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Why Am I Running Out of Hot Water Faster Than Before?

Running Out Of Hot Water Faster Than Before

It started with a dinner party.

You had lots of dishes to wash, and when the water surprisingly turned cold you assumed it was probably because you’d taken so long.

Then your spouse yelled at you for using all the hot water, even though you took a shower the night before.

When you had your own unintentional cold shower—that is, one that turned frigid 10 minutes in—you knew something was up. Your shower water was not hot enough. The hot water just wasn’t lasting as long as usual, and you have no idea how to fix it.

As busy homeowners, we always want a quick, simple fix. Sometimes that’s possible, but in other instances, it isn’t.

Because there are all kinds of reasons why hot water in a house might be running out faster than normal: power supply problems, rusty pipes, a pilot light out, sediment, a broken dip tube—and that’s just to name a few!

In this post, we’re going to look at some of the most common problems in detail surrounding hot water in a home, and cover some possible solutions.

First, let’s break down the two main types of water heaters so you have a basic understanding of how they work before playing Mr. (or Ms.) Fix-It.

The Anatomy of A Water Heater

The two most common power sources for a water heater are natural gas and electric. Let’s explore how types operate.

Gas Water Heaters

A gas-powered water heater consists of a cold-water input line, a gas vent and a hot water supply line. There’s also a storage tank where the water is heated and kept. Gas is delivered to a burner at the bottom of the tank, and its fire heats the water. A thermostat regulates the water temperature, and the hot water supply line delivers hot water to the home.

This setup also includes a Temperature Pressure Relief Valve (TPR valve for short, or relief valve) and a vent for the combustion gases. The TPR valve is a safety device for releasing pressure from the storage tank when the internal pressure or temperature becomes too high.

Additional components of this setup include an anode and a dip tube. The anode is a metal rod that stops corrosion and eliminates undesirable odors from the water. The dip tube directs cold water that needs heating to the bottom of the tank. A drain valve is also present near the bottom of the storage tank through which the tank is emptied.

Electric Water Heaters

The heating setup of an electric water heater system is similar to that of a gas water heater. The only difference is that in this system gas is not used to heat the water. Instead, there are heating elements within the tank that use electricity to heat the water.

Now that you have a clearer understanding of the general inner workings of water heaters, let’s talk specifics about what might be going wrong if you’re running out of hot water too fast.

water heater runs out of hot water quickly

Water Heater Runs Out Of Hot Water Quickly: Possible Reasons Why

As mentioned above, several things can cause a home’s hot water supply to run out faster than it should. The three most common culprits are sediment build up, a faulty heating element and a broken dip tube.

Sediment Build Up

The water that gets into your heater tank usually has small amounts of dissolved minerals, such as magnesium and calcium. As the water is getting heated, and during the period when it is stored in the tank, some of the dissolved minerals precipitate and are deposited at the bottom of the tank, becoming a layer of sediment.

Over time, the sediment layer may grow so big that it displaces a significant amount of water in the tank. This reduces the amount of hot water delivered to your home. For example, a 40-gallon water heater with 15 gallons of sediment build-up will only carry 25 gallons of hot water.

Signs Of Sediment Built Up

What are the warning signs that might indicate your water heater has significant build up? You may have a problem if you notice:

  • Sediment which is visible in the water that comes out of your water heater
  • Unusual noises coming from your unit—particularly knocking, cracking or popping sounds
  • Hissing and/or leaking from your TPR valve

Bad Lower Heating Element

Most electric water heaters use two heating elements (one near the top of the tank and one at the bottom). The lower element does most of the heating because water gets hot via conventional currents.

This means that cold water comes to the bottom; when it gets hot, this liquid rises to the top. The element at the top, therefore, only works periodically to maintain constant water temperature. When the lower element gets damaged, there will be a noticeable drop in the amount of hot water produced.

Common Causes Of A Damaged Lower Heating Element

What are a few reasons that your lower heating element can fail? A few situations that can result in this type of water heater problem include:

  • Sediment that builds up on the element, making it overheat
  • A faulty thermostat
  • An electric short within the wiring of the element

A Broken Dip Tube

A dip tube ensures that cold water is pushed to the bottom of the tank to be heated. When this tube is defective, the cold water remains at the top and mixes with the heated water that’s being delivered to your home. This lowers the overall temperature of the water that gets to you.

Why A Dip Tube Might Get Damaged 

Under what conditions can this happen? There are two usual scenarios:

  • The part has reached the end of its lifespan
  • Your dip tube is faulty, which could cause it to crack or break for any reason whatsoever

Is all this making you start to worry about your water heater? If so, that’s completely understandable. Water heaters play a huge role in most of our lives, but they usually do so invisibly. We typically only notice them when a problem pops up—like when we realize we are not getting enough hot water.

