water heater

When your water heater fails, there isn’t much time to consider your options, unless you happen to enjoy frigid showers or don’t need clean dishes! So it’s good to know whether you plan to repair or replace when trouble strikes. And you may also want to consider proactive replacement if your unit is older or in bad shape. So what’s the best way to make a decision?

Age Before Beauty?

Although the condition of your current water heater is something to consider, the biggest factor in your decision should be its age.

The average life expectancy of a water heater is 8-15 years depending on usage, maintenance, water quality and a number of other factors—and less if you have really hard water—so if yours is older you’ll want to replace it. There’s no sense paying hundreds of dollars for a plumber to repair something that isn’t going to last much longer anyway.

If your unit is younger than that but not brand-new (or covered under warranty), consider the cost of a potential repair versus the condition of your heater—which predicts the lifespan you can expect it to have. Some things to think about:

1) Have you done the required annual maintenance—that is, flushed sediment out of the heater every single year? Here’s how.  If you haven’t, and you have hard water, you might want to plan on replacing it on the shy end of 10 years.

2) How many people are in your household? If you’ve got a Brady Bunch situation at your house, your water heater will age faster than that of your childless neighbors. It’s a natural result of heavy use.

3) Have you had to repair it before? It might be worth preserving a reliable, efficient unit for a minor repair, but multiple repairs on the same unit quickly add up to the cost of buying new.

4) Has a minor leak been getting worse for some time? That’s normal, but it’s typically a sign that the end is near.

Repairs—Minor or Major?

If your water heater is still a spring chicken or you think it’s in tip-top shape, small repairs to the unit can make financial sense. Slow or no water heating may call for a repair as simple as replacing the heating element, thermostat, or cutoff switch. These parts are inexpensive and straightforward to replace—for a plumber or for you, if you’re knowledgeable and reasonably handy. Leaks in pipes, hoses, or gaskets are similarly fixable.

Leaks in the tank, however, are more serious. That means the ride is over—and it’s time to shop for a new model.

Should You Be Proactive?

Replacing a water heater before it actually breaks really isn’t necessary, unless you’re seeing the first warning signs of trouble (like small, persistent leaks) and your heater is located in a spot where water damage could be costly. But if you’re talking about a historically reliable heater tucked away in the basement on a concrete floor, it’s probably fine to leave things as they are.

One reason to be proactive is to replace an inefficient water heater.

A high-efficiency water heater can cut your bills significantly. Depending on whether you choose a traditional tank model, a heat pump water heater, or a tankless or solar model, you can save 10% to 50% on your water heating bill over a heater that meets minimum efficiency standards. That means your purchase can wind up paying for itself fairly quickly. An ENERGY STAR heat pump model, for example, isn’t cheap, but it can save a four-person household $300+ per year in energy costs.

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