Category: Major Systems

Electrical Panels 101

Let's take some of the mystery out of those wires and switches that lurk behind the door of your breaker box. Come along and take a peek with us, but don't touch!

Wiring a Breaker Box - Electrical Panel


In your home—in everyone’s homes, in fact—the seat of electrical power takes an unassuming form. Concealed by a nondescript metal door, the breaker box doesn’t look very impressive, but it’s the reason you can turn on the lights, the blender, the air conditioning, and the TV. The breaker box, or service panel, operates as a central relay point: It takes power from the street, then feeds that power to the different electrical outlets and hard-wired appliances throughout your residence.

Most people open the breaker box only when there’s a problem—for example, when a circuit needs to be restored after tripping. And that’s the way it should be. Homeowners are wise to be hands-off with electrical elements, especially those they don’t understand. Make no mistake: The breaker box is dangerous. Hire a licensed electrician if you think the panel needs attention. The goal of this article is merely to explain a bit more about all of those mysterious wires and switches.

Double Pole Service Disconnect
At the top of the breaker box, the switch that’s bigger than the others is commonly referred to as the “main.” (Technically, it’s called the double pole service disconnect.) This is where, after passing through your electricity meter, two hot wires from the utility company hook up to your house. Each wire carries 120 volts. If you were to put this switch into the off position, the electrical current to your house would be broken and your dishwasher would suddenly stop running. Turn the switch back the other way, and your dishwasher—not to mention your refrigerator, home office computer, and bedroom alarm clocks—would come back to life.

Hot Bus Bars
From the main breaker, each one of the two hot lines from the utility company passes into its own bus. To the eye, a bus looks like a regular metal bar. One bus runs vertically along the left side of the panel. The second bus runs vertically along the right side.

Neutral Bus
A third metal bar, the neutral bus, receives the electrical current back again after it has exited the breaker box and flowed throughout your home doing its work.

Wiring a Breaker Box - Diagram


Circuit Breakers
The circuit breakers straddle the hot bus bars, and if there’s an overload—say, from too many appliances running simultaneously—the affected circuit trips and automatically suspends the electrical current. In addition, circuit breakers serve as the origin points for the wiring that runs to different parts of your home. That’s why there are labels (with the names of rooms or major appliances) next to the individual switches. Each circuit has two hot wires feeding into the breaker, as well as a neutral wire that connects to the neutral bus. Together, these three wires exit the breaker box and go on to provide the juice for their designated circuit.

There are two main types of breakers:

• Single Pole: These consist of one switch, handle 120 volts, and can be either 15 or 20 amps.

• Double Pole: Handling 240 volts with amperage ratings from 15 to 70, these look like two switches joined together.

Hardwired lighting, electrical outlets, and baseboard heaters typically require 15- or 20-amp breakers. Water heaters and dryers are best served with 30 amps. Meanwhile, electric ranges take 40- to 50-amp breakers, and such things as the air conditioning system may be served by an even larger breaker or a subpanel.

The wiring into a breaker must correspond to its amperage. Twelve-gauge wire suits 15- to 20-amp breakers; 8-gauge wire goes with 40- or 60-amp two-pole breakers.

In the maze of wires that inhabits your breaker box, there’s one more to be aware of: the grounding wire. Typically a bare copper wire, it connects the neutral bus to a metal water pipe (or to a metal rod buried in the earth). Grounding prevents currents traveling through frayed wires from carrying on to metal surfaces they weren’t intended to reach.

Quick Tip: Water Softeners

Water softeners eliminate dissolved minerals from the household water you bathe in, clean with, and drink.

If hard water is a problem in your house, you might want to look into getting a water softener. The scale in your water can build up stubborn deposits in the plumbing, decreasing water flow and reducing the life of your appliances. A water-softening system uses tiny resin beads to attract and remove calcium and magnesium ions from the water. It’s powered by the water’s flow, so it won’t add to your electric bill.

For more on plumbing, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Water Filtration
8 Common Water Problems (and Their Cures)
Top Tips for Troubleshooting Low Water Pressure

Pro Tips: Wood-Burning Fireplaces

An open hearth with a crackling fire is cozy and romantic, but if you also want it to be a source of practical, economical warmth, consider installing a closed, high-efficiency fireplace unit.


