Do It Yourself Tips: Gas Water Heater Repair

Many problems that bring your hot water to a sudden stop are within the scope of the average homeowner. Here's what to look for.

The idea of cold showers as colder weather approaches is scary enough, but it doesn't always mean spending big bucks for a new one. A trip to the hardware store and a little elbow grease may be all you need to keep those bucks in your wallet.

If your gas water heater gives you the cold shoulder, it's a safe bet that the flame is out. It may be that the pilot light is out if you have one; some newer models don't.

Remove the access cover and take a look inside. Turn the control knob to "pilot" and press down for about 30 seconds while using a long match to re-light it. Then release the knob and see if the pilot continues to burn. If the flame is unusually small, there's an adjustment screw on the control unit where the knob is. Using an appropriate screwdriver, slowly turn it until the flame is correctly sized. Then, turn the knob to the "on" position and see what happens.

If the pilot continues to go out, listen for the sound of water dripping onto the burner with a hissing noise as it touches the hot plate. If you have an older unit, you're tank is corroded and leaking, and the only alternative is to replace it. But it's also an opportunity to look into new Energy Star heaters or super-efficient in-line water heaters. Available in both gas and electric designs, these must be installed in one or more new locations -- where hot water is used.

If there's no leak and the pilot light will not stay lit, it's probably the thermocouple. This is an inexpensive part available from your local plumbing supply store. Turn off the gas, remove the old unit, and make a note of the make and model of the heater. It's fairly simple to remove it and replace it with a new one. While you're at it, note any accumulation of rust on the burner surface and below. Vacuum it out with a vacuum cleaner and a narrow, long-nose attachment. It's a good idea to do this once a year. It's also the perfect time to remove dust, spider webs and other combustibles.

Preventive maintenance also calls for draining the tank with a water hose attached to the drain spigot once or twice a year depending on usage. This removes rust build-up and increases the life of your water heater.

Smell gas while the unit is running? Turn the knob to off immediately and use a hand-pump spray water bottle with water and a few drops of dish detergent. Spray it on the gas line where you suspect the gas is coming from, and watch for gas bubbles. You may need to simply tighten a joint. If that doesn't do the trick, turn off the gas and remove the rigid pipe or flexible tubing. If you spot serious corrosion, replace it with rigid black iron or stainless steel flexible gas tubing. Apply a Teflon pipe sealer with a brush applicator or pipe tape to the threads as directed on the label. If it's merely a poor connection, use a sealer and re-attach rigid black iron, but flexible tubing should be replaced. Then, turn on the gas (but don't light the flame), and test it again with your spray bottle.

If you don't see bubbles or smell gas, the problem is solved.

Remember to use replacement parts made for gas which correspond to your local building code.

Often, a new unit is not needed, and these are the most common problems that are well worth a little of your time and a lot less of your cash.

© High Speed Ventures 2011