Ask Eartha: Beware the zombie water heater |

Ask Eartha: Beware the zombie water heater

A: Heating water in your home can be a spooky and expensive business. Water heating is typically the second-largest energy expense in your home, after space heating and cooling. It usually accounts for about 14 percent of your utility bill. While many water heaters produced today approach the 95 percent efficiency level, most of the older models live a life in the shadows – still producing hot water but using more and more energy to do so. Similar to a zombie cursed to endlessly wander Summit County unable to ride powder or drink beer, only searching for warm meat to devour. These zombie water heaters’ inefficiency is further exacerbated when used for heating domestic hot water as well as space heating.

Luckily, like any good citizen preparing for the zombie apocalypse, we have some practical solutions to deal with these aberrant life forms attached like leeches to our wallets. One of the first questions encountered is: “Should I get rid of my zombie hot water heater and get a new one?

If the old heater is leaking, replace it. That’s an easy decision. But if it’s not leaking, the question to ask yourself is if the water heater is still producing acceptable levels of hot water.

As with zombies, even if they can walk and gnaw the flesh on your arm, they still cannot ride powder or drink beer, so they will have to be “fixed” or replaced. There are a number of parts that may need to be replaced in the life of a water heater including the thermocouple, burner assembly and the anode rod. If the cost of the repair is low, it may be reasonable to keep the unit.

Another important step is to inspect the water heater to determine if it is a good candidate to keep and maintain. Check to see if there are any signs of rusting or leakage.

Similar to real life, if a person looks like a zombie, they probably are. Look into the combustion chamber and the flue of fuel-burning units. While slight rust or water marking from condensation are not a problem, heavy rust and water streaks are danger signals. A pile of rusty scale on top of the burner suggests that tainted air has damaged the flue.

If your water heater is in acceptable condition these three maintenance tasks will help keep it alive and resistant to zombiedom;

1. Check and replace the sacrificial node as needed

2. Get rid of sediment – drain once every six months

3. Prevent corrosion – Use steel rather than brass piping connectors to the water heater

To help increase the efficiency of existing water heaters, wrap the first 3-6 feet of the hot and cold water pipes with pipe wrap insulation, wrap the water heater tank with an insulating hot water jacket, and set the water heater at 120 degrees F or the lowest practical setting for your preferences. This will reduce standby losses. Overall, the first two items noted above have the best potential for savings with a simple payback of six-12 months.

Whatever water-heating choice you make, safety, simplicity, low cost, and ease of use should be your major goals – as well as zombies. Good luck!

Eartha Steward is written by Jennifer Santry and Erin Makowsky, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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