Everyone loves the imagery of chestnuts roasting on an open fire—but wait just a minute! An open fire may be great for chestnuts, but is it the best option for winter warmth? Traditional wood-burning fireplaces certainly look impressive, but operating one of those classic hearths may be costing you a lot of cold, hard cash.

Related: 12 “Different” Ways to Store Firewood

“A decorative wood-burning fireplace is just that: decorative,” explains Harold Wagner, national sales manager for Fireplaces Now. ”More heat goes up the chimney than goes into the room. Lighting a fire in a decorative fireplace is like opening a window and putting a fan in it. With a 2,000-square-foot home, it would only take two hours for that fireplace to suck out all the heat from the house.” For the budget-conscious, experts recommend high-energy-efficiency closed fireplace units.

A high-energy-efficiency fireplace operates up to 90 percent more efficiently. Whereas a traditional fireplace sends heated air up the chimney, in effect completely wasting the heat, a more advanced system distributes that heat, usually by means of a blower. In such an arrangement, excess heat from the fireplace reaches the furnace, from which it travels to other rooms. “These systems are more expensive,” Wagner says, “but they can pay for themselves in five to seven years.”

So long as your fireplace creates and distributes heat effectively, there’s a lot to recommend wood as a fuel source. For one thing, unlike oil or gas, wood is a renewable resource. Rachel Romaniuk, marketing coordinator for Regency Fireplace Products, reminds homeowners that “well-managed forests are a sustainable source of energy that helps us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” And with prices for nonrenewable fuels on the rise, wood represents an affordable alternative.


Shopping for a wood-burning fireplace, stove, or insert? Seek out an EPA-certified unit that emits no more than 7.5 grams of particle pollution per kilogram of wood burned. Further considerations include “room size, house type, and climate zone,” says Chad Hendrickson, brand director for Quadra-Fire and Harman at Hearth & Home Technologies. He recommends getting advice from a local dealer, someone familiar with the conditions typical of your geographical area.

Unless you are an experienced do-it-yourselfer, leave the installation to pros. Best qualified are those with National Fireplace Institute certification. Hendrickson suggests contracting with “installers who understand building code requirements and the pitfalls of impractical designs.” Even if you plan to handle some aspects of the job yourself, Hendrickson stresses that “the venting system is a critical area requiring professional involvement for the safety of your family and your home.”

With a high-energy-efficiency fireplace, routine maintenance is a must. Collin Champagne, NFI Master Hearth Professional for eFireplaceStore, summarizes: ”Regularly sweep ashes and frequently inspect the chimney for excessive creosote buildup.” The more wood you burn, the more often your chimney must be cleaned, but as a rule of thumb, you should expect to hire a chimney sweep “at least once per season.”

You might never have thought so, but the firewood used actually matters. Wagner, of Fireplaces Now, says, ”If a consumer burns a lot of low-end wood, they will need more frequent chimney cleaning.” It’s therefore recommended that you stick to good-quality hardwood stored a safe distance from the fireplace.

“With proper installation and maintenance, a wood-burning fireplace can be an economical and energy-efficient addition to any home,” Wagner concludes.

The Heat’s On! Which Is Better, Radiant or Forced-Air?

If you are in the market for a new heating system, be sure to consider the benefits of radiant heat over forced-air. Not only is radiant heat 30 percent more efficient, it also provides a more even, continuous level of warmth.

Radiant Heating vs. Forced Air


In the radiant floor vs. forced-air heating debate, radiant floor always wins because it provides a quiet, even heat and eliminates the allergy problems often associated with heating ducts. But there’s another reason why radiant floor heating is superior to its blowy cousin—it’s simply more efficient.

The Problems With Forced Hot Air Systems

Anyone who’s ever lived with a forced hot air system is familiar with the challenges of this type of heat, which is akin to warming your home with a series of hot-air hand dryers mounted in the ceiling or floor. The room warms quickly, but then cools equally fast, forming a yo-yo heating pattern that can prompt you to constantly adjust your thermostat, causing your furnace to turn on and off, wasting energy.

Forced hot air systems are also subject to something known as parasitic heat loss. Because the air from the furnace and air handler has to travel through a series of tubes to get to its intended room, there are many opportunities for it to leak wherever there are small openings in the ducts. Also, the ducts for this type of system often travel through cold attics or basements, increasing the chance that heat will be lost as the warm air travels to the rooms in your home.

