Our love affair with hot water goes back to the Romans, who built baths filled with hot water. Of course, the Romans didn’t invent hot water heaters, but they certainly had the right idea about soaking in heated water. Today, water heaters are an essential part of daily life. But like all home appliances, water heaters don’t last forever. In fact, most water heaters give their owners about 8-12 years of service. Are you prepared for what happens when this critical appliance stops working?

Water Heater Troubleshooting

Don’t panic! Instead, read our water heater troubleshooting tips and the solutions to 7 common water heater problems.

  1. No Hot Water

Your idea of starting the day off right includes a cup of steaming coffee and a hot, luxurious shower. What do you do when the hot water runs out? The solution to your hot water dilemma depends on whether you have a gas or electric hot water heater. If it’s gas, the first thing you should do is make sure you have gas access. If you suspect there’s no gas, call the gas company.

Next, verify the pilot light hasn’t blown out. If it’s not the pilot light, check the thermocouple. The thermocouple is a safety device that stops gas flow when the pilot light goes out. Sometimes the thermocouple just needs an adjustment so that the tip lines back up with pilot light flame.

For electric hot water heaters, start troubleshooting with a quick reset. Turn off the water heater for a few minutes and then turn it back on. Wait about ½ hour and see if your water heats up. If that doesn’t work, perform a hard reset by shutting off power to the water heater at the circuit breaker box. Once you flip the switch back on, if it doesn’t remain fully on, you may have a bad circuit breaker.

Maybe you have hot water, but it doesn’t stay hot long enough for you to finish your shower. Continue reading and find out why that happens.

  1. Not Enough Hot Water

When you run out of hot water before the shower is over,  there may be more than one problem. The size of your hot water tank determines how much hot water you have available. If the tank is too small for your heating needs try the following tips:

  • Don’t shower, run the dishwasher, and wash clothes at the same time.
  • Turn your water heater temperature up to the 120-140 degree range.
  • Keep track of hot water usage.

Keep in mind that your household needs 75% of your water heater’s capacity for hot water. If you need 30 gallons of hot water and you have a 40-gallon tank, you’re fine. If your hot water usage is more than 75% of the water heater’s capacity, consider installing a bigger water heater.

It’s also possible you have a burner problem. Look at the burner flame and note the color. The flame should be bright blue with a yellow tip. If not, you’re dealing with inefficient combustion. The burner is always checked as part of your routine water heater maintenance. If you haven’t scheduled your service appointment yet this year, you’ll want to make it a priority.



  1. You Have Rusty Water

When you turn on the tap, you expect clear water, but what happens when it’s rusty brown? Rusty water usually means you have a build-up of sediment in the hot water heater. Sediment comes from traces of dirt and rust in your water supply. It accumulates and then settles on the bottom of the tank.

Water Heater Troubleshooting - rusty water

When you run the hot water, you disturb the sediment and get a blast of rusty water. This is an easy fix! Drain the water heater to flush out the rust. If that doesn’t work, you may need an anode rod replacement. When you can’t get rid of rusty water by flushing it out, it’s time for a call to your favorite plumber.

  1. Temperature Too Hot or Cold

No one enjoys a shower when the temperature jumps back and forth between too hot and too cold. Try these troubleshooting tips for your wishy-washy hot water tank. First, check your thermostat settings. Didn’t know you could adjust the thermostat on your water heater? Then this is good news for you!

Generally, the ideal temperature for hot water heaters is 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjusting the temperature isn’t difficult, especially if you have a water heater with a dial thermostat. If your thermostat is hidden behind a panel, grab two screwdrivers—a Philips head and a flat head. After removing the panel with the Philips head screwdriver, use the flathead to adjust the thermostat.

  1. A River Runs Through Your Home

When you discover water leaking from your hot water heater, check for the following problems:

  • Rust build-up
  • Broken drain valve
  • Faulty T&P valve
  • Condensation

Most pipe leaks have easy fixes that your plumber can handle for you. Unfortunately, if your water tank itself is leaking, it’s considered fatal and you’ll need a new hot water heater.

  1. What’s That Awful Smell?

The smell of rotten eggs when you turn on the hot water usually means you have a problem with anaerobic bacteria. When this type of bacteria comes in contact with your anode rod, it stinks!

Try this easy DIY fix for the stench:

  • Turn off the cold water valve.
  • Drain some of the hot water.
  • Disconnect the metal hose.
  • Pour 1 cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide for every 10 gallons your water heater holds.
  • Reconnect the metal hose.
  • Turn the cold water valve on.
  • Let it sit for several hours.

Hydrogen peroxide is environmentally safe and should get rid of the rotten egg odor.

  1. The Noisy Hot Water Heater

Water heaters are often ignored until they run out of hot water or make weird noises. Some noise is normal, like the crackling sounds made by a gas water heater. Others can indicate a need for action on your part. Popping sounds mean you have sediment build-up. Use the tips we shared about flushing the tank! If your water heater makes sizzling sounds, you may have a leak. The sizzling noise means water is dripping onto the burner. For this noise, call your plumber. If you hear screeching, check your inlet control valve. If it’s only halfway open, turn the valve so it’s wide open.

Need More Hot Water Heater Troubleshooting Tips?

As you can see, there’s no need to panic when you lose hot water, hear strange sounds, or smell something unusual coming from your hot water heater. Many problems have fairly simple DIY fixes. When you can’t fix it yourself, there’s always a local plumber who can investigate the problem. If you’ve tried these tips and still have problems, check out our archives for more hot water heater troubleshooting tips and solutions.