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How Long Will Your Water Heater Last? Your Anode Rods Will Tell Us
An anode rod is a rod made of a “sacrificial” metal. Like batteries, the anode produces an electrochemical reaction in the tank. The anode slowly wears away instead of the tank’s lining. As long as the anode is present and working, almost all corrosion or rusting on the tank lining is prevented.
To all consumers who buy a new water heater, an important aspect of the new device is the accessibility to its anode rod. On top of the water heater is a part called a hex head. It is either visible or not. If it is not visible, the hex head is either located under the sheet metal top or is connected under the hot water outlet. You shouldn’t settle for a hard-to-find anode rod. I recommend not buying this water heater. Look for a water heater with an easy-to-find hex head.
In the case of commercial water heaters, the outer sheet metal top of the water heater must always be removed for access to the anode rod. The hex head is rarely found exposed, be it electric or gas heaters. As you remove the top to the heater, mark the top of the heater itself to make reassembling it easier later. At this point the hex head for the anode rod can be easily found on any commercial electric heater. On gas heaters, the hex head will probably be easy to find if it has a single flue. If it has more than one outlet, it may be more difficult to locate.
Anode is made of aluminum, zinc or magnesium. It is formed around a wire running down the center of the stick. Hard water areas of the country often have water heaters with aluminum rods installed because aluminum is the best material for hard water conditions. If your anode rod has deteriorated to the wire or is completely gone, this is usually a sign of hard water. Be careful with aluminum anode rods though. Science believes there is a link between aluminum in the diet and Alzheimer’s disease. Do not drink or cook with hot water from a tank that uses an aluminum anode rod. To determine if you have an aluminum anode rod, remove it, then bend it. If it bends easily in your hands, it’s probably made of aluminum.
Usually anodes are installed with 3/4 in. hex heads screwed into the top of the tank. However, a combination anode is attached to the hot water outlet pipe nipple, also screwed at the top. All water heaters have at least one anode rod. Some water heaters have longer warranties because they have two anode rods. If there are two anode rods, it is because one is attached to a hex head at the top and the other is a combination anode attached to the hot water outlet. Some residential heaters have two hex-head anode rods and no combination anodes though.
To find out if you have a combination anode rod, disconnect the hot water outlet at the top of the heater with a pipe wrench. Don’t forget to turn off the water first! Then poke a stiff wire down the hole where the hot water nipple was. If it stops about 3 to 6 inches straight down, then you have located the combination anode. If the wire meets nothing inside, the anode is somewhere else. The combination anode can be removed with a pipe wrench.
If you don’t have a combination anode and you want to install one, then remove the hot water pipe nipple and replace it with a combination anode rod. The nipple on the anode rod will need to be longer than the thickness of the insulation on top of the heater, which is usually 2 to 6 inches.
Magnesium is used more often than the other metals for anodes. When the water in your area is not particularly hard, using magnesium bars is probably best. Be careful with magnesium rods though when replacing them in an already corroded tank. The electrochemical reaction of the new magnesium anode can cause hydrogen gas to build up in the tank. This can lead to water leaks.
New water heaters rarely have zinc rod already installed. Zinc bars are actually aluminum bars with 1/10th of the rod being actual zinc. The only purpose of zinc in an anode rod is to reduce the smell of sulfur in the water.
Consumption of Anodes
Softening hard water with salt actually does more damage to anodes than the calcium carbonate — the cause of hard water. Salt can consume an anode up to three times faster than usual. Phosphates can have the same adverse effect on an anode. The anode should be inspected every two years or sooner if you use these water softening agents.
The anode is the reason the heater remains functional for years or even decades. Anodes corrode predictably. Most of the time it corrodes at the top or bottom and exposes the steel wire underneath.
The water heater will only be protected if the anode rod has enough metal hanging on it. The steel core wire holds the sacrificial metal on the anode. Be sure to inspect the anode for exposed core wire at least every two years.
