Last Friday, I was in Tijuana, Mexico, touring an affordable-housing project being developed by Casa Geo, one of North America’s largest residential builder.

The Casa Geo condos are the first taste of decent housing for thousands of buyers who had lived in illegal shacks perched precariously on the sides of the barren hills surrounding Tijuana, Mexico’s fastest-growing city thanks to the employment opportunities created by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Like their counterparts north of the border, they, too, have trouble with the basics of homeownership and need to develop survival skills. Casa Geo has developed an owner’s manual for each of its buyers, complete with simple instructions (in Spanish, of course) and with accompanying cartoons that demonstrate caulking techniques and other helpful things.

This is a roundabout way of bringing us back to a topic we pursued a couple of weeks ago. A lot of first-time home buyers in this country also need to know how their houses work as well as some simple maintenance and repair skills to keep things manageable and within financial reason.

Last time, we were navigating plumbing basics. We’ll stay that course this time, talking about water heaters.

Some houses have water heaters that are part of the furnace. Newer, tankless water heaters that provide instant hot water at the turn of the tap are making inroads. But most houses have that familiar, usually white, tank about five-feet tall in the basement, the garage or the kitchen.

Some are gas; some electric, but they work basically the same way. Cold water is fed into the heater; hot water leaves.

Recent models should have yellow energy rating tag on them, providing you with the average number of therms of natural gas or kilowatts of electricity the model uses and the estimated average annual cost of operating the heater.

Most residential heaters are 40 or 50 gallons. We recently had a new hot-water heater installed when we added a tub to our master bath. To ensure that we had enough hot water for baths after washing dishes, we replaced our 40-gallon with a 50- gallon.

That gas heater, which uses 277 therms a year, has an estimated average annual cost of $168. Hot water heaters should last eight to 12 years. With proper maintenance, some have been known to hang on for several years more.

There are variables. For example, we once rented a house at a resort off Charleston, S.C., that had water with a high mineral content – this is what is known as “hard water.” The houses had no basements, so the builder put the water heaters in the floor between the second and third floors.

The hard water left lots of sediment that corroded the heaters, and they’d spring a leak. The maintenance crew simply opened the access panel in the floor above, replaced the heater, and then repaired the ceiling below. This is where I first learned about Zinsser’s shellac-based stain-killer B-I-N, which permanently covers rust stains on ceilings and walls created by leaks of all sorts.

This is also where I learned the value of having regular access to the heater to maintain it. Twice a year, I flush the heater to remove sediment by hooking up a hose to the faucet at the bottom of the heater and filling several gallon-pails of water, which I use to water outdoor plants.

There is a valve with a long pipe on the side of water heater. This is the pressure-relief valve and does exactly what its name says. Periodically, you’ll need to test it by pushing the lever up and letting it snap back into place. Lifting the valve should let water into the pipe, which means the valve will work automatically when it has to. If water doesn’t flow, you should call the plumber to replace it.

One more thing to think about is the temperature of the water the heater is produces. You don’t want to raise the temperature too high because the water coming out of the tap will have a greater chance of scalding you.

Set it too low, and you’ll likely not be getting enough hot water.

The setting on our hot water heater is 120 degrees, which I periodically check by sticking the end of a meat thermometer into running hot water in the kitchen sink.

Keeping the temperature at 120 degrees tends cuts the risk of damage to the tank.

If you notice that you aren’t getting enough hot water in colder weather, try wrapping the hot water pipes in the basement to keep the pipes warm rather than raise the temperature setting on the heater.

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