The warm air released by forced-air systems either pumps out through grates in the ceiling, where it tends to stay, or it shoots out of vents in the floor and flies quickly up to the ceiling. The result is stratification—a situation where the top of your room is warm (sometimes as much as 10 degrees warmer) and the center and bottom part of your room is cooler. This means you’ll turn your thermostat up higher to get the heat to reach the portion of the room in which you actually live. All this air movement also has the paradoxical effect of cooling you. Think about being outside in the sun on a cool day. You might feel comfortable in a short-sleeved shirt until a breeze blows. Forced hot air systems create breezes in your home all the time.

Finally, it is difficult to create zones with a forced hot air system. As a result, you have to heat your entire home to one temperature, or, if you have a dual-floor system, you have to heat an entire level. Because you might need heat only in the few rooms you occupy the most, you are effectively throwing money away by warming empty spaces.

The Energy Benefits of Radiant Floor Heating

A radiant floor system solves all of the inefficiencies inherent in forced-air systems, with some studies showing that they are as much as 30 percent more efficient.

Because the heating panels are in direct contact with the floor, there is very little parasitic heat loss, as there are no long pathways for the warmth to travel. Air doesn’t shoot out of vents in this kind of system, so there are no breezes to contend with, which allows you to keep the thermostat lower. The blower in a forced-air system typically requires nine times the electricity used by the pumps in radiant systems. Plus, the heat is also more consistent with radiant flooring. Rather than getting blasts of warm air that dramatically raise the room’s temperature, radiant heat provides a continuous level of warmth, which means less fussing with the thermostat.

Another major benefit of radiant over forced-air heating is the fact that 50 percent of the heat it produces comes from infrared, a form of invisible light. This type of heat works best as you get closer to it (think about a light bulb); therefore, because radiant heat is embedded in the floor, it will keep you warmer than heat that congregates up near the ceiling. This saves energy not only because you can lower your thermostat, but also because radiant systems need to produce heat in just the 75 to 80 degree Fahrenheit range, as opposed to the 120 to 140 degree Fahrenheit temperatures generated by forced-air systems.


Photo: Warmboard

An Even More Efficient Radiant System

So, there’s little doubt: Radiant systems will save you money and energy usage over forced hot air systems. But is there an even more efficient form of radiant floor heating? Yes.

The company Warmboard makes thin radiant flooring panels that are superconductive. This means that the heat from the hot water channels each panel contains is easily and quickly transferred to the surface of the floor. This means that a significantly lower water temperature can produce the same room temperatures as less responsive systems. In fact, it’s estimated that the water used in Warmboard panels can be as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit lower than in other products, which results in an energy savings of 10 to 20 percent—and that’s above and beyond the savings you’d see just switching to any radiant floor system.

Further savings can be realized from Warmboard’s nimble panels because they heat and cool quickly. This is not the case for other radiant systems that might rely on thick concrete to heat up before releasing their heat to the room. Such systems can then require quite a long time to cool after the thermostat is turned down. Warmboard panels, in contrast, are extremely responsive to adjustments in the thermostat, which means less energy is used in getting the room warm, and greater comfort is achieved when you need to cool the room down if you’re feeling too hot.


This post has been brought to you by Warmboard. Its facts and opinions are those of


Quick Tip: Zero-Clearance Fireplaces

Zero-clearance fireplaces save homeowners from so many of the hassles normally associated with time spent around the hearth.

If you like fireplaces but your home doesn’t have one, a zero-clearance fireplace could be for you. It can be set on your subfloor and within an inch of other combustible surfaces. With glass doors, heat from inside the combustion chamber is circulated into the room through vents at the bottom and at the top, and room heat won’t escape up the flue. They’re lightweight, so you can place them anywhere, and you can install one within a day. Always check your local building code.

For more on fireplaces, consider:

Fireplace Maintenance Checklist
Pellet Stoves: An Eco-Friendly Heating Option
Gas Fireplaces: A Showcase of Design and Innovation

Planning Guide: Fireplaces

Fireplaces not only add exceptional ambiance to a home, they can provide valuable, cost-efficient heat as well. If you're not lucky enough to have a fireplace in your house, you can certainly have one installed—but first review the options.

