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How Water Heaters Work

Water heaters raise the temperature of water for use in bathing, cooking, irrigation, industry and other hot-water applications. Here’s how the three basic types of water heaters work.

Electric Tank-Style Water Heaters

The standard water heater found in most households is a tank-style heater powered with electricity. The water heater resembles a large cylinder made of metal and is insulated.

At the top of the electric tank-style heater is a connection to a cold-water dip tube that’s inserted into the tank. The dip tube is long enough to supply cold water below the electric heating elements in the water heater. The heating elements or burners heat the cold water, which rises to the top of the water heater. A heat-out pipe is connected to the top of the water heater and delivers hot water from the top section of the tank.

Gas-Fueled Tank-Style Water Heaters

Gas-fueled tank-style water heaters work similarly to electric tank-style water heaters. A dip tube brings cold water into the tank, and a heat-out pipe delivers hot water to hot water plumbing fixtures from the top of the tank. However, gas-fueled heaters work by heating the water in the tank via an internal metal chimney. A gas burner supplies a flame that raises the temperature of the metal chimney. The fumes and hot air from the gas combustion rise up in the chimney and flow outside via the chimney vent system. Both gas and electric tank-style water heaters heat and store water, so hot water is always available.

Tankless Water Heaters

Tankless water heaters are also called demand-type water heaters. While tank-style heaters act as storage units for hot water, tankless water heaters only heat water as needed. You turn on the hot water tap, cold water begins flowing into the tankless appliance, and the appliance begins heating the water immediately with a heat exchanger. Tankless water heaters are available in gas-fired and electric versions.

Tankless water heaters save money because they aren’t constantly heating stored water. Hot water continues flowing as long as you need it, and the appliance shuts off as soon as hot water taps are closed. However, tankless water heaters have a limited ability to provide continuous hot water. Gas-fired water heaters offer higher flow rates of hot water than electric tankless water heaters. If a home or business needs a large quantity of hot water for simultaneous uses, several tankless water heaters can be installed.

Water Heater Thermostats

All types of water heaters include thermostats that the user sets to their preferred temperature. Lowering the water-heater thermostat can help save energy and protect small children from scalding. Higher water-heater thermostat settings can ensure that there is ample hot water for a large family, a busy restaurant or a business that uses a large quantity of heated water.

Water Heater Safety

Tank-style water heaters include anode rods and temperature-pressure relief valves. Anode rods are sacrificial devices that protect the tank from corrosion. Temperature-pressure relief valves let pressurized hot water out of the tank to reduce risks of water-heater explosions. Both anode rods and temperature-pressure valves must be maintained and tested periodically.


water heater travel trailer leak

RVing Beginner

Is Your RV Water Heater Leaking? Here’s What To Do

We’ve learned to enjoy the luxury of hot water in our RVs so we can wash off the bug spray and camp smoke.

Can cold water be used to wash dishes and take a shower? Sure, but are you interested? No.

For the optimal performance and life cycle, water heaters in an RV need maintenance just as all other systems and appliances do.

Even with routine maintenance, problems from usage might arise.

The issue that occurs most often is a leaky water heater.

This could seem negative at first glance.

A new water heater may be costly to install and is often beyond the technical capabilities of the majority of RV owners.

However, fixing a leaky RV water heater is often simple.

A water heater might leak for a few typical causes.

#1. Valve For Pressure Relief

The fundamental workings of a water heater are as follows: Water is put into a tank, which is then heated using either gas or electricity.

When this occurs, the temperature and expansion increase, leading to an increase in pressure within the tank.

The tank and its components can only sustain a given amount of pressure, and the high temperatures and associated pressures may be hazardous.

The safety device that makes sure the maximum pressure or temperature isn’t exceeded is the pressure relief valve.

However, if the pressure relief valve on your water heater is leaking, it could simply be performing its job.

It may be necessary to refill the tank to the right level and with the correct air gap if the valve only leaks while the tank is heated.

The top of the tank has an air gap that allows for some expansion, but sometimes this space is decreased, increasing the access pressure and causing water to drop from the valve.

The valve may be changed by removing it and replacing it after emptying the tank and before refilling it if it is leaking when the tank is cold or generating more than a trickle.

Make that the tank is cool, then carefully remove any pressure.

Hot water at high pressure may be quite harmful!

#2. Drain Stopper

There is a drain plug at the base of the tank on every water heater.

For maintenance purposes, this plug must be constantly withdrawn and replaced; as a result, thread wear and breakage are likely.

Since most drain plugs are made of plastic, it’s simple to break the threads, which will cause a leak.

If the stopper has a suspected pinhole, heating the tank will probably cause the leak to pressurize and produce more of a spray.

By using plastic, a metal plug is prevented from corroding and harming the tank itself.

A drain plug’s damaged threads are inexpensive and simple to repair.

The tank may need to be completely replaced if its threads get damaged.

There are metal plugs that, in principle, shouldn’t ever need to be taken out.

Remember that flushing your tank is more difficult if the drain stopper is not removed, and the narrower valve may prevent heavier material from being drained out.

It’s simple to replace the drain stopper, and now is an excellent opportunity to cleanse the water heater.

#3. Fittings

The fittings on your water heater are probably plastic fittings with a metal clamp keeping them in place, much like the majority of RV plumbing fittings.

When these clamps and fittings malfunction, water may flow slowly or continuously.

A camping excursion over the weekend could be avoided if you have a few connectors and clamps in your toolbox.

Keep in mind that the clamps need a certain tool to be fastened, which is another useful item to have.

You must always turn off the water supply and drain any water from the lines before removing a fitting or disconnecting a water line.

#4. Tank of Water

Hopefully, the worst-case situation won’t come to pass.

You will sadly need to replace the whole tank if you see water leaking from the tank’s body or from any of the fittings that were welded to it.

Considering the tremendous pressure and boiling water temperatures, ignoring a leaky tank may be hazardous.

To pinpoint the site of a leak, the insulation may need to be removed.

A water heater’s whole assembly may be changed, or in certain circumstances, simply the tank.

This worst-case situation may be avoided with routine maintenance, which includes flushing, checking, and replacing anode rods (in systems that incorporate them).

The anode rod is a low-cost tank insurance option.

In order to preserve the material of the tank, anode rods are made to corrode instead of the tank.

A week of chilly showers may be avoided if you know how to replace your leaky RV water heater.

You may complete this and many other RV tasks by working with other RVers and resources like iRV2 Forums.

Use an online application like RV LIFE Maintenance to keep track of all your RV maintenance and repairs.

You can maintain all of your documentation in one location, and you’ll also get timely alerts when maintenance is needed to protect you from having to pay for expensive repairs or maybe having a major accident.

Updated on May 5, 2023

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