The Water Heater

As DPOR licensed home inspectors in Virginia, we must adhere to a specific Standards of Practice laid out by the state which provides the bare minimum of what we are required to inspect during a standard full home inspection. Some companies including Summit Home Inspections go above and beyond these standards to provide our customers with information that we feel is important and relevant when purchasing a home. I have decided to explore and analyze the major systems we inspect to highlight the importance of the system itself in the function of the home and the importance of having it inspected. This month I’ll tackle the basics of inspecting a water heater.

A water heater is exactly what it’s title states: It heats water for the home and is connected to the plumbing system and responsible for distributing hot water to the fixtures and appliances throughout. What a great invention! Imagine a home without hot water for a minute. It is taken for granted as we expect to turn the faucet labeled hot or turn to the red dot and presto we have hot water. There are two ways the water heater is powered and two types of water heaters. Water heaters either utilize a tank which heats and holds water or are tankless which heats the water on demand as it passes through. All water heaters are either electric or gas powered giving us four configurations. Each of these have pros and cons and each have unique features that must be inspected.

First we will explore the most common and oldest the conventional tank water heater. Pictured below is a conventional tank water heater observed during an inspection in Norfolk. When we inspect this type we first look at the size and location. The water heater should be sized in relation to the home so that it can provide an appropriate amount of hot water. The most common locations are a utility room and the attic. When located in the attic it is more difficult to access and must have proper drainage method in place should the water heater leak to prevent damage to the home. Gas water heaters have a pilot light and require combustion then consequently must be vented properly out of the home usually through the roof. We check to make sure the vents are connected and sloped properly and are made of proper material. We also check the age of the water heaters as both types have an average industry standard lifespan respectively of 8-12 years for a gas water heater and 12-15 years for electric. This means that at their current ages under normal use begin exhibiting problems which lead to them needing to be replaced. We have observed many water heaters in use that are much older and are functioning sufficiently and we recommend that after the max ages they be monitored with future use and depending on physical condition, the homeowner budget for replacement accordingly. The fittings and connections are examined for leaking, rust and corrosion as is the condition of the tank itself. Pictured below is a water heater with rust and corrosion from a home in Portsmouth. Rust stains or water sitting in the drip pan are often tell-tale signs of a leak and a problem which must be rectified. Both gas and electric water heater tanks should have a drip pan installed underneath especially in the attic or if they are in the proximity of an area which could become compromised by leaking or bursting. These also have a TPR (Temperature Pressure Relief) Valve and the connected extension pipe must be made of appropriate materials, not reduce in size and discharge correctly (not less than 6” from the floor).  The TPR releases builds up steam with too much pressure. Note: We do not pull the pin and test it for function as it is difficult to reset. Pictured below is a water heater with no TPR valve extension installed from a home inspection we conducted recently in Virginia Beach. The electric water heater should have an electrical cutoff at the tank or be within sight and 50’ from the breaker box or have a lock on the breaker if not. Gas water heaters are often located in a garage and must be 18” off the floor and be protected by a guard from accidental contact by a car or machinery.

Tankless water heaters are a newer concept. Pictured below is a tankless water heater we encountered in Chesapeake. The age, leaks, fittings, corrosion, venting and function are the main aspects that we check with these. The pros are many. Their footprint is less and some are even installed on the exterior of the home. The home can receive more hot water on demand (once heated) on demand, and it is not heating the water constantly, so it conserves energy up to 35% less than tank units. The lifespan of a tankless water heater is also 25-30 years which is greater than a tank unit. These also have a control panel to easily dial in the water temp or to let you know if there’s a problem with a code. These units are generally more expensive but with the pros, the extra cost might be worth it over time.

Last but not least we check the water temperature of all water heaters with an IR thermometer or FLIR infrared camera. Pictured below is an IR test revealing 130 degree water temperature at a home inspection in Hampton. Generally speaking, we like to see the water temp above 100 and preferably at least 120 degrees which is the temperature that kills bacteria. Too hot and it can scald the user. Next month we will explore another system we inspect in a full home inspection.

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