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Safety and Maintenance for Your Water Heater

Warm water is something that most of us take for granted. When we turn on the faucet to wash our hands or step into a hot shower in the morning, we don't stop to think about the condition of the appliance that's producing the heated water.

A person doing maintenance on their water heater.

However, it's important to keep your water heater in good condition so it can function safely. A poorly maintained water heater can leak and cause water damage, which can impact the structure of your home. And, in the worst-case scenario, it could explode — resulting in extensive property damage and potential injury to anyone in the vicinity. That's why, if you have an electric, oil-fired or gas-fired storage tank water heater, it's important to observe the following maintenance requirements:

  • Keep the area around the appliance free. Remove dust, paper and debris, and never use aerosols or other combustibles in the same space where your water heater is located.
  • If your water heater is in the garage, install it so the pilot light is at least 1.5 ft. above the floor. Gasoline vapors tend to sink toward the floor, so a raised pilot light can help prevent them from igniting.
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector close to the water heater. This is imperative if you have a gas water heater, as carbon monoxide isn't something you can see or smell. Remember to test the detector every couple of months according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Inspect the flue for leaks. The flue expels exhaust gas, so any cracks or gaps could leak carbon monoxide into your home. If you find any gaps, replace the flue immediately.
  • Test the temperature-pressure (T&P) relief valve. As The National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors explains, the T&P valve is located near the top of your water heater. It's designed to prevent explosions by opening and relieving pressure when extremely high temperatures build up inside the tank. You should test the T&P valve once a year by pulling up on the handle. If you can see water flowing out of the pipe, it's free to open. Note that if you find it challenging to reseal the valve due to sediment buildup, you should immediately call a plumber to replace the valve.
  • Use a specially designed insulation kit to insulate your water heater. Insulation can prevent heat loss and high energy bills during the winter. However, it's important to wrap the heater correctly. Leave the following components uncovered: the T&P valve, drain, control panel, pilot light, draft diverter and air intake. If you have a gas-fired water heater, leave the top clear, as well.
  • Use a water heater strap kit if you live in an earthquake zone. This will help stabilize the appliance in the event of a quake, which can prevent the water from tipping out and flooding your home.
  • Set the thermostat to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. As advises, this will help protect you and your children from scalding yourselves. Note, however, that a lower temperature can lead to the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the water tank.
  • Have a qualified plumber perform water heater maintenance once a year. Your plumber should clean the burners, inspect the flues and vents, check the anode rod, and if necessary, replace the T&P valve. He or she should also check the tank for leaks.
  • If the water heater is overheating, cut off the heat source and call a plumber. Do not go near the appliance, as this could be highly dangerous! Simply trip the circuit breaker if it's an electric water heater or shut off the gas if it's gas-fired. Then wait for it to cool down and the plumber to arrive.

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