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How and Why to Clean Your Hot Water Heater

by Jim Serre
Photo of water heater.You may have heard that in case of an emergency, your hot water heater is an excellent source of 40 to 50 gallons of fresh water. However, how many of you know how to get the water out, and is your hot water heater full of clean water? Behind oxygen, water is the most important element to human survival. Ensure that you have adequate water purification options as your primary defense against potentially contaminated water. Remember the following instructions relate to providing a secondary supply of emergency water.

Why Sediment is a Problem:

Over the years, sediment can form in the bottom of your hot water heater. This sediment consists of any solid material that does not get dissolved in the water. This can include sand or other grit from a well. Additionally, iron, magnesium and calcium may build up in the bottom of your hot water heater, causing discoloration or rust in the hot water taps.

Small accumulations of sediment are not considered a serious problem. However, too much sediment in the bottom of your heater can prevent the drain valve from working properly and even affect the operating efficiency of your hot water heater which costs you money. Also, since hot water can dissolve substances that will not dissolve in cold water, hot water drained from the heater may be overly contaminated with sediment impurities. To maintain the efficiency of your unit and ensure the highest water quality for you and your family you should flush your hot water tank occasionally. Make sure that when you decide to flush your hot water heater, you will not need hot water in your home for at least a couple of hours.

How to Flush Your Hot Water Tank:

There are two main types of water heaters, those powered by gas (natural or propane) and those running on electricity. The instructions below address both types.

1)Electric: If your hot water heater is electric, turn off the electricity to the water heater. You may need to turn off a breaker or remove a fuse in your electrical panel to ensure the unit is deactivated. Turning the electricity off is critical to ensure the electric heating element does not turn on when the heater is drained of water. This could cause the heating element to burn out and potentially require replacement of the entire water heater.

Gas: If your hot water heater is a gas powered unit, note the current temperature setting on the gas dial and then turn the gas dial to the lowest setting or “Pilot.”

2) Turn off the cold water supply valve to the heater which is generally located on top of the hot water heater.

3) Attach a garden hose to the drain valve located at the bottom of the heater. This drain valve typically looks like a regular outdoor hose bib and may be hidden under a removable cover. Run a hose from the drain valve to a convenient drain location. If you don't have a convenient drain available you will need to use a bucket to capture and remove drained water.

4) Open any hot water faucet in the house (generally one closest to the water heater).

5) Open the drain valve on the hot water heater and allow it to completely drain. If the drain valve is made of plastic and the heater is several years old, it may be difficult to open and may break easily if forced, so be gentle when opening the valve. If the drain valve clogs during the draining process, open the cold water supply valve and see if the water pressure will open the clog. If it does, close the cold water supply valve and fully drain the heater.

6) When the hot water heater is empty, close the drain valve and open the cold water supply valve. This may dislodge more sediment in the heater through the churning action of the cold water in the tank. Partially fill the heater with cold water, close the cold water supply valve and drain the heater again following Steps 2 through 5.

7) Look at the water being drained to see if it is clear or is there still some sediment in the drain water. If the water is clear continue to Step 9. If not, flush the hot water heater as described in Step 8.

8) Flush the hot water heater by opening the cold water supply valve while the drain valve is open and let the water run for 5 to 10 minutes. Close the cold water supply valve and repeat Step 7.

9) Close the drain valve, remove the hose and turn on the cold water supply valve and allow the hot water heater to fill with cold water.

10) Open all the hot water faucets in your home one-by-one to until any air in the line is purged and water flows smoothly. Note that the water will not be hot since you haven't turned the heating element on yet.

11) Electric: Turn the electricity to the water heater back on by turning the breaker on or replacing the fuse.

Gas: Turn the gas from “Pilot,” or the lowest setting, back to the current setting as noted in Step 1 above.

Your hot water heater is now clean and ready for continued use. Based on how long it had been since you previously flushed your hot water heater and the severity of the sediment you saw being drained, you can determine how often to flush your hot water heater. Most professionals recommend draining and flushing your hot water heater annually.

Getting Water for Emergency Use:

Should an emergency arise and you need access to the safe drinking water in your hot water heater, simply drain the water as described below.

If you only need a small amount of water, you can open the drain valve slowly and empty hot water into a suitable container. Keep in mind the water will be very hot so a metal or heat resistant glass container would work best. Remember also to protect your hands, arms and face from hot splashing water or the hot container.

Turn the electricity off to the hot water heater or the turn the gas valve to “Pilot” (as described in Step 1 above) if you intend to use all the water in your hot water heater. Also, turn off the cold water supply valve to isolate your hot water heater from potentially contaminated public piping systems (which can occur as the result of an earthquake). Allow several hours to pass before you attempt to drain large quantities of water from the hot water heater. Open any hot water faucet in the house and open the drain valve to capture clean drinking water. Still, the water may be hot so protect yourself accordingly.

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