We’ve covered some of the more common reasons that your hot water heater may have problems, but are there others? Absolutely!

signs your hot water heater is going out

Signs Your Hot Water Heater Is Going Out

If you notice a problem with the hot water in your home, one of the possible reasons why is that your water heater is not working, either because it needs to be repaired or because it’s time to think about a replacement. How can you tell?

Your Unit Is Over A Decade Old 

The life expectancy of a home water heater is between 10 and 13 years. Nonetheless, it’s possible that your water heater won’t even make it to the double digits. Most gas heaters, for instance, rarely exceed eight years of service life.

Many homeowners do not realize that water heaters have an expiration date. Some of them have a manufacture date printed on the label, but others don’t.

You can often tell the age of these water heaters by examining the serial number, because it typically doubles as a code that shows you when the water heater was manufactured.

For example:

  • A typical serial number may be something like “121608246”.
  • The first two numbers represent the month. In the example above, “12” represents December because it’s the twelfth month of the year.
  • The second two digits represent the year. In our example, 16 represents 2016.

In this example, this water heater was manufactured in December 2016.

Every manufacturer uses a slightly different serial number format, so it’s wise to consult the manufacturer’s website for more details.

A general recommendation from most plumbing professionals is that any water heater older than 10 years should be replaced.

Loud Or Unusual Noises

As we’ve already mentioned, with continued use, sediment builds up within the storage tank. Sediment buildup progresses from the bottom up. As the sediment hardens and thickens along the tank floor and wall, it can cause a rumbling or banging noise whenever the water heater is heating your water.

Sediment accumulation is associated with several problems, including:

Reduced Efficiency

This makes the heater use up more electricity or gas to heat your water.

Damage Acceleration

The sediment causes more time to be spent on heating your water, which will accelerate the rate of wear on the tank. The tank wall and floor become brittle and may crack easily, which may eventually lead to leaks.

Rusty Water

When the water from the hot water faucets in your home comes out rusty, there’s a possibility that your water heater is rusting away. If unchecked, the rust may corrode and eat through the heater, causing water leakage.

Water Pooling Around Heater

If water is discovered on the floor and wall around the heater tank, it’s very likely that your water heater is leaking. Many things could be the culprit behind a leaking water heater system. Regardless of the cause, water leakage must be addressed promptly and effectively because it can cause significant damage to property.

broken water heater

Troubleshooting A Broken Water Heater

Experiencing one of the issues we’ve already mentioned, and wondering how to fix it? There are a couple of things you can do to troubleshoot your problem.

Check The Power

Water heater problems might indicate defects in the power supply system.

Therefore, for an electric heater, you’ll want to:

  • Check whether power is connected
  • Check whether the circuit breaker is tripped
  • Reset the thermostat

For a gas water heater:

  • Check whether the gas is connected
  • Make sure that the water heater pilot light is on
  • Clean the burner
  • Replace the thermocouple (the thermocouple is a safety component that automatically shuts off the gas when the water heater pilot flame goes off).

Examine The Water

The state of hot water from the faucet in your home may be an excellent way to learn more about the fitness of your water heater. Here are a few pointers to better understand what to look for:

  • If the water appears rusty, either the water heater or the piping in your home is rusty. A professional should be called in to determine whether you need to replace the piping, the water heater or both.
  • If the water is muddy or sandy, it could signify that a considerable amount of sediment has built up in the tank. You’ll need to flush the tank to remove the sediment. Flushing is a task that is best left to a licensed professional.
  • If the water has a metallic taste and smell, your water heater is breaking down and in need of urgent replacement.

Listen To The Water Heater

There is a normal sound that a water heater makes when heating water. However, unusual sounds may be indicative of some underlying problems.

Loud cracks and unusual pops may occur when the heating elements interact with scale, sediment and other deposits which might have built up in the heater. Ify ou hear any of these strange or unusual sounds, your water heater probably needs to be flushed.

Look For Leaks

Immediate action must be taken the moment you notice any water leaking from the water heater. Remember that leaking water may also indicate an internal failure within the water heater. As such, it’s always wise to involve a professional plumber when repairing water heater leaks.

hot water turns cold after a few minutes

What To Do If Your Hot Water Turns Cold After A Few Minutes

Water heater repair is a delicate task. The necessary repairs are often difficult, requiring high levels of skill and expertise. Make a seemingly simple mistake and it can easily turn into a costly disaster. The moment you encounter common plumbing problems, get in touch with ABC Home & Commercial and schedule a time for one of our licensed professional plumbers to come take a look to save you time and to make sure repairs are done right.

Tom Riggs

Tom Riggs is the Division Manager for Mechanical Services, overseeing sales and operations for HVAC, Plumbing, Electrical, Appliance Repair and Water Quality for all ABC Austin branches. He joined ABC in 2014. Before ABC, he was an HVAC Service Technician, HVAC Comfort Advisor/Sales and Operations Manager. Tom attended Universal Technical Institute. He's an avid outdoorsman and enjoys country living with his wife and two sons.

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