When you've arranged to spend an hour or two relaxing in a hot bath one evening in lieu of a longer and more expensive spa trip, little can be as disappointing as finding that your household's hot water is in short supply. You may even find that your dishes or laundry aren't getting as clean as usual because your water heater isn't up to the task of generating hot water. What could be the problem and what should you do to fix it? Read on to learn more about the issues that could be preventing you from getting hot water, as well as what you can do to solve them yourself (and when to enlist the help of a plumber).
What could keep your water heater from generating hot water?
When troubleshooting a water heater that isn't living up to its name, you'll want to start with the easiest-to-solve problems first. Although a water heater can seem complicated, it contains relatively few components (especially compared with other appliances of the same size and approximate cost), which can make troubleshooting heating and supply issues much easier.
In some cases, the solution may be as simple as adjusting the temperature gauge or thermostat. If you've recently been doing work around your water heater (or if you have children or pets who occasionally brush up against the water heater), it's possible the temperature gauge could have been jarred and turned down. Turning the temperature gauge up and then checking the water temperature an hour or two later may give you the answer to your problem. You'll also want to look for the "high-temperature shutoff" valve or button to ensure it hasn't been tripped; while the triggering of this button can indicate other problems you'll want to investigate, resetting it should be enough to provide you with hot water for at least another few baths or loads of laundry.
If the answer can't be found on the surface of your water heater, you'll want to think about the specific temperature fluctuations you've been noticing. A water heater that produces only large quantities of lukewarm water is likely suffering from a different issue than that plaguing a water heater that produces a small amount of hot water and then tapers off. In many cases, the latter situation may be caused by a buildup of mineral scale inside the water heater that is preventing it from generating or storing much hot water.
However, a water heater that isn't producing any hot water may instead be suffering from one or more corroded or shorted heating elements. Removing and replacing these elements should be enough to solve your water heater's problems for the foreseeable future.
Can you repair your water heater yourself?
In many cases, the issue or issues preventing you from receiving a steady supply of hot water can be repaired with a few inexpensive tools and parts. If you need to descale your water heater or replace a heating element, you'll be able to find instructions (and sometimes even how-to videos) online that can help you through each step of the process.
However, if you're still not sure of your water heater's exact problem(s), or you're worried about the safety aspect of fiddling with pilot lights and gas lines, you may want to call a hot water heater repair person. In most cases, the cost and hassle of troubleshooting issues that are any more extensive than those covered above can be much higher than a plumber's diagnostic fee, and you'll likely feel this is money well spent once you're again able to sink into an ultra-hot and relaxing bath.