Dear Angie: Is there a way to tell if a water heater is running at its optimum capacity? It seems that I have less hot water to go around these days, but maybe it's because of the colder weather. Does that affect what setting your water heater temperature should be? — Rachel H., Beech Grove, Ind.
Dear Rachel: A qualified, licensed plumber certainly could test your water heater to determine whether it's operating as it should, but there are some things you can consider to help decide whether your heater needs professional service.
The cold weather could be a factor in how long it takes for the water to heat up. Because the incoming water is colder, it will take longer for the water heater to heat the water to the temperature setting — 120 degrees is typically what's recommended for residential uses.
Another problem could be that because it is colder, you might be using more hot water. People often like to use hotter water in the shower, for example, to compensate for the cold temps. As a result, the tank runs out of hot water more quickly. You might not be as likely to take such a hot shower during the summer, which means the hot water in the tank is not depleted as quickly and lasts longer.
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If the same problems you experience during the winter occur in warmer weather, then it's time to consult with a professional.
There are a number of other factors that could determine whether your water heater is working efficiently, including the size and type of heater, its age, how much maintenance has been done on it and the quality of your water.
If your family has grown in size, you might need a larger heater tank to accommodate increased use. Sediment buildup could affect its efficiency. As your heater ages, sediment forms in the form of calcium and lime — much as a film appears in a pan when you boil water, only on a much larger scale. Flushing the water heater of this sediment annually can help ensure it is operating at maximum efficiency.
Indiana typically has particularly hard water, so installing a water softener if you don't have one can help your heater run more efficiently and extend its life by several years. Tank water heaters typically last about 10 years before the heating elements start to wear down. If your heater is older than that, a professional inspection could determine whether it's time to replace it.
If you do have to replace it, you might consider a tankless water heater. It costs about three times the cost of a tank heater upfront, but it's far more efficient, lasts at least twice as long as a tank heater and takes up less space. Best of all, it delivers an almost endless supply of hot water, regardless of the season.