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Why Does My Hot Water Heater Keep Going Out?

By December 18, 2023Water Heater
Hot water heater

Hot water is a cornerstone of home comfort, whether it’s for washing dishes, doing the laundry, or simply enjoying a warm bath. But when the warmth wanes and the water runs cold, many homeowners are frustrated and wonder what’s causing their hot water heater to keep going out.

Understanding the basic functions of your home’s hot water supply is essential, not just for those moments of unexpected chill but also for the longevity and efficiency of your hot water system.

In this article, we’ll explore the specific reasons why your water heater may be failing and provide actionable advice on how to address these setbacks. Whether it’s a pilot light that won’t stay lit or a thermostat that’s lost its way, we’ve got you covered.  Let’s turn up the heat and get to it!

Understanding Your Hot Water Heater

When you’re left puzzling over the sudden loss of hot water, it helps to have a grasp on the system that’s supposed to be delivering that steady stream of warmth. To understand the cold spells that plague some water heaters, a bit of insight into their operation is essential.

Today’s homes mainly have two water heater types: gas and electric. Gas models heat water by burning natural gas beneath the tank. Electric models use heating elements inside the tank. Both aim for efficiency, yet issues can arise.

Ideally, these heaters provide steady hot water on demand. But common problems can disrupt this, like stubborn pilot lights in gas heaters or tripped circuit breakers in electric models. Knowing these issues is crucial and often fixable with some troubleshooting.

Gas hot water heater vs electric hot water heater

Common Causes of Hot Water Heater Failures

Navigating the waters of water heater woes can be tricky, but armed with the right knowledge, you can often pinpoint the problem yourself. Let’s dive into the common causes that may be interrupting your hot water supply and how to troubleshoot them.

Pilot Light Problems in Gas Water Heaters

One of the most frequent issues with gas water heaters is a pilot light that won’t stay lit. This small flame is crucial as it ignites the gas burner that heats your water. If it goes out, your water heater can’t do its job. Common reasons for a pilot light going out include a faulty thermocouple, a dirty pilot tube, or drafts that blow the flame out.

Thermostat Issues

Both gas and electric hot water heaters rely on thermostats to regulate the water temperature. If your thermostat is malfunctioning, it can result in water that’s too hot, too cold, or completely unheated. A quick check of the thermostat settings can sometimes solve the issue, but if not, the thermostat may need replacement.

Heating Element Failures in Electric Water Heaters

In electric water heaters, the heating elements are immersed directly in the water and are responsible for heating it. Over time, these elements can burn out or become covered in sediment, reducing their effectiveness or causing them to fail.

Sediment Build-up

Water naturally contains minerals that can accumulate as sediment at the bottom of your water heater tank. This build-up can insulate the water from the heat source, making your heater work harder and potentially leading to overheating and shutdown.

Gas Supply Issues

For gas water heaters, an interruption in the gas supply can result in no hot water. This could be due to a closed gas valve, a gas leak, or problems with the gas line. If you suspect a gas supply issue, it’s important to exercise caution and consider contacting a professional to safely inspect and resolve the problem.

Pressure Relief Valve Leaks

The pressure relief valve is a safety feature designed to release pressure if your water heater tank becomes too pressurized. If this valve is leaking, it could indicate an overpressure situation or a malfunction within the valve itself. Resolving this issue may involve replacing the valve or addressing the pressure problem.

Troubleshooting Tips for Your Water Heater

When your water heater is on the fritz, a little know-how can go a long way. Before you call in the experts, there are several troubleshooting steps you can take to potentially resolve the issue. Let’s walk through some basic diagnostic and repair strategies for the common causes previously discussed.

Rekindling the Pilot Light

If your gas water heater’s pilot light has gone out:

  • Ensure that the gas valve is fully open to allow gas flow.
  • Follow the instructions on your water heater to safely relight the pilot. This typically involves turning the gas control knob to ‘pilot’ and pressing the ignition button.
  • If the pilot doesn’t light or stay lit, it could be a sign of a faulty thermocouple which may need to be replaced.

