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When Should You Replace Your Water Heater?

The water heater is one of the most overlooked appliances in the home. Typically, an unassuming cylindrical tank tucked out of the way - usually in the basement or garage - we don’t think about it much, until we must. Suddenly, our hot showers don’t last as long. Or the water coming out of the tap is more lukewarm than hot - or worse yet—completely cold! That’s why replacing your water heater before it’s too late can help you avoid a major headache when it fails.

When thinking about a replacement, there are some compelling reasons to consider an ENERGY STAR certified electric heat pump water heater to save serious money and energy while helping the environment.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about water heater replacement, answered!

When should I consider replacing my water heater?

If you suspect your water heater is more than 10 years old—it is time to consider replacing it before you’re left with an emergency decision. To determine the age of your water heater, you’ll need to identify the Brand Name and Serial Number for your unit. In some cases, the date of manufacture is printed on the same tank label where the serial number is located. If not, you will need to consult an online water heater industry resource to determine how to read the serial number in a way that will decode the manufacturing date. The following are good resources for looking up your water heater serial number and figuring out your water heater’s age:

What are the signs my water heater is failing or may need significant repair?

Sometimes water heaters can appear to be working fine and then fail without warning. Most times, though, there are early signs that your water heater may need help. Some of the more common red flags for possible water heater failure are:

  • Visible corrosion – Corrosion is a sign that the water heater is breaking down. Whether the corrosion is around the water lines or on the unit itself, it is a sign of deterioration that can lead to weakening the system and contributing to the water heater failing.
  • Water leaking – Leaks from any joints, seals, or seams of your hot water heater is usually an indication there is a problem (potentially caused by corrosion, as mentioned above). Hot water heaters are designed to be a “closed” system and any moisture outside of that system is an indication that something is breaking down. Water leaking can get worse and not only be damaging to the water heater itself, but potentially the area and things around it.
  • Rust in your water – Rust in the water is usually a sign that the interior of the water heating system is corroding and breaking down.
  • Lack of available hot water – Aging and poor maintenance can cause sediment to build up inside the tank in a way that reduces capacity. Chemicals and minerals in our water can contribute to the corrosion and breaking down of the inside of the tank. The sediment and particulates can then build up and reduce the available water to be heated and used by your home.
  • Rumbling noises – Water heaters are designed to operate consistently, quietly, and reliably. If your water heater is making unusual noises, rumblings, or vibrations, it is likely straining to operate correctly. Very often rumbling can be attributed to a build-up of sediment on the bottom of the tank, which can lead to bigger problems. Any noises should be checked out.

Ignoring these issues can lead to sudden failure of the water heater, cold water, and in some cases, tank rupture and water damage to the floor and carpets. The other downside to sudden failure is that you may have to schedule an emergency replacement with the plumber, which can be more expensive, and typically limit your replacement options to inefficient models with high operating costs.

Why should I consider upgrading to an ENERGY STAR certified electric heat pump water heater?

An ENERGY STAR certified electric water heater, known as a heat pump water heater (HPWH) uses new technology and can save a household of four more than $330 per year on its electric bills, compared to a standard electric water heater, and more than $3,530 over its lifetime (see table below). Larger families—that typically use more hot water—will save even more! While an ENERGY STAR certified electric water heater costs more upfront, the savings will pay back the difference in two years for a household of four. Replace your aging electric water heater before it fails and start enjoying the savings right away.

Savings and Paybacks for ENERGY STAR Heat Pump Water Heaters
Savings and Paybacks for ENERGY STAR Heat Pump Water Heaters
Household Size Annual kWh Savings Annual $ Savings Payback (years) Lifetime Savings
2 1,350 $170 4.8 $1,370
3 2,020 $250 3.2 $2,450
4 2,690 $330 2.4 $3,530
Assumes: $0.124/kWh; Incremental Cost = $800; 13-year lifespan

You may be able to reduce your up-front costs by taking advantage of generous rebates and a federal tax credit. Use the ENERGY STAR Rebate Finder or check with your local utility to determine whether there is special pricing available for ENERGY STAR certified water heaters in your zip code. Federal Non-Business Energy Property Tax Credits have been retroactively extended from the end of 2017 through December 31, 2020 for qualifying energy efficiency upgrades to permanent residences. These include a $300 tax credit for ENERGY STAR certified HPWHs.

In addition to the good a HPWH can do in your home, choosing a model that earned the ENERGY STAR label is also good for the planet. If all residential electric water heaters less than 55 gallons sold in the United States were ENERGY STAR certified HPWHs, the energy cost savings would grow to almost $12 billion each year, and 140 billion pounds of annual greenhouse gas emissions would be prevented, equivalent to the emissions from more than 13 million vehicles.

How do I know if an electric heat pump water heater is right for me?

ENERGY STAR makes it easy to determine whether an electric HPWH is the best choice for your home with our mobile-friendly, Water Heater Replacement Guide. The guide examines the following factors:

  • Electric Supply: Your current water heater is electric, not gas.
  • Access to Air: Do you have a location for your new water heater that is greater than 40°F and well ventilated?
  • Head Room: Do you have the necessary space (electric heat pump water heaters are taller).
  • Water Drainage: Do you have an area for drainage, like a nearby floor drain, or other outlets via a small condensate pump?

The guide can also help you take the next step by linking you to a searchable list of installers experienced with electric HPWH installation and operation.

Author: Nate Jutras