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Nazzaro & Sons Plumbing & Heating Blog

Troubleshooting Gas & Electric Tank-type Water Heaters, pt. 1

Posted Friday, February 19, 2016.

Tank-type water heaters are the classic go-to solution for hot water in a home or business. You take a water supply, a reservoir, and some heat, and have on-demand hot water. They’re also very reliable. Few moving parts and relatively simple construction means there’s low probability of any breakdowns. But sometimes even these straightforward contraptions run into problems.


Below is a list of common performance problems with both gas and electric tank-type water heaters. Knowing what the likely causes of your water heater’s issues are can help prepare you for repair time and expense, and help you to have an educated conversation with your plumbing repair professional. And if you’re handy enough, some of these fixes are DIY-able!


Problem: No hot water.


Causes (gas): Faulty gas pilot, faulty thermocouple, faulty gas pilot control valve.


Solutions (gas): Check your pilot, and ensure it’s properly lit.

If you still don’t have hot water with a proper pilot, you may need to adjust or replace your thermocouple or pilot control valve.


Causes (electric): No power to heating elements, faulty thermostat, faulty upper heating element.


Solutions (electric): It’s possible your electric water heater is not receiving power due to a tripped circuit breaker or blown fuse. Check these first, and remedy as necessary. If it happens again, check whether your circuit is sufficiently powerful to provide electricity to your water heater.

If the problem persists, confirm that power is being delivered to the heating element thermostat, and that the heating elements are functioning properly.

If power is being delivered, and the heating element is functioning properly, you may need to replace the thermostat.


Problem: Not enough hot water.


Causes (both types): Water heater is too small for demands, or faulty plumbing installation crossed hot and cold water connections.


Solutions (both): Tank-type water heaters work by heating a volume of water for later use. If you’re using more water than your heater is capable of heating and holding, you will likely find out by a blast of cold water late into a shower. If you have a large family, you’re more likely to need a larger water heater.

In some cases, sloppy plumbers lose track of their water connections and mix up the hot and cold. To test this, turn off the water supply to your water heater, and then open a hot water faucet inside. If you’re still getting water, there’s a connection crossed somewhere.


Causes (gas): Broken or damaged dip tube allowing free mix of cold water inside tank, gas supply problems.


Solutions (gas): Undo the cold water inlet to your water tank, and inspect the condition of the dip tube. A broken tube will let cold water into the entirety of the tank, instead of just the bottom as intended. Replace if necessary.

If the dip tube is in good condition, check the condition of the burner flame. A natural gas flame should be bright blue with just a bit of yellow at the very tip. A propane flame will be bluish green with a bit of yellow at the top.


Causes (electric): Faulty heating elements or heating element thermostats.


Solutions (electric): Check for power at the upper and lower heating elements themselves. Replace as necessary, clearing any sediment before installation of the new elements.

If the heating elements are getting power, check power at both heating element thermostats.


Problem: Rust-colored water.


Causes (both types): Sacrificial anode rod needs replacing, corrosion occurring within the tank.


Solutions (both types): Inspect the sacrificial anode rod. This is a rod that slowly dissolves in the water in order to prevent rusting in the tank. Replacement anode rods are available at any plumbing supply store.

If the anode rod is in good condition, it’s possible that the inside of your tank is rusting. Water heater tanks are lined with glass in order to prevent this, but fluctuations can cause cracks, allowing water to meet with the steel of the tank interior, rusting it. This may require a tank replacement.

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