One of the most common complaints regarding water heaters is, “I don’t have enough hot water.” This section is meant to offer some of the possible causes.
If you move from a place that has a very large water heater, or perhaps an apartment complex with big commercial water heaters, to one with a single 30- or 40-gallon tank, you might well think there’s something terribly wrong. If you were served by a commercial heater, you could literally shower forever without running out of hot water. Also, if you move from a place with a gas heater to one with an electric, you’ll notice a difference. Electrics take longer to heat water.
In a 40-gallon tank, on the other hand, not even the whole 40 gallons is always hot, only about two-thirds. Especially if you have high-flow shower heads, you can run that out in a big hurry. Just be aware that a tank that size has limitations. That is the most common-size tank in use, and usually it is perfectly adequate for a family of four. But if you’ve just started the washing machine or dishwasher, don’t expect to have a long, idyllic shower at the same time.
If you’ve taken all this into consideration and you’re still unhappy, maybe it’s time for a new water heater. In that case, head to Choosing a Water Heater.
If you have a big house and the water heater is on one end and your bathroom is on the other, get used to frustration. We had a friend with this situation and he was waiting what seems like an eternity (to him, at least) for the shower to turn hot. That’s because there’s about a hundred feet of piping lying between his shower and the water heater. When he started his shower, all the water in that piping that had cooled off had to be run out the shower and new hot water drawn from the tank before he could step in.
The usual solution is a pump- or gravity-feed recirculation system to keep hot water circulating in piping all the time. There’s a tradeoff here. You cut down on water use (all that cold water doesn’t have to go down the drain in order to draw hot from the tank), but you increase your standby heat loss and thus, energy bill, because that circulating water is constantly radiating away heat. It helps to insulation the pipes, if you can.
A more elegant solution is the Metlund D’MAND, a pump you activate only when you want hot water. It pulls that from the water heater in a very short time, saving water AND saving energy.
In our friend’s case, we found that he actually had a recirc line and pump that he didn’t know about. Apparently it had been shut off when the house went into escrow. Made all the difference…
The Dip Tube
“The dip what?” you might say. In every water heater, there is a plastic tube parked in the cold port that brings cold water to the bottom of the tank to be heated — and preventing it from mixing with already-heated water in the top of the tank.
If that falls into the tank or splits or breaks, then cold mixes with hot and suddenly your water heater doesn’t work nearly as well as before.
There’s a ton of Americans out there who know all about this because of a debacle more than 20 years ago. The company that makes most of the dip tubes in this country changed its formula for the plastic. The new plastic was prone to disintegrate in certain conditions. The operative time period was August 1993 to March 1996. Aside from gradually or suddenly having much less hot water, the telltale was finding bits of plastic clogging faucet aerators.
There was a scandal, class-action suit, and settlement. But the terms of that expired more than a decade ago, so if you find you have the problem, all you can do is try to deal with it. Even after replacing the dip tube and flushing the tank, you might still find plastic bits for awhile. But at least the water will again be hot.
Debacles aside, you should also be aware that even good plastic will eventually become brittle with age and hot water. We’ve found dip tubes in old water heaters that were split and broken. It’s entirely possible for a water heater to outlive its dip tube. Simply replacing this inexpensive part can restore your tank’s function to new and save you the cost of a new heater. So think about that before you run out and buy a new one if you experience this problem.
New gas water heaters are more troublesome than old ones and require maintenance people have not had to do in the past. For once, old beats “new and improved.”