Angie Hicks, founder of Angieâ€™s List, answers a member question about water heater efficiency.
Dear Angie: Is there a way to tell if a water heater is running at its optimum capacity? It seems that I have less hot water to go around these days, but maybe it’s an issue because of the colder weather. Does that affect what setting your water heater temperature should be? – Rachel H., Beech Grove, Indiana
Dear Rachel: A qualified, licensed plumber can certainly test your water heater to determine if it’s operating as it should, but there are some things you can consider to help decide if your heater needs professional service.
The cold weather could definitely play a factor in how long it takes for the water to heat up. The water heater should still heat the water to the temperature setting – 120 degrees is typically what’s recommended for residential situations – but because the incoming water is colder, it will take longer.
Another issue could be that your usage increases during the winter. Because it is colder, you might actually be using more hot water. People often like to use hotter water in the shower, for example, to compensate for the cold temps. As a result, the tank runs out of hot water quicker. You might not be as likely to take as hot of a shower during the hot summer months, which means the hot water in the tank is not depleted as quickly and lasts longer. If the same issues you experience during the winter occur out of season, then it’s time to consult with a professional.
There are a number of other factors that could also determine if your water heater is working efficiently or not, including: the size and type of heater you have; its age; how much maintenance has been done on it; and the quality of your water.
If your family has grown in size, you might need a larger heater tank to accommodate your usage. Sediment buildup could also be affecting its efficiency. As your heater ages, sediment forms in the form of calcium and lime – much like a film appears in a pan when you boil water – only on a much larger scale. Flushing the water heater of this sediment annually can help ensure it’s operating at maximum efficiency.
Indiana typically has particularly hard water, so installing a water softener if you don’t already have one can help your heater run more efficiently and extend its life by several more years. Tank water heaters typically last about 10 years before the heating elements start to wear down. If your heater is older than this, a professional inspection could determine if its time to replace it.
If you do have to replace, you might consider a tankless water heater. They cost about three times the cost of a tank heater up front, but they’re far more efficient, last at least twice as long as a tank heater and take up less space. Best of all, they deliver an almost endless supply of hot water, regardless of the season.