Dear Angie: My water heater is past its expected lifetime. Should I replace it automatically or wait until it fails? — Jennifer B., Newton, Mass.
Answer: Your question reminds me of the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Or, more precisely, don't replace it.
Several highly rated experts our researchers interviewed say there's no need to spend money on a new water heater if your old one works. The typical life span of a water heater is 10 to 15 years, but some do last longer.
One exception to this thought is if you want to upgrade to a more energy-efficient unit. Not only will you save money over time on energy costs, but you might be able to take advantage of a federal tax credit that expires Dec. 31. It allows a credit of $300 to eligible taxpayers who buy a new, energy-efficient water heater, which can range in cost from $2,800 to $4,500.
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But if you're not sure whether to replace what's working, consider the following factors:
■ How well have you maintained the water heater? Experts say regularly maintained units that have been flushed annually will last longer than those that have been neglected.
■ Where is it located in the house? If it's on a main or upper floor and there's no drain nearby, it could leak, creating the need for expensive repairs. If it's in the basement and near a drain, a leak is less of a concern.
■ How much use does the heater receive? The more people who use hot water in a house, the more wear the heater has experienced.
■ What is the water quality in your area? Hard or poor-quality water can cause a greater level of sediment to build up and might shorten your water heater's life.
■ If you decide to keep using your aging-but- operable water heater, consider having a plumber perform a full inspection and routine maintenance. This generally would include checking for rust, making sure connections are in good order, and ensuring that the gas valve, pan and burner chamber show no signs of corrosion or leakage. Also, the plumber can flush cold water through the water heater to remove sediment and debris from the bottom of the tank, allowing it to work more effectively.
If you learn that the water heater needs a relatively costly repair, it might be wiser to invest in a new unit. Highly rated service providers tell our team that it's rarely a good value to fix a water heater that's reached its expected life span unless you can be assured it could last at least five more years.