4 Ways to Know It’s Time To Replace Your Water Heater

updated Oct 29, 2023
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House water heating boiler with pump, ball valves and filters
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As someone who recently experienced a broken water heater — and the sense of panic that occurs when you see water on the basement floor — I know first hand how important it is to be able to recognize the signs that it’s time to replace your water heater

Quick Overview

How long do water heaters last?

Many water heaters last about eight to 10 years. Some extra sturdy ones can last up to 12 years.

Here’s what you need to know about water heaters in your home, including how long they typically last and signs that it might be time to buy a new one.

What is a water heater?

Obviously, a water heater heats your home’s water, but it goes a little further than that. Typically found in a basement or utility room, a water heater is responsible for taking the cold water that enters the home and heating it to a comfortable temperature for bathing and washing dishes and clothes.

To do this, most water heaters look like large cylinders and hold and heat a specific amount of water. If you’ve ever had lots of people take showers in one day, you may actually run out of hot water and have to wait for the tank to refill and reheat.

How long does a water heater last, exactly?

Water heaters last about eight to 10 years and some can last up to 12. But a water heater can also need to be replaced earlier if something goes wrong.

How do I know it’s time to replace my water heater?

Let’s take a look at how to know it’s time to replace your water heater.

There’s a leak.

A leak from the hot water heater indicates there’s a problem, but it may not mean you need to replace the entire water heater. In some cases, a leak is caused by a loose or faulty drain valve or inlet and outlet connections that just need to be tightened.

Another common problem that causes leaks is a corroded anode rod. The anode rod attracts corrosive components in the tank so the tank itself doesn’t corrode. But as the anode rod corrodes it eventually becomes nonexistent and the tank can leak in the spot where the anode rod is supposed to be. If the corrosion hasn’t yet reached the tank, the anode rod can be replaced instead of the whole water heater.

If the leak is the result of a corroded or cracked tank, then it’s time to replace the water heater.

You discover rust.

Rust in your water is a sign that something is amiss, though it’s not always caused by the water heater itself. Rusty water can be the result of rusty pipes, but it can also be the result of rust inside the water heater. 

To determine if the rust is coming from the water heater, you can drain a few buckets of water from the tank using the drain valve. If the water comes out clear (you may need to fill a few buckets to make sure), then it’s probably the pipes. If the water still appears rusty after a few buckets, it’s probably time to replace the tank.

It’s making unusual noises.

Unusual sounds coming from, well, anything usually isn’t a good sign, and the same goes for your water heater. A rumbling, banging, knocking, or popping water heater needs immediate attention. A common cause is a buildup of sediment in the bottom of the tank, which means the tank needs to be drained — which should be done every few months as preventative maintenance. If it’s been awhile, draining the tank may fix the problem. But if sediment built up too much or was left for too long, it may mean that the tank is cracked and leaks aren’t far behind.

You’re suddenly taking cold showers.

Cold showers have their benefits, but if you’re taking them involuntarily, it’s time to inspect the water heater. A water heater takes cold water from the pipes and heats it in the tank. When the hot water is turned on at the faucet, the water heater releases hot water. If you’re not getting any hot water from the faucet, that could indicate that the water tank is leaking and doesn’t have reserves of hot water.

Or, maybe it’s just the pilot light.

There could also be an issue with the pilot light, the flame inside the water heater that does the heating. If this is the case, check with a plumber, but it might just mean the pilot light went out and has to be relit. You may also need to adjust the thermostat or replace the heating element rather than replace the entire tank.

How can I make my water heater last?

Replacing a hot water heater costs money and can cause stress. And potential leaks can cause damage to the surrounding area and any belongings that are stored near it. While a water heater will eventually wear out, preventative maintenance can extend its life. Some things you (or your plumbers) should do regularly include:

  • Inspect the water heater every two or three months or have a plumber inspect it for you. 
  • Drain the tank at least once a year by opening the drain valve and draining the water into the bucket. You’ll fill multiple buckets and will have to dump it in between fills.
  • Check the fittings on the drain valve and inlet and outlet connections to make sure they haven’t loosened over time.
  • Replace the anode rod periodically.

Though regular inspections and maintenance take some time and sometimes money, it can save you the stress of having to replace your hot water heater prematurely. You can also consider a tankless hot water heater that offers hot water on-demand rather than storing water in a large tank and can last up to 20 years.