No ifs, ands, or buts about it, losing hot water at home is infuriating. It often occurs without warning at the worst possible moments: when filling up the bathtub, while washing the dishes, or (arguably worst of all) when you’re in the shower with shampoo in your eyes.
But what gives? When your water switches from warm to frigid, what—or who—is to blame?
“It could be your water heater’s cry for some much-needed attention,” says Doyle James, president of Mr. Rooter Plumbing. “Before you go blaming your spouse for the cold shower, it’s important to understand that a hot water heater unable to keep up with demand is one of several major red flags pointing to the need for repair.”
No one really realizes the luxury of having hot water until it’s gone. Homeowners should know that most water heaters last only about eight to 12 years. But before you go pulling out your water heater, here are some things that could be causing problems, along with some useful troubleshooting tips.
No power or gas
Sometimes the reason for your MIA hot water is as simple as the gas supply to your water heater being shut off, either by mistake or due to a defect in the off switch.
Experts say you can check the power to your water heater by turning the gas control knob to pilot. Make sure to remove the cover where the pilot light and burner are located, at the bottom of your water heater. Look to see if there is a flame. If you find one, then your water heater does have gas and that’s not the issue.
No pilot light
If you don’t see a flame in your water heater, that means the pilot light is out. To relight the pilot light (and bring back your hot water), start by reading either the information on the tank itself or the owner’s manual. Some water heaters use a glow plug or spark ignitor, depending on the model.
To light a pilot light, make sure to turn the knob to off first and then wait several minutes for the gas to clear. Then turn the knob to pilot. For water heaters with a self-ignite feature, just hold down the button for about a minute, then turn the knob on. For flame water heaters, use a match or lighter and, while holding the knob down, light the flame at the gas supply tube. If it doesn’t light, the issue may be with your inlet valve.
Possible gas leak
Gas is used to power all types of appliances and features around your home, but your sudden lack of hot water could mean there’s a gas leak.
Remember, gas leaks are very dangerous. Anthony Wimpey, owner of Anthony Wimpey Plumbing, says that even a tiny leak can fill a home with poisonous carbon monoxide and should be addressed immediately.
If you suspect a gas leak, Wimpey says, “report it to the gas company right away, then call a plumber to locate and remedy the situation.”
If you feel comfortable doing so, you can also close the valve on the gas line and shut off the valve control on the regulator.
Tripped circuit breaker
If you don’t have hot water at all, another possible culprit could be a tripped circuit breaker.
“Be sure to look in your electrical panel for any misaligned switches. If one of the switches is in an odd position, flip it back into alignment to reset the circuit,” says James. “If that’s not the issue, there may be a failure of the heating elements, which requires professional replacement of these components.”
Leaks around the water heater
It’s also a good idea to check if your water heater is leaking. Unchecked leaks can end up becoming a serious problem.
“Water leaking from the top of the water heater could be the result of loose pipes or valve failure. Water leaking from the bottom of the water heater is often due to condensation, a leaky gasket, or water coming out of the overflow pipe due to too much pressure in the tank,” says James.
He says the tank may also have a small rupture and be leaking between the jacket and tank itself.
“Reaching out to a licensed plumber is the only way to properly verify the source of the problem, and correct it quickly and safely so you can get back to taking hot showers,” says James.