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There are two types of conventional water heaters, gas and electric. An electric water heater can be used almost anywhere. A gas water heater is most likely to be installed in a home that already uses gas for another appliance such as a furnace or stove. Building codes may dictate the placement of gas water heaters, restricting them to areas outside of normal home activity.

It is likely that if you are replacing a water heater, you'll simply replace it with the same type of unit that was already there. There may be exceptions to this rule, for a variety of reasons. In any case, if you choose to replace an electric unit for a gas unit—or vice versa—bring in a professional to do the job. Installing or removing gas lines is not a project for the do-it-yourselfer.

Even when replacing a unit of the same type, there are upgrade possibilities that should be considered. For example: if space allows, you may choose to increase the unit's holding capacity to accommodate your growing family. Another important consideration is the unit's energy efficiency. Replacement time is the perfect time to lower your energy bill by choosing a water heater that is more efficient than the one it will replace.

When looking for a water heater, consider these features:

Gallon capacity (40 gallon and 50 gallon heaters are most common.)

Recovery rate (the number of gallons the heater will heat in an hour.)

Dimensions (width and height—will the heater fit in the space you have for it? Physical space may limit your ability to upgrade your unit's capacity.)

The energy efficiency rating (a sticker on the side should list the estimated annual cost of operation for the unit.)

Know Your Water Heater
Before making any repairs or purchasing a new water heater, check the nameplate on the side of your current unit. Here you will find helpful information including the tank capacity, insulation R-value, installation guidelines, working pressure, model and serial number. If you have an electric water heater, the nameplate will also list the wattage capacity and voltage of the heating elements.

This information will serve as the starting point in your search for replacement parts, or a complete replacement unit.

Replace or Repair?
The water heater gets quite a workout in most homes. Based on manufacturer's suggested service life, the life expectancy of a water heater is about 8 to 12 years. That, of course, will vary with the severity of local weather, the unit design, quality of installation and the level of maintenance your unit has received.

If your water heater is more than 10 years old, leaks around the base of the tank, and/or works erratically or not at all, it probably needs to be replaced. In any case, make sure that an electrical problem such as a blown fuse or tripped breaker is not the reason for the unit's failure.

Common Problems
Perhaps the most common problem connected with a water heater is water that isn't as hot as you want it to be. This is usually caused by a faulty thermostat or a defective heating element.

Here are some basic steps to follow when your water is not hot enough:

Electric water heater

Make sure that the power is connected. Reset the thermostat.

Flush the heater to remove sediment from the tank.

Insulate the hot water pipes.

Replace the heating element or thermostat.

Raise the temperature setting on the thermostat.

Drain your water heater to reduce sediment.
Gas water heater

Make sure that the gas is connected and the pilot light is lit.

Flush the heater to remove sediment from the tank.

Insulate the hot water pipes.

Clean the gas burner and replace the thermocoupler (a safety device that shuts off the gas automatically if the pilot flame goes out).

Raise the temperature setting on the thermostat.
Other common problems and possible solutions:

Hissing or sizzling noises — Sediment may have collected in the tank. Drain the tank until the water clears. Soak elements in vinegar and scrape collected scale.

Leaking pressure-relief valve — Replace valve.

Leaking water supply pipes — Tighten the fittings. If that doesn't work, shut off the water and replace the fittings.

When Replacement is Necessary

Test your pressure valve.
If you are handy with tools, you might want to consider replacing your water heater yourself. For a direct replacement, installation is straightforward. Essentially, this involves putting the new unit in just like the old one came out, including the connection of supply water lines and electricity to the new unit. Masking tape is useful for marking water lines and electrical wires. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for your unit.

Be aware that it may be necessary to add threaded fittings (if they are not there already) to the ends of the existing pipes so you can connect them to the new water heater with the appropriate supply lines. If you have copper pipes, this will require "sweating" (soldering) the fittings to the pipes. If your pipes are rigid plastic (CPVC) you can add them by "solvent welding." Flexible plastic pipes will require the installation of compression fittings attached with a wrench. For more information on basic plumbing, visit How to Repair Frozen or Broken Pipes.

Consider these questions as you decide whether you want to tackle the job:

How will you get rid of your old water heater? Call for local codes governing disposal of such appliances. (Lowe's offers prompt delivery to your site, and with any paid water heater delivery, we will dispose of the old water heater for you.)

Will you be able to physically handle the unit? Water heaters are bulky and heavy. You'll appreciate having some help.

Do you have the tools necessary to do the job? The necessary tools are basic, but you will need adjustable wrenches, screwdrivers, a hacksaw and some good pliers. You may also need a propane torch if your installation uses copper pipe.

