How Long Does a Water Heater Last, and When Should You Replace Yours?
Few people enjoy cold showers—or high energy bills. That’s why, it’s important to know when to replace your water heater. If you’re asking yourself, “How long does a water heater last?” and thinking, “It’s been a while since mine has been replaced,” read on. You may be due for an upgrade to this important plumbing fixture.
What’s the average lifespan of a water heater?
The answer depends on what type of water heater you own. A traditional tank water heater lasts about eight to 12 years. A gas-burning tankless water heater can last up to 20 years or more. And finally, an electric tankless version can last seven to 10 years.1,2 When you buy a home, it’s important to ask the previous owner the age of the water heater. Knowing this information can help you plan and budget for a new one.
If you don’t know how old your water heater is, check its serial number. It may help you determine its age. Normally, the serial number is located on the top portion of the fixture and begins with a letter and series of numbers. The first letter may stand for the month when it was made (A for January, B for February). The next two numbers can tell you the year when it was manufactured. For example, C12 may stand for March 2012.1 When in doubt, call the manufacturer. Customer service should be able to help you find out.
How do you know when to replace a water heater?
Traditional water heaters last until there is corrosion on the inside of the tank. Most have an anode rod at the top of the tank that collects materials that can cause rust. As the anode rod ages, it no longer collects those rust-causing materials, and instead, they land on the bottom of the tank. When the inside of the tank begins to corrode, your water heater is on its way out.1,3
Fortunately, there are a few tell-tale signs that your water heater is about to go. Be on the lookout for the following:1
Banging noises coming from the tank.
If calcium forms a thick sediment on the inside of the tank, it can cause the water heater to make noises.
Cold water when taking a shower or bath.
If you notice your hot showers are shorter than usual, it may be time for a new water heater because the fixture can’t heat up as efficiently as it used to.
“Rusty” hot water.
If your hot water starts to look a little red or orange, it may be the sign of rust in the water—and a water heater problem. Keep in mind, this only applies to hot water. If it happens when you turn on the cold water, too, it’s probably another issue.
Puddles forming around the bottom of the tank.
First off, it’s important to call a plumber if you notice this! A good plumber should be able to let you know if your water heater has failed or if you have a different problem. If it has failed, it’s probably due to a crack in the tank.
While a properly maintained tankless water heater can last for 20 years or more, these water heaters will also need to be replaced eventually. Be on the lookout for signs like a lack of hot water, or if your hot water is spotty. You also may need a new tankless heater if its parts keep failing. At some point, depending on the age of your heater, it makes sense to buy a new one, rather than get it repaired.4
Hopefully, you’ll discover signs of a failing water heater right away, so you can avoid major water damage or higher-than-normal energy bills. Regular maintenance can help you proactively identify issues and replace your water heater before issues occur.
What should you do if your water heater fails?
So, what happens when there’s no hot water running in your home, or you see water collecting on the floor by your water heater? First, call a professional plumber to get help right away. They can diagnose the damages and either repair or replace the tank.
If you have a tank-type water heater and it fails on a weekend or a holiday, you may have to wait longer for a plumber. You can always consult a professional for assistance, but if you’re comfortable doing the work on your own, here are some immediate steps you should take:5,6
Turn off the heat that supplies the hot water tank.
For a gas water heater, usually this involves turning a dial to the off position. For an electric heater, you may need to turn it off at the breaker.
Turn off the water that supplies the tank.
This will help prevent additional leakage. Turn the water heater’s valve clockwise until it is off. If this doesn’t work, then you should shut off the water at your main supply.
Drain all water from the tank.
Put a hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the tank. Place the other end of the hose outside or in an area where you can safely drain water. Open the valve using a screwdriver and begin removing the water from the tank until it is empty.
Get a professional’s help from here on out—for your safety and to help ensure a new water heater is installed properly.
In the meantime, start shopping for a new water heater and get a quote for its installation.5 The average cost of a new tank-type water heater is between $300 and $480, and a gas-fired tankless heater is $800 to $1,150.7,8 Keep in mind, you’ll also need to budget for a professional plumber to install the new tank. Fortunately, if your water heater is only a few years old, it may still be under warranty. If this is the case, you may be able to get a new one from the manufacturer at no additional cost. Give them a call to check.
What if you have water damage from a tank-type water heater?
According to a study from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), 69% of water heaters that fail involve a slow leak or major burst that causes water damage.9 But when your water heater tank starts to leak, you may not notice right away. This can result in thousands of dollars of damage and repair bills, depending on the location of your water heater and the value of the items surrounding it.10
If you notice a leak, act quickly by following the steps outlined above. Then call your homeowners insurance company right away to start a claim. Take photos of any damage and collect records. If any valuable items are damaged, try to find their receipts so you can assist your claims adjuster.
Keep in mind, most homeowners insurance policies don’t cover the cost of a new water heater or repairs—only damage caused by water. But it’s always worth asking an insurance professional what your policy includes.11
How to extend the life of a water heater
The key to keeping your water heater functioning for a long time is regular maintenance. Here’s a tank-type water heater maintenance schedule that’s recommended by IBHS:12
Every six months:
Flush your water heater tank to remove the sediment that has built up inside. Take a hose and attach it to the valve at the base of the tank. Then flush the water outside or to a nearby drain. Before doing this, you’ll also want to turn off the water heater’s power.
Call a professional plumber to get your water heater inspected. They’ll check for broken valves and loose or wet joints, as well as rust.
Every two years:
Look at your tank’s anode rod to see if it needs to be replaced. Remember, once this part gets old, it can no longer help prevent corrosion within the tank.
If you have a tankless water heater, you need to perform regular maintenance, too—every year is best. Call a professional plumber and request an inspection of the venting system, burner, pressure relief, water filter and more. Depending on the model you purchased, you may need to perform additional maintenance, like clean the fin coils every couple of years. Remember, as long as you regularly upkeep your tankless water heater, it has the potential of lasting 20 years or longer.13
Replacing your water heater is part of being a homeowner. It may be a large expense, but it’s one you can plan and budget for. Keep track of the age of your water heater and perform regular maintenance to help extend its life. When you do this, you’re more likely to keep your water heater working longer, and most importantly, prevent major water damage in your home.
- Solved! How Long a Water Heater Actually Lasts, BobVila.com, n.d.
- Tankless Water Heater: What You Need to Know Before You Buy, This Old House, n.d.
- How a Gas Tank-Type Water Heater Works, The Spruce, March 3, 2021.
- Tankless Water Heater Not Working? Here’s What to Check & How to Fix It, Paschal, n.d.
- What to Do When Your Water Heater Fails! Single Girls’ DIY, April 23, 2021.
- What to do When Your Water Heater Breaks, ServiceMaster Restore, n.d.
- How Much Does it Cost to Repair a Water Heater? HomeAdvisor, May 3, 2021.
- Tankless vs. Traditional Water Heaters | Which is More Energy Efficient? Constellation, July 6, 2021.
- What Causes a Water Heater to Leak or Rupture? NU Property Casualty360, November 30, 2017.
- Why is My Water Heater Leaking?, Water Heater Leaking Info., n.d.
- Does Homeowners Insurance Cover My Water Heater? HomeServe.com, August 15, 2021.
- Prevent Water Damage from Plumbing and Appliances, IBHS, n.d.
- 4 Tips For Installing And Servicing Tankless Water Heaters, PM Mechanical, June 17, 2019.