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    When to replace your hot-water tank

    Q. I own a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in a mid-rise and am the sole resident. Over the years, the hot-water tanks in several units have leaked, creating major problems for the building and owners. Management recommends that we replace all tanks that are 10 years or older. I have estimates from three plumbers, and none of them seemed to think the tank needed replacement immediately. They said a tank starts with a small leak and doesn’t explode or dump all of its water at once. Mine couldn’t have a leak without me noticing; I have a water alarm on the floor next to the tank, which is completely visible in a closet I use several times a day.

    For me, it’s a quandary. The tank is 12-plus years, but if it’s in good condition, it doesn’t seem like I should replace something that’s working just fine.

    May I have your advice, please? Is there a danger of a complete burst? When it is time to replace it, is there a tank you can suggest? One plumber asked me if I wanted a long-term tank or the five- or 10-year models most people get. I don’t plan to move. I look forward to having your trustworthy input.



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    A. I am a fan of preemptive strikes — sometimes. Have you done preventative maintenance:

     Flushed the tank to clean out mineral deposits?

    Replaced the sacrificial anode rod or any parts on the unit?

     Exercised the pressure-relief valve? On hot-water heaters, it is recommended that you manually lift the pressure-relief valve every two months to ensure it opens freely. One time I did this, and it started leaking. I got a replacement and some serious ribbing from my brother, the plumber, for not leaving the plumbing to him. I suggest replacing the valve every three years regardless of its condition.


    Also, what is your tank-temperature setting? The US Department of Energy recommends the following: “Although some manufacturers set water heater thermostats at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, most households usually only require them to be set at 120 degrees, which also slows mineral buildup and corrosion in your water heater and pipes. Water heated at 140 degrees Fahrenheit also poses a safety hazard — scalding.’’

    If you’ve answered no to most of the bulleted items, I’d replace the unit. It’s cheap insurance. There is always a possibility, albeit a slight one, that you’ll have a catastrophic failure. The lifespan of the average storage-type water heater is eight to 10 years. This varies with the location and design of the unit, quality of installation, maintenance schedule, and water quality. If that water heater is more than 10 years old, leaks around the base of the tank, and/or works erratically, it’s probably time to replace it. You’re on borrowed time, in my opinion. Your water alarm is a great idea, but if the tank leaks while you’re at work, how will you cut off the flow?

    What kind of system should you get? I don’t recommend tanks. I prefer on-demand water heaters.


    Q. I believe that the doorbell chimes in my late-’40s Arlington home are bad, but I’m not sure how to remove the cover to check them. How do I do this without damaging the cover or the wall?



    A. From the photo it looks like the cover may have been painted with the wall. Carefully use a utility knife to cut the paint line around the cover. Look for screws. If you find them, remove them. If you don’t see any, try to lift off the cover. My doorbell went recently, but it was the transformer, not the chimes.

    Rob Robillard is a general contractor, carpenter, editor of, and principal of a carpentry and renovation business. Send your questions to or tweet them to @robertrobillard.