Maintaining your water heater

Learn more about maintaining your water heater, how to troubleshoot basic problems, and when to call a plumber.
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Water heater basics

  • Types of water heaters: Tank-style water heaters heat water and store it for use, while tankless systems heat water only as needed. There are gas and electric models of both.
  • Maintenance schedule: Most manufacturers recommend flushing or maintaining your water heater every year or every few years. 
  • Water heater lifespans: The typical lifespan of a water heater is 10 years for a tank-style heater and 20 years for a tankless heater.

Common water heater problems

Drawing of a cross-section of a hot water heater tank.

The property owner is responsible for maintaining the water heater. If you're maintaining your water heater, you may be able to fix some of the problems below yourself, or you may need to hire a plumber.

  • White plastic particles in water: The plastic dip tube is breaking down inside the tank.
  • Rust-colored water or leaking tank: The sacrificial anode no longer works, which can lead to tank corrosion or failure. Your rust-colored water could also be from your hot water pipes, which can also corrode more quickly than cold water pipes. 
  • Brown- or green-tinted water: You may need to flush sediment from your hot water tank, or your hot water pipes may be tinting your water.
  • Water not hot: Check your tank for leaks and ensure the heating element is working. You may need to have your water heater serviced or replaced.
  • Suddenly low hot water pressure: Check your tank for leaks and clean out aerator screens on faucets. Pipe or tank corrosion may be restricting the flow of water.
  • Leaking pressure relief valve: The valve may need to be replaced, or you may need an expansion tank. In rare cases, there could be a pressure issue in the City water system. Contact the Water Quality Line for more information.

Water heater safety

  • Setting the thermostat: The optimal temperature setting for water heaters ranges from 115 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. A temperature of 115 to 120 degrees can reduce the risk of scalding or burning your skin and can save energy. A temperature of 135 to 140 degrees can prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, such as Legionella, but can cause scalding. If you set the temperature on the higher end (between 135 and 140 degrees), be sure to have a plumber install anti-scalding devices.
  • Maintaining the water heater: Always turn off the heating elements before doing maintenance on your water heater. Call a plumber if you are not comfortable doing it yourself.