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Should I Replace My Water Heater Before It Fails? A Retired Plumber’s Guide

Is your water heater nearing the end of its lifespan? As a retired plumber with over 30 years of experience, I often get asked if homeowners should replace their water heater before it fails. This is an important question, since no one wants to wake up to a flooded basement or have their shower suddenly run cold. In this article, I’ll share my advice on when you should consider preemptively replacing your old water heater, even if it still seems to be working fine.

How Long Do Water Heaters Last?

The lifespan of a water heater varies depending on the type and quality. Here are some ballpark estimates:

  • Conventional storage tank water heaters: 8-12 years
  • Tankless water heaters: 15-20 years
  • High-end/commercial grade units: 12-15 years

Of course, this can vary based on the quality of the unit, your water quality, and how heavily it’s used. But generally speaking, most homeowners start to run into issues with their water heaters in the 8-15 year range.

Signs Your Water Heater is Failing

Water heaters tend to show signs of age as the internal components wear out. Here are some of the most common clues that your unit may be nearing the end:

  • Decreased hot water capacity – If you find you’re running out of hot water more frequently, it’s often because the tank can’t hold as much water at temperature anymore. Sediment buildup contributes to this.
  • Rust colored or discolored water – This indicates internal corrosion and rust. Particles of that rust will begin flaking off into your water.
  • New sounds or smells – Clanking, hissing, or a “rotten eggs” smell can mean issues like sediment buildup or a failing gas burner.
  • Slow recovery time – It takes longer to reheat water after use. A 30-40 gallon tank should recover in under an hour, but a failing one may take 2-3 hours.
  • Leaking or external corrosion – Any visible water leaks mean at least one internal seal/gasket has failed. Heavy external rust also weakens the tank.
  • Relief valve dripping – The pressure relief valve dripping often means pressure build up due to sediment accumulation.

If you notice any of these warning signs, your water heater is likely nearing the end of its lifespan. Continuing to operate it in this condition risks complete failure.

Why Should I Replace Before Failure?

No one wants to deal with the headache of an emergency water heater failure, which can cause flooding and leave you without hot water until a replacement is installed. That’s why I often advise my customers to be proactive. Here are some of the biggest reasons to replace ahead of time:

  • Avoid damage from leaks – Catching a leak early prevents serious water damage. A single pinhole leak in a 40-50 gallon tank can spill over 200 gallons in a day!
  • Prevent rusty/discolored water – Letting your tank fail totally allows large amounts of sediment into your water lines. Replacing early avoids safety issues from rust particles.
  • Get ahead of loss of capacity – Don’t wait until you have no hot water left. Gradual build up reduces your available hot water long before complete failure.
  • Choose your own timeline – Scheduling ahead of time lets you research options and install a replacement on your own schedule.
  • Potential energy savings – If your current unit is over 10 years old, a newer model may recoup some costs via energy savings.
  • Extend service life of new unit – Changing on your timeline allows descaling the pipes and lines, extending the lifespan of the new system.

Essentially, being proactive avoids both safety issues and the headache of emergency replacement. And modern water heaters often have better warranties and longevity than 10-15 year old models.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Here are some key questions to help you decide if it’s time to replace your aging water heater:

  • Is it over 10 years old? – Once past 8-12 years, the risk of corrosion and failure rises yearly. Replacement around 10-15 years is recommended.
  • Have you noticed any warning signs? – Don’t ignore leaks, unusual noises or smells, rusty water, etc. These indicate larger issues.
  • Has hot water capacity decreased? – If you’re running out more quickly, it’s likely losing efficiency and nearing failure.
  • Has energy efficiency changed? – Newer models heat water much more efficiently. An old unit can waste energy.
  • Is the tank heavily rusted/corroded? Even if it’s still working, severe rusting indicates it’s near the end.
  • Are maintenance costs rising? – Once repair bills exceed 50% of the cost of a new heater, replacement is more cost effective.

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, it’s likely time to replace your aging unit. The risk and frequency of failure rises steadily after 10 years. Stay ahead of problems by being proactive.

Choosing the Right Replacement

Once you decide it’s time for a new water heater, the next step is picking the right replacement. Here are some quick tips:

  • Match capacity to your household usage so you have enough hot water. 40-50 gallons works for most homes with 2-3 bathrooms.
  • Choose a energy efficient model – Look at the Energy Factor (EF) rating. 0.60 EF or higher is best for gas models.
  • Consider tankless if you have space limitations. Tankless units provide hot water on demand but require larger gas lines.
  • Choose a reputable brand with a good product warranty. Many offer 6-10 years on tanks and 3-5 years on parts.
  • Don’t only consider price. Inexpensive units tend to have shorter lifespans. Invest for the long haul.
  • Look for value added features like self-cleaning tanks, anti-microbial anodes, leak detection, etc.

For professional installation, contact a licensed plumber or home improvement contractor. Or have a handy family member help – most tanks can be DIY installed if you’re comfortable working on basic plumbing.

Bottom Line

Here are my top pieces of advice when deciding whether or not to replace your aging water heater:

  • Proactively replace units over 10-12 years old before failure occurs
  • Look for decreased capacity, leaks, strange noises, discolored water, etc.
  • Replace earlier rather than later to avoid water damage or loss of hot water
  • Choose an energy efficient model sized for your household hot water needs
  • Invest in a quality unit from a reputable brand to maximize lifespan

As water heaters age, should i replace my water heater before it fails? becomes an important question to ask. Being proactive and replacing your unit in a 10-12 year timeframe can help avoid emergency failures and ensure you don’t experience issues like lack of hot water or leaks. The signs of wear will become apparent over time, so keep an eye out and consider replacement before total failure happens.

Replacing your water heater before failure is the ideal scenario. By being proactive and asking yourself the key questions above, you can maintain peace of mind and avoid emergency situations. As a plumber, I always advocate preventative maintenance and strategic replacement. Protect yourself and your home by getting ahead of problems with your water heater. The ideal time to budget for a new one is around the 10 year mark, before issues arise. Stay safe and never take hot water for granted!