Cover photo for blog and video "Maintaining Your Water Heater"

  • If you have a standard tank style water heater, also known as a storage tank water heater, then annual maintenance should be a part of your yearly routine to get the most out of your water heater. Whether your water heater is electric or gas, it needs to be drained and flushed annually to maintain peak efficiency and to extend its lifespan. Storage style water heaters, store water, as implied by the name. While that water sits, sediments and minerals begin to settle to the bottom of the tank. Over time, this buildup can make a big impact on the capacity of your water heater.
  • Let’s say you have a 50-gallon electric water heater this is a very common size in the Phoenix area. As sediment builds up on the bottom of your water heater, it begins to take up valuable space inside the tank which leaves less room for water, resulting in a reduction of gallon capacity. If you’re noticing that your showers aren’t as long as they used to be when you first bought your water heater, it could be because of a sediment buildup such as this.
  • Sediment build up is also very hard on your tank and can shorten the lifespan of your water heater. Sediment and minerals harden over time and become rock like in the bottom of your tank. The inside of your water heater is glass lined – glass and rocks don’t mix well. Sediment can shorten the lifespan of your water heater by prematurely creating hairline fractures in the glass lining of your tank, which allows water to meet the steel that the water heater tank is made of and causes it to rust and leak.
  • Bottom line, annual maintenance of your water heater isn’t just recommended, it is highly important.
  • Part of annual water heater maintenance is flushing your tank; not just draining it, but flushing it. Picture your tub after your kids have taken a bath; all the dirt doesn’t just drain out when you pull the plug, you have to spray additional water to direct the dirt towards the drain. Draining your water heater doesn’t do an adequate job of getting the sediment and minerals out of the bottom of your tank. You want to impact that sediment with a flushing action which is achieved by turning the valve on and off to the water heater, resulting in a slight flushing impact as the dip tube for the water heater sends the water toward the bottom of the tank and starts to push the sediment out of the way.
  • When Robins Plumbing performs annual maintenance on your water heater, we execute many tasks to get you the best results, including: flushing your water heater, testing the components of the water heater to make sure they are working properly, and checking the anode rod’s accessibility. An anode rod is a water heaters best friend; it is an additional component inside the water heater that is made of magnesium which attracts minerals in the water giving them something to eat instead of the water heater and its elements inside. An anode rod is often referred to as the “sacrificial lamb” in the plumbing profession because it is literally there to be eaten. Replacing your anode rod every 2-3 years can over double the lifespan of your water heater when maintained properly. If the anode rod has been neglected, however, it is usually seized to the tank where it enters at the top and can’t be broken loose to be replaced or checked without risking damage to the tank itself.

If you want to attempt to flush your water heater on your own as a DIY, it isn’t extremely difficult but can be risky if you don’t follow the steps perfectly.  For example, if you don’t follow the steps perfectly on an electric water heater you can dry fire the top element and cause the element to pop and explode.  Every plumber has done this once in the beginning of their careers – and they never do it again.

Draining and Flushing Your Water Heater

Not long ago I was on a radio segment explaining how to flush your water heater, give it a listen:

  • First things first, you need to make sure you have a garden hose that will reach the place that you are going to allow all the debris to drain. The sediment and buildup are rocky and sandy, so make sure you are draining the debris to a safe place; it is also hot water, so keep safety in mind as well. There will be a lot of water; keep in mind your water heater is probably 40-50 gallons of water plus the amount of water it takes to flush the water heater… so a bucket just isn’t going to get the job done. Another tip, don’t make this a garden hose you love, you may have to step on it to crush larger sediment rocks to clear the hose of blockages.

> If your water heater is electric, then you will want to make sure the breaker is in the off position. The elements inside your tank need to be covered with water at all times if they have power to them, so this is a VERY important step.

> If you have a gas water heater, then you have a gas control valve at the bottom of the water heater and the labeling should say either “vacation” mode or “pilot”. Turn this knob until it reaches the “vacation” mode or the “pilot” mode. This will not shut off your pilot light, so you will easily be able to turn the gas back on when you’re done by turning the dial back to where it was set.

