One night, it will happen. Your water heater will fail to produce hot water or you’ll hear a low rumbling noise coming from your basement. As luck goes, it will often happen late one evening, on a holiday, or any other time when it is the most inconvenient. This results in a panic about how to repair a water heater…and fast.

Most hot water heater problems revolve around the following symptoms: a lack of or inadequate hot water, rust-colored water, a rotten egg-smelling odor, high pitched or low rumbling noises, and leaks. Most of these require low-maintenance fixes, such as replacing a part. Others unfortunately require more high-maintenance repairs, such as flushing out your water heater or replacing it altogether.

One culprit of many hot water heater problems is an eroding sacrificial anode rod. This device protects a water heater’s interior lining by slowly dissolving and eliminating erosion by “sacrificing” itself in the place of the tank walls. When the corrosion of the rod is too great the tank lining starts to decay. This can result in either rust-colored water or an odor similar to rotten eggs. Since this is one of the most common water heater repairs, the sacrificial anode rod can be purchased at your local hardware store for about $50.

Another example of a faulty part being the cause of a problem is a lack of or inadequate hot water. When a water heater fails to produce any hot water, it is often the result of a broken thermocouple or gas pilot. However, when the water runs cold it is usually because hot and cold water are mixing in the tank. When this happens, the dip tube may need replacing.

If a defective dip tube is not the cause, it may indicate that there are cross connections. Since hot water heaters are generally connected to the same water line as other household appliances, different water temperatures can often mix together. To check for this, shut off the water supply to your water heater and open the hot water tap faucet. If you see water flow, it could mean a cold water connection is crossing with your water heater’s hot connection and causing inadequate hot water.

Replacing a part is an easy fix. Sometimes, however, the repair can be more labor intensive. An example is when your water heater needs flushing. This task can prove messy and time consuming if the buildup is extensive. In this case, a professional plumber might be your best bet.

Flushing a water heater is required when sediment buildup causes symptoms such as noises, leaks, and odors. For example, if your water heater is making a loud-pitched whine, it is often a consequence of sediment buildup on the electric heating elements. If the unit is making more of a low rumbling or popping noise, it means water is boiling because sediment is accumulating at the bottom of the tank, causing it to get very hot. In both cases, the tank needs to be flushed with an outside water source, such as a hose.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, another resource would be the numerous guide books available on how to repair a water heater. If problems persist, contact a licensed plumber. This could mean the problem is a result of multiple factors or your hot water heater needs replacing. If you think you are dealing with a gas leak, a professional is of vital importance. Natural gas leaks often smell faintly of garlic. If this occurs, shut off your pilot light, close the gas shutoff valve, and wait for further directions from your local plumber.

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