Do you have time to do the job? Replacing a water heater is not something you can do bit by bit. You must have heated water, so once you start, you'll have to finish.

If you intend to convert from electric to gas or vice-versa, have a professional do the job.

If you don't feel completely comfortable doing the job, contact a plumbing professional.

Remove the Old Water Heater
Turn off the water heater's power at the breaker. Test the wires coming in to the heater to ensure that the power is off.

Disconnect the wiring from the heater. Mark the wires as you remove them so you know which ones go where when you rewire the new water heater.

When working with electricity always:

Turn off the power.
Test the wires to ensure the power is off.
Lock the panel box, so no one can accidentally turn the power back on while you are working.
Check with local authorities to see if a permit is required.
Have your work checked by an inspector.
Wear eye goggles and a dust mask.
To avoid overloading the circuit, consult a licensed electrician.

Shut off the water supply to the water heater and open all the hot water spigots in the house. Connect a quality garden hose to the tank's drain valve and locate the draining end of the hose in an area that won't be adversely affected by the scalding hot water. Allow the tank to drain completely.

Disconnect the cold water inlet and the hot water outlet pipes from the unit. If the pipes are hard-plumbed to to the water heater, you will have to cut the lines and then reattach them later. If your pipes are attached with water heater connector hoses, you can simply unscrew them.

Remove the old water heater. Water heaters can be heavy, so you may need a helper.
Remove the heater from its water piping. If the pipes are connected with unions–removable threaded fittings–take them apart with a pair of pipe wrenches. Pipes without unions must be hack-sawed off. A pipe/tubing cutter will also do the job. The old heater can now be removed and disposed of in an approved manner.

Move your new heater to its location by "walking" it or by using an appliance cart, dolly, or hand truck.
Position the new heater so your piping–particularly a gas vent pipe–will reach easily.

For a gas heater, install the heater's new draft hood. Many heaters have legs that insert into holes on the heater's top. Every gas water heater needs proper venting that's no smaller than the draft hood collar of the new heater. It's a good idea to use new vent pipe elbows, since the old ones are probably corroded at their present angles. The vent should go straight up as far as possible. Any horizontal run in the vent should slope upward at least 1/4" per foot, as shown. Connect the vent pipe with short sheet metal screws.

Now you can make the hot and cold water connections. The type of materials you use will depend on your local code and the type of material used in the existing system. One of the easiest ways to make these connections is using flex-connectors. Flex-connectors are easy to bend to reach the connection.

The water piping is handled depending on whether your house has threaded metal, sweat-soldered copper, or thermoplastic piping, and whether the piping is 3/4" or 1/2". Whatever the piping, the heater should be fitted with a cold water gate valve. Place the valve in a vertical section of piping to keep it from becoming fouled with sediment.

For threaded pipe, you should have a union on both the hot and cold water lines. Old unions should be replaced. The two halves of a union are manufactured to fit together properly; replace the entire union. You will need new nipples for the top of the water heater. Their length will depend on the distance from the fittings on the top of the water heater to the unions. Allow for the distance the pipe threads into the fittings.

Unions are not necessary with flex-connectors. Use PTFE tape (but not pipe dope) on the male threads entering the flex-connectors. If your water heater has female-threaded tappings, you'll need a pair of 3/4" nipples to accept the flex-connectors at the bottom. If the heater comes with 3/4" male-threaded stubs, the nipples are not needed. At the top, the flex-connectors fit directly to the ends of the threaded pipes (or a male adapter for converting to copper or plastic). Some flex-connectors install to copper tubing without sweat-soldering. If you sweat-solder, be sure to do this before installing the flex-connectors to avoid damage to the connector gaskets. Unions are usually not needed with flex-connectors.

Thermoplastic pipe. Flex-connectors are not necessary with CPVC or PB plastic pipe. You'll need "transition unions" between the metal heater threads and the plastic piping. Some plastic fitting manufacturers also call for using foot-long threaded steel nipples between the water heater and the transition unions to distance the unions from conducted burner heat. You can use rigid CPVC tubing, solvent welding the joints. Or you can use flexible PB pipe, joining the joints with mechanical couplings. PB cannot be solvent welded. Don't try to hook up a water heater with PVC, PE or ABS plastic piping, since these will not take hot water.

A vital part of your water heater installation is a temperature and pressure relief valve and relief line. The relief system lets off excess heat and pressure automatically.

With all the plumbing connected, you can close the heater's drain valve and open the cold water inlet valve to fill the storage tank. Open a hot water faucet to release trapped air in the top of the tank. Close the faucet soon since water flows readily from it. Be sure to check for leaks.