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Ask Mr. Tight-Watt: Replace My Water Heater?  Smart Choices Archive

Ask Mr. Tight-Watt: Replace My Water Heater?

Mr. Tight-Watt answers a question about replacing water heaters.

Ask Mr. Tight-Watt

Question: I have an electric water heater that is 14 years old. It seems to be working fine. Would it be economically advisable to replace it? – Burdette, a Smart Choices reader

The answer to this question is not necessarily the same for everybody.

Experts weigh in on water heater replacement:

  • Steve Koep from Rheem-Marathon Water Heaters says the answer may depend on many variables, including “…water quality, amount of usage, maintenance of the unit through the years, the manufacturer, size of the heater … and more.” He notes, however, that new water heaters today are, in general, more energy efficient than those made 14 years ago. Some people have water heaters that have been running for many years, and others find that they leak within a few years.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Usually, a water heater is replaced only when it fails. But if the existing water heater is at least 10 years old, it is near the end of its useful life, and it may make sense to replace it before it fails.” So a 14-year-old water heater may have reached its average life expectancy.
  • Information from the Iowa Energy Center states, “Think about a new water heater before you really need one! Most people wait until their water heater breaks down before shopping for a new one. Since they’re in a hurry to restore their hot water supply, they usually don’t take the time to shop for the water heater that best meets their needs. They often make a bad choice, settling either for a water heater that’s on sale or the unit a local plumber “uses all the time.”
  • You can avoid this situation with a little planning. With water heater warranties ranging from six years to “lifetime,” it’s difficult to predict exactly when a water heater may fail. On average, it’s probably safe to say that a water heater will last from 10 to 15 years—or possibly longer, if it’s been properly maintained and regularly serviced. However, unless you’ve lived in your home for a long time, you probably didn’t choose your present water heater; the previous owners or a builder did. As a result, you may not know how old it is, how well it’s been maintained or even if the original warranty is still in effect. If your present water heater is showing obvious signs of old age—rust around the bottom of the tank or leaks starting to develop—you need to act immediately.
  • But if your water heater is functioning properly and you believe it’s at least seven years old, take a little time to evaluate your hot water needs and begin comparing the various types and models on the market today—which will help you make an informed and energy-wise purchase tomorrow. Even if your older, but inefficient, water heater is functioning properly, consider replacing it with a new, energy-efficient one. The energy savings alone could pay for the new unit within a few years, and you’ll be happy knowing that you’re dumping fewer pollutants into the air and sending less money down the drain.”

To help make your decision:

  • If your water heater has a steel inside tank, exterior rusting and bursting may be the first clue you have that it has internal problems leading to the end of its life. Although the water heaters offered through your Touchstone Energy Cooperative have lifetime warranties, older units may not have. Fiberglass/resin water heaters won't rust out.
  • Indications that your water heater may be failing include: leaking, slow recovery, noisy operation, calcium buildup, or reduced no hot water when you need it. 
  • Buying a new water heater provides an opportunity to increase your home’s energy efficiency. Look for an EF (energy factor) value as high as possible. The most energy-efficient electric water heaters have EFs of .94 to .96.
  • Electric heaters cost less to purchase than gas heaters because they’re less complicated. They are also easier to install because no gas pipes or venting are required, and they are safer with no fuel to leak or explode, no pilot light to go out and no combustion byproducts.

More information

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