  • There is a drain valve at the bottom of your tank; it often looks like a bibb like the one outside, but it can also look like a gate valve with a circular handle on it. A lot of these can be plastic; be super careful if it is! If you’re lucky enough to have a quality brass one like the ones we install, then you’re in good shape my friend. Your hose is going to connect to this drain valve, just like your garden hose connects to your bibb outside. Make sure the connection is hand tightened; overtightening with a tool can sometimes affect the connection of the valve to the tank itself creating a leak. Take the other end of the hose and place it where you intend to have the sediment and minerals exit for disposal.  Make sure the hose doesn’t have any kinks and is in as straight of a line as possible to avoid blockages inside the hose.
  • Locate the shut off valve for your water heater; it is usually located at the top and it either has a lever handle or a circular handle. If you have a lever handle, then you’re in good luck; this is a ball valve and they rarely fail. If you have a circular handle, then you have a gate valve and you need to prepare yourself for the possibility that shutting the gate valve off means it may not turn back on. Gate valves use a threaded bolt that lowers and lifts a gate inside the body of the valve. Those threaded bolts can often break and will not lift the gate back up once lowered.
  • For your water heater to drain you will need to vent it. Just like the liquid in a straw will stay if you hold your finger over the top, the water in your tank will stay if you don’t give it a way for air to enter. Water heater manufacturers recommend venting your water heater by flipping the tab on the temperature and pressure relief valve. The T&P (temperature and pressure relief valve) is a safety relief valve on your water heater, located either on the side of the tank or on the top. Most T&P valves are on the top of the water heater. This safety valve has a tab on it; this tab either opens the valve or closes it. Lifting the tab up/out will open the relief valve. WARNING – this valve once opened could not reset and close again. If the relief valve ends up sticking open, this could be due to sediment buildup or the rubber seal no longer being effective. If this relief valve doesn’t close again, then it will have to be replaced.
  • We recommend by starting with draining your water heater, which simply means letting gravity do the work. Turn off the water to your water heater, attach the hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the tank, make sure the hose exits to a safe, designated area without kinks, and then turn that drain valve on to vent the water heater by flipping the tab on the T&P. Hopefully you start to immediately see water coming out of the hose. If you don’t see water coming out of the hose, try turning the water back on and off a few times to see if you can bust some of the sediment loose within the tank to free it up enough to flush out. If not, start planning on budgeting for a new water heater soon.
  • After giving your water heater a couple of minutes to drain some of the water, you’re going to want to start the swirling/flushing action. This is easily accomplished by turning the water back on and off several times slowly so you don’t create a water hammer.  Turn the valve on and off, giving a few seconds between turns, to allow the water to create a flushing affect. You will go through a series of draining and flushing until the water runs clear and the sediment is gone. The time commitment will vary on how full your water heater is of sediment, so you might want to grab a lawn chair and a glass of wine or a cold beer.
  • Once the water runs clear on your water heater, it is time to clean up and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Close the drain valve and disconnect your hose, close the tab on the T&P valve, and let your water heater fill back up. If your water heater is electric, then remember that it’s super important to let your water heater fill up all the way before turning the electric back on to your water heater. Your elements need to be submerged in water if they have electricity going to them or they will dry fire. Once your water heater is filled back up, you will want to turn on the hot side of a faucet inside your home and bleed any remaining air out of the system–just to absolutely ensure the elements are submerged. Lastly, turn the power back on or the gas control valve back to where it was and you’re good to go for another year!

Your Water Heater Did Not Drain?

If you’ve not had your water heater flushed in several years, depending on the quality of your water, it may not drain at all. The sediment can become so rock hard and solid at the bottom of the tank that it can’t be broken through and flushed out. You will know right away if your water heater won’t drain when you turn the drain valve on and nothing happens. This is a regular occurrence when water heaters aren’t maintained over their lifetime; when Robins Plumbing replaces a water heater that won’t drain, we have to pump the water out of the top of the tank to get it to empty enough for us to remove.

Services in Phoenix & Beyond

When you’ve found yourself in need of plumbing services in the Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale, or Chandler area, you can trust Robins Plumbing to provide you with prompt and expert care, contact our team today! In addition to our toilet services, we also offer a variety of residential and commercial plumbing services, including: drain cleaning, water heater repair and replacement, sewer camera inspection and locating, backflow prevention, commercial and residential jetting, water treatments, and more. Visit our reviews online to see what others have to say about our local plumbing company!