Adjusting or Replacing Thermostats

To address thermostat issues:

  • Verify that the thermostat is set to the desired temperature.
  • Use a multimeter to check for electrical continuity. If there’s no continuity, the thermostat may need replacing.
  • If you’re uncomfortable working with electrical components, contact a professional.

Heating Element Examination

For electric water heaters with faulty heating elements:

  • Turn off the power to your water heater at the circuit breaker.
  • Test each heating element with a multimeter to check for continuity. No continuity suggests that the element needs replacement.
  • If replacing an element, ensure the power remains off during the entire process.

Tackling Sediment Build-up

To flush out sediment:

  • Turn off the power or gas to the heater and shut off the cold water supply.
  • Attach a garden hose to the drain valve and run the other end to a location where you can safely discharge hot water.
  • Open the drain valve and allow the tank to empty, flushing out sediment.
  • Refill the tank by closing the valve and turning on the cold water supply, then restore power or gas.
Visual of sediment buildup inhibiting hot water heater

Addressing Gas Supply Issues

For potential gas supply problems:

  • Check to ensure the gas valve is open.
  • If you smell gas or suspect a leak, shut off the main gas valve, evacuate the area, and contact emergency services.
  • For non-emergency issues, such as a burner that won’t ignite, consider consulting with a licensed professional as these issues can be complex and hazardous.

Repairing Pressure Relief Valve Leaks

To fix a leaking pressure relief valve:

  • Test the valve by lifting the handle to release a little water, then letting it snap back into place. A functioning valve will allow some water to flow out and then stop.
  • If the leak persists, it may be due to excessive pressure or a faulty valve. You might need to replace the valve or adjust your water heater’s pressure settings.

Other Recommended Maintenance

While troubleshooting steps are helpful to know, maintaining your water heater involves more than simply reacting to problems as they arise. Beyond regular sediment flushing, it’s wise to periodically inspect the water heater’s anode rod, which protects tanks from corrosion, and replace it if it’s significantly worn down. Insulating older tanks and pipes can also improve energy efficiency, especially in colder climates.

Checking the temperature and pressure relief valve for proper operation can prevent dangerous overpressure situations. It’s also beneficial to keep the area around your water heater clear of debris to ensure adequate ventilation, particularly for gas heaters. By attending to these maintenance tasks, you can help avoid unexpected breakdowns and enjoy the consistent performance of your water heater.

When to Call a Professional

Understanding when to defer to a professional is crucial in maintaining the safety and functionality of your hot water heater. Firstly, if you’ve followed troubleshooting steps to no avail, it’s time to consult a professional to investigate.

The presence of a gas smell or a hissing sound near your water heater is an immediate red flag, signaling the need for expert intervention due to the potential hazard of a gas leak. Similarly, if you’re facing electrical issues or discomfort handling repairs, professional service is a necessity to prevent accidents. Should you discover a leak deriving directly from the tank, this often indicates irreversible damage that typically requires tank replacement by a qualified plumber.

Additionally, extensive sediment build-up or noticeable corrosion fragments suggest that a professional’s assessment is in order. It’s also important to consider the terms of your warranty; self-repairs can invalidate coverage, so it’s best to check with the manufacturer before proceeding.

Lastly, never underestimate the importance of safety; if any aspect of water heater maintenance or repair raises concerns, professional technicians are equipped with the expertise and tools to handle the situation effectively and safely. 


All in all, inconsistent hot water heater performance can often be a straightforward fix, despite the inconvenience of addressing the issue. Staying vigilant with your hot water system maintenance can save you from the cold surprise of malfunction and the expense of emergency repairs. Remember to keep up with the basics, from temperature checks to annual flushes, and recognize when it’s time to call in the pros for those more complex issues. 

However, for a comprehensive inspection and guidance on the best solution for your water heating or other plumbing issues, don’t hesitate to schedule online with Boggs Inspection Services right away.

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