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Here's How to Troubleshoot 4 Common Water Heater Problems

Get the hot water back on as soon as possible. We'll help you solve some common issues, and let you know when to call in a professional.

Plumbing tools near a leaky water heater
From leaks to cold water, your hot water heater can fail in a couple of ways.
cmannphoto/Getty Images

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Ever hop into the shower only to get blasted by a stream of freezing water? Or maybe your hot water fizzles out halfway through and you're left shivering as you wash the last streaks of shampoo out of your hair. Or maybe you walk into your basement and step into a small lake that's formed around the base of your water heater. 

If you encounter any of these issues? You have a water heater problem. Fortunately, you can fix some of the most common water heater issues -- though not all of them -- without replacing the entire appliance.

Here is a look at the four most common water heater problems you might face, and the steps you can take to resolve them.

My water is cold

The most common problem you'll encounter with a water heater? No hot water when you need it. If you're fortunate, you can solve this problem on your own. If not? You'll have to call in a professional. 

How you fix the problem depends on what type of hot water heater you have: gas or electric.

1. Check the thermostat

You should operate your water heater -- whether it is gas or electric -- at 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (setting it at 120 will save some energy). If your thermostat isn't set in this range, adjust it. You can then wait 30 minutes to see if your hot water has returned. If it hasn't, you'll have to take further steps.

2. Check the pilot light

If your home has a gas water heater, check the pilot light. If it's out, relight it. Your water heater should have instructions on its side explaining how to do this. Be careful, though: If you smell gas from your heater, leave your house and call your gas company for assistance. 

If you light the pilot light but it flickers off after you release your water heater's control knob, you might have a problem with your appliance's thermocouple. This is a device that shuts off the flow of gas if it senses that your pilot light is out. The tip of your heater's thermocouple -- the device looks like a copper tube -- should line up so that it sits in the flame of the pilot light. If it's not, you might need to replace or adjust the thermocouple. 

3. Restart your water heater

If your water heater is electric, try restarting it. Turn your heater off, wait two to five minutes, then turn it back on. Wait 30 minutes to see if your hot water has returned. 

4. Check your breaker box

If your water heater is electric, you can also check your home's circuit breaker box. The breaker dedicated to your water heater might have tripped. Check to see if this breaker is in the "off" position. If it is, flip it back to the "on" setting. 

If these simple steps don't work? It's time to call in a plumber who can tackle the more serious problems that are keeping your water cold.

My water is lukewarm

Maybe your morning showers aren't ice-cold. They might just be lukewarm, another problem you may be able to resolve on your own. 

First, check to make sure that your water heater's thermostat is set to at least 120 degrees. If your thermostat is set properly and you have a gas heater, check the pilot light. It should be burning blue. If it's instead burning yellow, there isn't enough air coming to the flame. Call a professional to fix this problem. 

If you have an electric water heater and your thermostat is set properly, you might again have to call a professional to turn your water from lukewarm to pleasantly hot. 

My water smells

Maybe your problem has nothing to do with the temperature of your water. Instead, when you run a shower or bath, your water comes with a foul odor, maybe smelling like rotten eggs. 

Typically, this is caused by hot water sitting in your tank for too long. To make sure the problem is coming from your water heater, turn on your cold water only. If you don't smell anything, the odds are that the odor is coming from your hot water heater. This problem is usually caused when warm water sits too long in your heater's tank, causing a build-up of bacteria.

To solve this problem, you'll need to contact a plumber who can clear and disinfect your water heater's tank. To prevent the smell from returning, don't leave hot water sitting in your water heater if you are leaving your home for two weeks or more. Before your trip, turn the gas or electricity off to your water heater. Cold water can sit in your tank without building up the bacteria that cause a foul odor. 

My water heater's leaking

It's an unpleasant surprise: You step into your basement only to splash in a pool of water that's surrounding the base of your hot water heater, a problem that could mean the end of your water heater. 

If you're fortunate, the leak could be the result of a loose or damaged drain valve. You use this valve to drain your water tank if you need to perform maintenance or repairs. You also use the valve to drain sediment from the unit. If you notice water dripping out of this valve, try tightening it. The valve might only be loose, and a tightening might solve your problem. 

If the valve isn't loose and it's still dripping, it is damaged. You'll need to call a plumber to repair or replace it. 

If the water leak isn't coming from your drain valve, you probably have a more costly problem. The water tank itself might be damaged enough so that it has sprung a leak. If this is the case -- and this is the most common reason for a leaking water heater -- you'll usually need to replace the appliance entirely.

The bottom line

While you might be able to fix some water heater problems on your own, more complicated issues will require the services of a professional. And sometimes, you'll need to replace your entire hot water heater. These appliances aren't designed to last forever, and they typically have a lifespan of eight to 12 years. 

And if you want to save money to cover the problems that inevitably pop up with a water heater? Consider investing in a solar or tankless water heater.