It would seem like a dangerous practice to install a water heater in the attic, 40 to 120 gallons or more of water in a cylinder positioned over your head, a metal container that will eventually corrode and leak—and perhaps even burst if maintenance has not been regularly addressed. So why are there attic water heaters in New Town? As with every construction practice, there are pros and cons.
In the pro column, we have four reasons for that Sword of Damocles over our heads. The first is accessibility. A quick pull on a string for the attic stairs allows ready access to the heater, assuming of course, you have installed attic stairs to your attic space and that your attic access is wide enough to accommodate removal and replacement of your water heater should replacement of the appliance become necessary. According to the 2015 Virginia Residential Code, Appliances and Attics, M1305.1.3, the attic access space should be an opening of no less than 20 by 30 inches, clear of all obstructions, and large enough to remove the largest appliance in the attic, such as a water heater or air handler. This is a minimum requirement and a county or jurisdiction can match or exceed this requirement. James City County upholds this code as written.
The second pro is cosmetic appeal. A water heater is not exactly gentle on the eye and keeping it accessible but out of site is attractive to many homeowners. Then, too, keeping it out of the garage, a traditional water heater site, leaves the homeowner more garage space for storing other home accessories and equipment. Water distribution is the third pro, as in theory water in the attic reaches plumbing fixtures faster, and the fourth pro is safety. It is far easier to keep flammable objects away from the heater in the attic than in the garage where numerous flammable objects are traditionally stored.
What are the cons of having a water heater in your attic? There are only three, but they can cost the homeowner a good deal of money if encountered. The first is an unwise and unsafe installation of the heater in your attic space. If the attic construction is unsound and cannot uphold the considerable weight of the appliance, structural damage to the attic floor and the ceiling below will be the result, and there is always the possibility of the appliance breaking through the attic floor to the room or rooms beneath. The second con is perhaps the most readily anticipated problem with an attic heater, and that is the leaking of the appliance and even collapse of the water tank itself. Neither event is desirable, and the latter can be catastrophic to your home. The third con is the cost for replacing an attic water tank, entirely, a sizable undertaking in money and time as it will take two service men or more to remove the old tank and replace it with a new one. Not surprisingly, draining the old tank has to be done via a hose through an open window to the ground beneath.
So what can the homeowner do to keep the attic water heater in the best condition possible
to ensure its safe operation and a long life? The easier if not the most cost-effective way is to contract an HVAC company to service your water heater, annually. If you’re a do-it-yourself homeowner and saving money is a goal, you can service the tank yourself by following a maintenance agenda. These agendas can be found anywhere on the web. One particularly throughout website is sponsored by This Old House and can be found at the link below: https://www.thisoldhouse.com/plumbing/21016402/how-to-maintain-a-water-heater
The site advises testing the temperature pressure release valve (TPR), annually, and replacing it if necessary. The TPR regulates the pressure in your tank by releasing water when the internal pressure in the tank becomes too high, thereby preventing the disaster of an explosion, a maintenance check well worth the time and cost. Another maintenance check advised is to monitor for excessive calcium build-up of the anode rod, a rod made of magnesium, aluminum, or zinc and intended to protect the interior metal lining of your water tank. The rod is inserted into the water heater storage tank, where it slowly degrades. As long as the anode rod is degrading in the tank, the tank lining will be protected from rusting. Additional maintenance checks include draining the tank for corrosive sediment and insulating heater and pipes to raise water temperature in a cost-effective way and in a way that places less stress on the tank. Lowering your tank’s temperature dial by just 10 degrees can save you up to 5 percent in energy costs.
If you are thinking of relocating your attic water heater to your garage, be aware that it’s costly and may require the relocation of water lines, venting, gas lines or electrical work, drain pan lines, pressure and temperature lines—and of course, the tank, itself. An easier if not less expensive option would be to replace your attic water heater with a tankless water heater; but there are pros and cons with this option, as well. For example, with a tankless water heater, loss of power means no water until power is restored, something that is not an issue with a conventional water heater and while hot water is readily available with a tankless heater, it is not unlimited and temperatures are often inconsistent. In addition, installation is costly and may require the rerouting of gas lines and the purchase of additional equipment such as a water softener unit which could take up more attic space than a traditional heater.
Besides an annual maintenance check, homeowners need to keep alert for signs that their water heater may need service or replacement before a crisis occurs. If you turn on your tap and no hot water is forthcoming or if hot water comes through but eventually turns cold, that could be a clear indication that your water heater is in need of service. In addition, though your heater will normally make operational noises, if it begins to make strange noises of long duration or if you see rust on the boiler itself, it’s time for a thorough maintenance review.
What other measures can you take to avoid being taken by surprise by your water heater? We’ve all heard horror stories about people who have been away when their attic heater decided to leak or burst. They are tales not for the faint hearted. A measure to circumvent these possibilities is to shut off your heater, entirely, or at least lower the temperature gauge if you are going to be away for more than a day or two. There are devices, costing anywhere from $20 to $100 or more, which can be installed in the drip ban of a heater that will detect moisture and emit an ear-piercing sound to alert the homeowner that something is amiss. Unfortunately, they are of little use if there is no one home at the time to hear the alarm. A better device is one that not only detects moisture and sounds an alarm but shuts the system down and notifies the home owner by mobile text that a leak has been detected. There are any number of companies that manufacture these devices and a simple search on the internet for “Smart Water heater shut off system” will give you a number from which to choose. These devices and monitoring plans are diverse and can range from $20 to as much as $600. Whether you contract an HVAC company to service your heater annually, do maintenance updates yourself, or purchase one of these moisture monitoring devices, it’s best not to ignore the sleeping giant in your attic.