Is there anything better than sitting beside the fireplace on a chilly winter eve? Not only does a fireplace provide decorative charm and the practical benefit of warmth, but it can also add to the value of your home. In fact, by some estimates, homeowners recoup 130 percent of the amount they invest to build a fireplace, with 78 percent of home buyers rating fireplaces as a desirable amenity. If your home doesn’t have a fireplace, that’s OK: With careful planning, you can add one.

As you begin your research, the first thing to know is that fireplaces generally fall into one of three categories: masonry, zero-clearance (also known as pre-fabricated or manufactured), and gas. Of course, each design has its pros and cons. So before you decide to build a fireplace of any type, it’s essential that you consider the different options in light of your project budget, your aesthetic sense, and the particulars of your home’s construction method and architectural style.



How to Build a Fireplace - Masonry


The most expensive option is a wood-burning masonry fireplace. Arguably, it’s also the most attractive and impressive-looking. When the average person envisions a fireplace, this is the kind that comes to mind. A masonry fireplace consists of a brick or stone firebox, a brick or stone chimney, and, more often than not, a wood mantel.

It’s a lot easier to build a fireplace like this in new construction. Adding one to an existing home presents myriad challenges, but it certainly can be done. Before you do anything else, identify the room in which you plan to locate the fireplace, then make sure its floor joists are reinforced. Neither brick nor stone is lightweight. When used in the quantity necessary to build a fireplace of average size, these materials are hefty indeed, so building codes require that the house framing be modified to accommodate the increased load.

Related: 10 Accessories for the Fashionable Fireplace

Further considerations include the dimensions and thickness of the firebox, the size of the damper opening, and the type of chimney and liner used. Local building codes typically give detailed specifications for each of these details as well as for the minimum distance between a fireplace and combustive materials.

Talk to your builder about the merits of an air-circulating system, which forces the fireplace to draw in cooler air from the room. Once that air is heated, a low-voltage fan pumps it back out into the home. Without such a system, masonry fireplaces can steal warm air and send it up the chimney, resulting in higher monthly heating bills. A nonmechanical way to address this problem is to build a fireplace with a slanted firebox, which inhibits warm air from escaping to the outside.



How to Build a Fireplace - Zero Clearance


In comparison with masonry fireplaces, zero-clearance fireplaces are much easier and less expensive to install, requiring significantly less construction work. Because they are lightweight and have firebox enclosures that always remain cool, zero-clearance fireplaces can sit directly over hardwood floors and within a few inches of existing walls. For rooms of any size, but for small rooms in particular, homeowners have found that zero-clearance fireplaces are a sensible, more than satisfactory option.

Wood-burning, gas, and electrically powered zero-clearance models are all available, with the difference between them largely being a matter of lifestyle and personal preference. When it comes time to make a purchase, the real question is, “How big?” You can determine the ideal size for a zero-clearance fireplace with some simple math. Measure the width and length of your room, then add those measurements together. The number of feet you calculate will be the best size of the opening—in inches—for your fireplace. So, if your room measures 12 feet by 15 feet—for a total of 27 feet—then choose a model with an opening of at least 27 inches.

Normally, zero-clearance fireplaces vent through a lightweight metal tube that extends through the ceiling. Some models, however, contain an external air-venting feature, one that draws air from the outdoors. By not having to draw air from the room, these fireplaces can operate up to 70 percent more efficiently. But whereas zero-clearance fireplaces can usually be installed anywhere, these more efficient designs must be situated on an exterior wall.



How to Build a Fireplace - Gas


While they don’t offer the sounds and aroma of a wood fire, gas fireplaces create lovely ambiance and often supply more warmth than wood does. Plus, gas fireplaces are much easier to start—say goodbye to all that newspaper!—and there’s no cleanup or danger of fire from errant embers to worry about.

Environmental friendliness is another reason why gas fireplaces have become more popular. A wood-burning fireplace pollutes; a gas fireplace pollutes less. That’s true in part because gas models feature thermostatic controls, enabling the homeowner to operate the fireplace as if it were a traditional heating system. If you’ve ever cracked a window when a wood fire got a little too hot for comfort, then you know that, delightful as they are, traditional fireplaces do not excel in energy efficiency.

