In cold water – why did my water heater fail?
Friday morning as I was about to step into the shower, my wife informed me that the water did not seem to be as hot as it should be. During my shower, I concurred. So before heading off to work I made a quick trip down to the basement just to make sure the circuit breaker hadn’t tripped or that the water heater wasn’t leaking.
That evening I decided I should look into the issue and my multimeter proved my initial theory correct. The lower heating element had failed. No problem, that is an easy item to replace, and it does not cost much. The longest part of the job is waiting for the tank to empty (well that, and getting my boys out of the home improvement center after bringing them along). I had the element swapped out and working that night. So it did not impact my weekend much.
While I was working however I got to thinking about all of the water heater issues I’ve had in the past. Sure, I’ve had a couple elements give out, and that, I assume, is to be expected, as they do spend a lot of time cooking. But what is concerning is how many tanks I’ve actually had start to leak. Including both houses I’ve owned, in fifteen years of home ownership, I’ve already replaced three. Typically the tanks seem to last about five years before springing a leak. This is with both gas and electric heaters. And yes, I do use relatively inexpensive home improvement center type water heaters, but the more expensive “sold to professionals only” heater that was in the house when we moved in also began to leak about five years after it was installed.
Now I do know that it is recommended to check the anode rod periodically and replace it if necessary to keep the hot water from attacking the tank, but honestly, I have never seen a sacrificial anode rod that is easily accessible. In fact, I just assumed there may not even be one there. If they are there, they are buried under foam insulation and I’d rather not go digging all that out. My thought is if the manufacturer wanted me to check the rod, they would make it accessible. There’s also the fact that the water heater is under the basement stairs and I’d have to drain and disconnect it just to get the rod out to look at it. Considering the fact that I’m able to get a replacement tank under warranty without checking the rod, and I can replace the water heater myself at no cost, why bother with the additional work?
So, I started wondering if it is our soft water that is making the tanks fail so quickly. I have seen and heard references to that very thing. After thinking it through for a while, the conclusion I came to is that although soft water may accelerate the corrosion process, it is the tanks that are at fault. In fact, considering that when I remove an element, it is clean and looks almost new except for a pit where it failed and when I drain the tank nothing but perfectly clear water comes out, it seems to me that soft water in the water heater is a good thing. There is no build up of scale and minerals like what the DIY magazines show should be in there. Every water heater I’ve seen is supposedly glass lined to keep the steel of the tank separated from the water to prevent the inevitable corrosion when the two come together. So my thinking is that if the glass lining is doing its job, the water will never touch the steel and therefore the tank should not rust from the inside out, no matter what type of water is in there. Therefore, if the tank is rusting out quickly, the problem must be that the glass lining is not keeping the water away from the steel. After all, if the soft water was at fault, the manufacturers of water heaters would not be replacing my tanks under warranty would they?