect the work area, see that the installer has removed debris and make sure there is no damage to surrounding area.