Troubleshooting Common Water Heater Problems: DIY Fixes

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Nothing can ruin your day like getting into the shower only to have the hot water fizzle out when you’re halfway through. Right next to that is finding out that a pool of water is slowly forming around your water heater.

These are two common problems you will encounter with your water heater. The good news is you can fix some of them without calling a pro or replacing the whole thing. Sometimes, you simply need to adjust a setting or reset the system.

However, before you do anything, check the paperwork. Your water heater may still be under warranty, so it may cover some repairs. Suppose you’ve lost your warranty card. You can check the plate that has the serial and model number. The dealer can help determine your eligibility for free or discounted parts. 

You also need to ensure the heater has no power before you work on it. Water heaters are high voltage, so you don’t want to risk an electric shock. Flip the heater’s breaker and use a non-contact voltage tester to check if any wires are live.

Cold Water Only

Suppose your faucets and showers are producing cold water only. That may be due to several reasons, aside from too many people using it before you. The power may not be enough to heat the water, or the limit switch may have tripped. Another reason could be the wrong thermostat setting or the failure of one or two heating elements.

Before anything else, check the thermostat. Ideally, you want it set at 120 degrees Fahrenheit to save energy, but the range is up to 140 degrees. Anything higher may result in too hot water and a bunch of money going down the drain.

If the thermostat is not within that range, adjust it and wait for half an hour. If there is still no hot water, it’s time to check other things. The necessary steps will depend on whether you have an electric or gas-powered heater.


Suppose you have an electric heater. In that case, check the circuit breaker to see if it tripped. If it has, push it to OFF before rocking it to ON.

Suppose nothing appears tripped on the service panel. The next step is to reset the heater. Switch the breaker to the OFF position to ensure no power flows through the water heater. You will typically find a red reset button inside the access panel. Remove its cover and press the reset button. Push the breaker to the ON position and see if the water heats up.

You can also try turning the heater off, waiting about five minutes before turning it back on. Wait half an hour before checking if the water heats up.


Suppose your water heater is gas-powered. In that case, your first step is to verify that the pilot light is on. Relight it if it’s off, following the instructions typically found on the side of the heater. However, don’t attempt to relight the pilot light if you smell gas. Get everybody out of the house and call the gas company for help.

Another issue might be that the pilot light keeps flickering off when you release the control knob. There is likely something wrong with the thermocouple, which shuts off the gas when the pilot light goes out. Check the thermocouple to see if it is straight. If it isn’t, you can try adjusting its position. If that doesn’t work, you might have to replace it.

When nothing you try results in a satisfying flow of hot water, it is time to call in a professional. A plumber will know what to do to fix your water heater.

On the other hand, you also need to consider if the supply is inadequate. You typically need a water heater with an 80-gallon tank to supply the needs of four people.

Water Leaking

Water puddling around your heater usually means a leaky valve or loose connections. If the water is warm, the likely source is the outlet pipe, so you can start there. Check each connection and tighten anything that seems loose with a plumbing wrench. Suppose one of the pipes has a break or crack. You should remove it and bring it to the hardware store for the correct replacement.

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Weird Water Smell or Color

Don’t ignore the weird smell or color of your water. It could mean either a rusted anode rod or bacteria in the water. An anode rod attracts sediment, minerals, and oxygen from the tank to prevent rust. You may need to hire a plumber to replace the anode rod if the water comes out brown, red, or yellow.

On the other hand, suppose you suspect bacteria in the water are causing a rotten egg smell. Turning your thermostat over 140 degrees Fahrenheit for eight hours might kill it. Ensure no one uses the water during that period as it can be scalding hot. If that doesn’t work, call a professional to fix it.

Preventive Measures

The best way to prevent bacteria from taking up shop in your water heater is to treat it regularly. Mix two pints of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide with 40 gallons of water. Shut the cold-water valve to the heater off and open a hot water line to drain some water from the tank. Find an access valve on the tank’s side to pour the solution and run it through the pipes.  

Let it sit for at least two hours to kill the bacteria. You won’t have to rinse it off as the solution is not toxic, so you can safely keep it in for a few hours. Empty the tank through the hot water line, then open the cold-water valve to let in fresh water.  

Regular flushing annually can also prevent a buildup of deposits in the tank that can cause water to heat up too much. Before you start, close the cold-water valves and turn off the power to the heater. Most water heater tanks have an outlet at the bottom that can fit a garden hose. Open the drain and temperature pressure relief valves to allow the water to drain. After the tank is empty, close the drain and relief valves, open the inlet valve, and turn on the power.

Bottom Line

Some water heater problems are easy to fix, but others might be more complex or dangerous for amateurs. You should call in a professional if you are doubtful about your ability to address the issue safely. They can give you the best advice on what to do next. 

Suppose your water heater is over eight years old, which is the lower limit of its lifespan. You might need to replace the appliance altogether. In that case, you might want to opt for a tankless or solar water heater. It will save you money, as explained in the home energy rebates guide for Ontario residents. They will also help you avoid these common problems.

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