Hot water heater - too late to maintain? Replace?
October 17, 2020 7:33 AM   Subscribe

So I neglected our hot water heater for basically 9 years. It's now making weird noises. Should I try to drain it, replace the anode, etc., or is it too late?

The tank is a Bradford-White gas heater with a glass-lined tank and a power blower, made in 2011. It was a relatively medium/higher-end tank, I think. I think it had a 6 or 7 year warranty.

I haven't done anything to maintain it. I know, I know - it just fell off the long list of stuff to do. It is possible our plumber did something here or there, but we have not done anything regular.

The tank has started making increasing amounts of noise when it heats - bubbling and popping. This has seemed to increase over the past six months.

Here is my question: is this thing toast? Should I bother trying to drain it and replace the anode and do whatever else? Or is ~10 years the end of the road anyway? I would hate to spend a bunch of time trying to fix this one up and then wind up replacing it relatively soon.
posted by Mid to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
10 years is the lifespan for a tank. Tankless lasts longer.
posted by stray at 7:59 AM on October 17 [2 favorites]

Yeah 10 years is about it. For the money you would spend to try to drain it and replace the anode, you would be better off with a new one. Or yeah a tankless. Most people don't think about draining the tank once a year. I do, but I don't think I have ever talked to anyone else who does.
posted by jtexman1 at 8:08 AM on October 17 [2 favorites]

Yes, ten years are about what you get from those things, and If it’s within your means to upgrade tankless is a purely better experience.
posted by mhoye at 8:09 AM on October 17

Echoing that ten years is about what you can expect from a tank water heater - you could stretch it some unknown quantity of time further, but really better to replace it preemptively rather than risk it failing, especially if your basement is finished or you have things on the floor that you'd rather not have soaked. That's what we did earlier this year. And we found it to be significantly cheaper to buy a water heater from a big box store, pick it up, and than pay our plumber by the hour to install it, rather than his flat rate to bring and install one (it was something like $700 vs $1100). YMMV. We paid $400 for this heater, got a $40 rebate from our gas company because of the unit's energy efficiency, and paid a plumber about $300 to install it. It's been in less than a year, but we've had no problems so far and are very happy with it.

We considered tankless but ultimately decided against it. Important factors are how long you're going to be in your house, cost per square foot of real estate in your area, how high-end real estate is in your area and whether tankless is common/desirable, whether your basement is or will be finished, hardness of your water, peculiarities of your house's plumbing, and whether you have someone experienced in installing tankless who will do it for a reasonable price. If you're interested in the answers I got to that question, and my thought process, you can see that here. Also, look into rebates from your gas and electric companies: ours ranged from $40 for gas hot water tank heater to $350 for electric heat pump water heater.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:07 AM on October 17 [6 favorites]

They have a finite lifespan. On the upside, it's not likely to just stop working. There's probably no hurry replacing it. And, depending on where it is located and how handy you are, they're pretty easy to replace yourself.

Tankless has advantages. I swapped to tankless last year. However there were complicating factors that, in retrospect, might have made doing so less attractive. We could have gone through several water heaters before even coming close to what we ended up spending to get everything replaced and upgraded for tankless. Actual performance is practically nil. In theory, it was possible to run out of hot water with the old style heater. In practice, that almost never happened in our household. Never, for me. My wife said it happened a couple times over the 20 or so years we've had this house using its two different water heaters. Actual difference in gas usage has been difficult to interpret. So, looking at the end result, I think it could be well argued that it wasn't as sensible to go tankless for us as one might think.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:17 AM on October 17 [1 favorite]

Just to give you an idea of what failing can look like, for me it was suddenly spraying hot water all over the basement at 2 in the morning.
posted by callmejay at 10:12 AM on October 17

Something else to consider would be a heat pump tank water heater. Expensive to buy, but cheap to run.
posted by rockindata at 10:19 AM on October 17

The ‘drain the tank once a year’ thing isn’t universally accepted as right/proper/necessary/worth more than the labor and the wasted water. It really depends on your local water supply — when you replace this tank, ask your plumber if it really makes a difference in your area.

I would just check that the noises don’t correspond to any leaking or visible degradation of the tank integrity. My last water heater ruptured at the bottom of the tank (after 17 years), so one morning my basement was suddenly a marshland of rapid draining until it drained enough to vapor-lock itself. In retrospect there were some harbingers in the preceding weeks... don’t be me.
posted by janell at 11:26 AM on October 17

Our hot water heater failing (after 12 years) was thankfully less dramatic than a couple of the stories above, but no less eye-boggling-emergency expensive to replace when it failed on a brisk, below-zero-Fahrenheit New England February morning.

Winter is coming. If you live anywhere you would not like to take a cold shower in upcoming months, get your hot water heater looked at now.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 11:33 AM on October 17

It might help to see if you can get some sludge out of the bottom by draining it. The more sludge in the bottom (between the flame and the water), the hotter you have to run the temperature to get acceptable hot water, and the more likely it is to boil and make noises.

I have only ever replaced them after they started leaking. Whether you can tolerate a little water in your basement depends on a lot of details though.

If you flush a little and turn down the heat, it'll probably stop making noises and you may be fine for most of another decade. If you can get the anode rod out, replacing that would be good too. But this is not a crisis.

If you do replace it because you can't tolerate any chance of water in the basement, consider having the new one put in with a tray under it, with a hose leading to a drain. They all eventually leak.
posted by fritley at 11:36 AM on October 17

Oh man, our water heater just died on Thursday night. Water around here is hard as cast iron and every time I would peek into its closet I would notice an increasingly menacing layer of corrosion atop it and think to myself "that sucker's gonna blow any time now." It finally did, producing an aggressive leak that could only be stopped by shutting off the main valve to the whole house. It had accumulated so much crud and corrosion that it couldn't be drained and the poor plumber had to haul it off with probably a hundred pounds or more of water sloshing around in it. The damn thing was 22 years old! A real trooper.

Long story short: I'm a fundamentally lazy homeowner who generally doesn't fix things until they become a problem, but your mileage may vary. The tradeoff is saving a little money by not fixing the thing before it's necessary versus potentially being enormously inconvenienced by the repair process when it becomes necessary. When the heater goes, it might mean that you have to be without any water at all to the whole house for a day or more. How much is that worth to you?

Also, I learned that tankless heaters (while overall much more energy-efficient than the traditional model) require significant surges of power when they do kick on, and our house (and many older houses) aren't wired for that kind of thing. So it's another ugly, inefficient tank for us!
posted by lorddimwit at 6:35 PM on October 17

Echoing rockindata, we got a 50 gal. A.O. Smith heat pump water heater last year after our old water heater started giving one minute of tepid water in a 7 minute shower. In Oregon, the state and the EPA teamed up with Lowes to sell them (after a $700 rebate) for $399. There were other electric versions, but this one let us feel like we were doing something environmentally responsible as well as saved us a ton of money. This thing gives 3.5 times more performance for the same energy in as most other types, whose efficiency is generally about .8, which is also a great cost savings to run. Many manufacturers make their own version. But the general consensus is it should last about 10 years, which seems to be the default for most water heaters, no matter how fancy schmancy.
posted by CollectiveMind at 12:33 PM on October 18

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