When analyzing an anode rod for an exposed core wire, the wire may be coated with calcium carbonate, which brushes off easily. This calcium carbonate is not corroded metal from the anode rod, so don’t worry about removing it.
If the anode rod has more sacrificial metal than an exposed steel rod, then it is still in good shape. However, if the entire surface becomes covered with calcium carbonate and that calcium carbonate becomes hard, this will prevent the anode from protecting the tank any longer. This is known as passivation. If the anode has been passivated, it will not look like this just by sight. To test passivation, you must bend the anode rod by hand. At the bend, watch for small amounts of peeling. The anode should be replaced if more areas of the rod are exposed wire than sacrificial metal. It should also be replaced if the top or bottom of the rod has deteriorated, exposing six or more inches of exposed wire. Anode should also be replaced if the anode is less than half of the 3/4 in. diameter size of the rod. If the anode has become passivated, split across its length, or has become very pitted, it could also be time for replacement. When all the sacrificial metal wears out, then the steel rod will begin to wear out. After the steel rod wears out, the only thing left is the hex head or the hot water outlet nipple if it is a combination anode. At this point, the tank will begin to corrode. If the anode is found in the conditions stated above, damage to the tank may have already occurred.
Hidden Hex Head On Newer Models
Sex heads are threaded waterproof plugs about 3/4 inch in diameter. They are attached to anode rods at the top of water heaters. Some are easily visible from the top of the water heater. Other times it will be under fiberglass or under plastic. To locate the hex head, drill a shallow 1/4 inch hole through the plastic top of the water heater. Do not drill deep into the tank itself. Use a long flat head screwdriver to probe under the top of the water heater to find the hex head. On gas heaters, the hex head will be the same distance from the flue as the hot and cold lines are. In electricity, the anode will be off-center so as not to fall on the heating elements. A few holes may need to be dug to locate the hex head. Once the hexhead is found, it should be permanently exposed. Use a hole saw capable of cutting plastic or metal to carve a hole large enough to allow future access to the hex head. Use two people at this point to unscrew the hex head — one to stabilize the tank, the other to use a wrench and socket that fits the head. Anywhere from 3/4 inch to 1-1/16 inch.
In the future, when buying a new water heater, buy only those with already exposed hex heads.
Hidden Hex Head On Older Models
To find the hex head on older water heaters, simply unscrew the screws holding the top in place, mark the placement of the top and the water heater with a marker, then remove the top to find the hex head. Alas, many heaters found in today’s buildings have foam tops and cannot be removed. Again, if the hex head is not displayed at the time of purchase, do not buy that particular tank. Look for a tank with an already exposed hexhead.
Inspection of anode
Anodes should be inspected at least every two years where softened water is used but at least every four years under normal water conditions. On occasion, the location of the anode is actually written on the water heater instructions.
To remove the old rod, pull it out as far as possible, bend it, then pull it out the rest of the way. To install the new one, bend the rod straight in the middle, insert it halfway, straighten it against the opening and install it the rest of the way. Screw in the anode rod at this time. If you can’t screw it into place because it’s too bent, pull it out part way and use the opening to straighten it further. If there is not enough ceiling room to install the new anode rod, consider a bond anode. These anodes have many small links connected together and look similar to sausage links. You can also try zinc anodes as they bend much easier than magnesium ones. Another way to install an anode is to drain the water heater and turn it over enough to allow easy access for the anode.
Anodes are typically 3 feet 8 inches. Anodes should only be a few inches shorter than the tank itself. Buy anodes that are a little too long instead of a little too short. That way you can cut the anode shorter if it’s too tall.
In relation to commercial water heaters, there are impressed current rods. These rods do not self-generate currents like sacrificial nodes. They derive power from an electrical power source. Many commercial heaters give the location of the impressive-current rod. They do not need to be replaced during their lifetime. They may need periodic cleaning. Simply wipe them off with a towel. If rust appears inside a water heater with an impressed-current rod, you should either call the manufacturer, call a plumber, or install sacrificial anodes.
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