Like their zero-clearance cousins, gas fireplaces don’t need a ton of room. For a standard unit, the main installation requirements are 1) a connection to the gas supply line and 2) an adequate venting mechanism. Deal with the first requirement by positioning your fireplace near the propane or natural gas line, or in a room to which it would be both feasible and cost-effective to run an extension. The second requirement—venting—can be handled in a variety of ways. You can do it through an existing chimney, by installing a new chimney, or most simply, through a length of lightweight metal tubing that leads from the unit to the outdoors.

Note that unvented gas fireplaces are available and increasingly common. They use catalytic converter technology to cleanly burn all the fuel that is fed to it, with little to no off-gassing. But be advised that some have expressed concern that unvented gas fireplaces might not always succeed in burning 100 percent of the propane or natural gas. So for safety’s sake, remember to site yours near a window that can be cracked on those occasions when you are enjoying a fire at home.

No matter what type of fireplace you decide on, familiarize yourself with the maintenance and cleaning techniques required for it to work safely and effectively.

Bob Vila Radio: Water Heaters

If your water heater is nearing ten years old, it could be time to think about buying a new one. Consider these energy-efficient choices when shopping for a new water heater.

Most hot water tanks last about ten years, so if yours is getting close to that age, you might want to start thinking about your next one.

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Listen to BOB VILA ON WATER HEATERS or read the text below:



Check what’s called the “first hour rating” on a water heater—that’s how much hot water it can deliver in your hour of highest usage. A typical shower requires ten gallons of hot water mixed with cold to create a comfortable temperature.

If there are four people taking showers over the course of an hour every evening, you need 40 gallons of hot water at the ready. If you’d like to run the dishwasher or washing machine at the same time, the last one in the shower is in for a surprise if your tank only has a 40-gallon first hour rating.

You can get a bigger tank, but it’s a lot more cost effective and energy efficient to space out the showers or run the dishwasher at another time.

If you’ve become an empty nester, you can downsize your water heater and save some money. A family of four may need that 40- or 50-gallon tank, but once the kids move out, you should be able to go down to a 30-gallon model.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Chase Away Winter’s Chill with Radiant Heat

On those frigid mornings, wouldn't you love comfortable, even heat throughout your home, and a floor that's warm beneath your feet? Consider the benefits of a radiant floor heating.

Quik Trak Radiant Heat Flooring

Quik Trak Radiant Heat Flooring System at

Drafts got you down? If your goal is to achieve even, comfortable heat and warm floors, then you may want to look into installing a radiant heating system for your home.

Radiant heating systems, which are typically installed in or below the floor of your home, distribute heat evenly and comfortably. The heating coils first warm up the floor. The heat radiates gradually throughout the room, warming any furnishings and surfaces in its path—which then give off warmth in turn. Everything in the room becomes snug and toasty while the overall air temperature remains comfortable, not stultifying.

“Radiant heat holds many advantages over typical convective heating methods,” notes Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer “Radiant systems heat the whole room evenly, so there is no ‘cold at the floor, hot at the ceiling’ effect. They will even heat the surface of the objects in the room, greatly increasing comfort.”

Related:  Radiant Floor Heating 101

Quik Track Radiant Heat Package

Radiant heat Quik Trak system at

“Because airflow is negligible in a radiant system, there is less heat loss due to drafts, and in general the thermostat can be set lower while remaining comfortable,” O’Brian continues. “On top of that, the water temperature required for a radiant system is much lower than for traditional systems. A properly configured radiant system can save you big bucks on utilities.”

Radiant heat is not only comfortable, but also aesthetically pleasing, because all of the components are tucked away out of sight—there are no radiators, baseboard heaters, or hot air returns in view. Radiant heat is also silent, eliminating much of the banging, whistling, creaking, popping, rattling, and humming associated with conventional heating systems.

There are two primary types of radiant heating systems, hydronic and electric. Hydronic systems are the most common and use hot water passing through PEX tubing to heat a space. In contrast, electric radiant systems provide heat through electric cables or mats. Radiant heat can be installed in both new construction and in existing homes, and there are several different types of installations available, depending on the home’s construction. For example, hydronic tubing can be installed in a cement foundation when it is initially poured, or the tubing can be installed in an “over-pour” on an existing foundation. Tubing also can be installed in between the floor joists with or without plates, or it can be installed above the subfloor using a specialty product such as Quik Trak.

