For much of human history mankind has sought not only shelter, but also a reliable stream of hot water. And the good news is that in our era we typically have hot water on a regular basis -- until that one magical day when the hot water heater bursts and oceans of water suddenly fill once-dry spaces.

If you have a hot water heater this WILL happen to you. A check of Internet sites suggests that such devices typically last anywhere from eight to 13 years -- so if you have a house which is at least 10 years old and has the original hot water heater, or if you've had your hot water heater for a decade or more -- a gusher awaits.

The catch to hot water heater breakdowns is that they are sometimes hard to detect. It doesn't happen that for several weeks the water is cooler or that you notice less water pressure. There may be a little leakage, but then you may not notice because water heaters tend to be in areas of the home which are not well trafficked.

So should you run out and buy a new water heater today?

Not quite. But just like Noah, there are some steps you should take to prepare for the coming deluge.

  • Hot water heaters can be connected to electrical and gas circuits as well as water lines. They must be properly ventilated, connected, and wired. Changing a hot water heater is not a do-it-yourself project. Have a licensed plumber or authorized installer do the work, ask what building codes allow, and keep names and numbers on hand. (A sealable, water-tight plastic kitchen bag attached to the hot water heater with the name of a licensed plumber works nicely for this purpose.)
  • Look at the area where your water heater is located. If it broke today, where would the water go? Do you have a nearby drain? If not, think about huge volumes of water, your very own indoor waterfall, and what could be damaged.
  • Hot water heaters have a spigot at the bottom. A length of old hose can be use to connect the spigot to the drain or outside area in case of flooding. But be aware that such water can be enormously hot, so use caution.

    A 50-gallon hot water heater holds, well, 50 gallons. If the system leaks there are two problems.

    First, unless you can shut off water to the hot water system it will keep leaking. Not just leaking a little, but leaking a whole bunch.

    Second, you need a way to drain a hot water tank. Why? Because otherwise the system is virtually unmovable. A gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds, so a 50-gallon tank has water weighing 400 pounds plus the weight of the tank itself.

    What to do? Ask your licensed plumber or for immediate assistance to turn off the water even if the hot water system itself cannot be immediately replaced.

    New technology will make your next hot water heater more efficient and cheaper to operate, so when it comes time to obtain a new device some of the installation cost will be off-set by lower fuel usage.

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