Rifeng Radiator Heat Manifold

Rifeng 7-Loop Stainless Steel Radiant Heat Manifold at

Radiant heat is also an energy-efficient option for many homeowners. Although the initial installation cost may be 10 to 25 percent more expensive than a conventional heating system, a properly designed and maintained radiant heating system can cost 25 to 50 percent less to run and maintain. Also, the life expectancy of a radiant heat system is typically 30 to 45 years, double or even triple the 10- to 25- year life expectancy of a traditional forced-air furnace. Radiant heat can also increase the value of your home at resale, because these systems are considered a highly desirable option among home buyers. offers a large selection of products and packages for installing radiant heating systems from the top manufacturers in the industry. For more information, including a radiant heat calculator, visit


This post has been brought to you by Its facts and opinions are those of

Unsound Sounds: 7 Noises You Don’t Want to Hear From Your House

Our houses groan, creak, and pop on a regular basis. Here's how to tell whether that noise you're hearing could be a sign of something serious.


Homes make strange noises. They’re built of many different materials — glass, concrete, wood — that expand and contract at different rates. But still, “The most noise your house should make is a popping sound, like your knuckles cracking, and only once in a while,” says Bill Richardson, former president of the American Society of Home Inspectors and owner of Responsive Inspections in Bosque Farms, N.M.

If your home is making noises that rival the best of Metallica, then it may be sending you signals that there’s a problem. We asked the experts to catalogue some of the more worrisome pops, hisses, groans, creaks, and knocks, and to tell us what they mean and how they can be remedied. Here are the top seven problem noises and how they can be solved.



The Problem: When most homeowners first turn on their heating system in the fall, they’ll often hear a little moaning and groaning as the heating system expands and rubs against the frame of the house, says Mike Kuhn, the New Jersey owner of a HouseMaster inspection service and coauthor of The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Home Inspections. With a baseboard hot-water system, you can also expect “normal clinking and knocking,” says Kuhn. The circulator pump or pumps to the system, however, “should be silent when they run,” says Kuhn. If you hear knocking or clanking, typically located at the boiler itself, it might be a sign of impending failure of the circulator pump, he says.

The Solution: Get a repairman out to check on it, pronto.


racoon in the attic



The Problem: If you hear strange noises like scratching and possibly chittering coming from places where no one lives in the house, you could have mice, squirrels, raccoons, or even bats sharing your quarters, says Richardson. “Any kind of wild critter could be up in the attic,” he says. And these freeloaders aren’t just a nuisance: Bats can carry deadly rabies. In the Southwest, the droppings of mice can spread hantavirus. Some animals will tear up insulation to nest, or chew through siding or even electrical wires, causing fires.

The Solution: As soon as you suspect an intruder, get on it: Set traps. (Call in a pro if the animal is stubborn or large.) Finally, prevent the problem from reoccurring by sealing up the entrances to your house with steel wool, metal sheeting, caulk, and/or hardware cloth.

To keep raccoons away, put garbage in sealed, secured metal cans that can’t be tipped. Bring pet food inside. After pests have been removed, make sure vents and chimneys are securely covered with mesh or a grille, so those spaces can still breathe.



The Problem: “You definitely don’t want to hear water running if nobody’s using anything,” says Richardson. The sound could indicate many things — a busted pipe in a wall, under the floor, or even in the irrigation system. If you hear running water when you shouldn’t, “Shut the main off and see if the noise goes away. If it does, you’ve got a leak somewhere,” says Richardson — and a problem in need of fixing.

The Solution: Unless you’re really handy and ready to do surgery on your home, call in a plumber.


draining water heater



The Problem: A gas-fired hot water heater works pretty much like boiling a pot of water: A fire is lit and the water inside is heated until it’s ready for use. “A lot of sediment builds up at the bottom of a hot water tank, and that sediment works like an insulator,” forcing the burner to work harder, Kuhn says. The strange noise you hear is the bubbling sediment — and a sign that the tank is probably experiencing fatigue and may be facing premature failure, says Kuhn.

The Solution: Ideally, you should flush out your hot water tank every few months, using the drain valve near bottom of the floor. “However, nobody does it,” says Kuhn, because it can be a pain to do. If your water heater is already making these noises, draining it might help. “It could (work) a little bit longer, it could go a lot longer,” but the damage is probably done, says Kuhn.



The Problem: “What that can connote is that your filter hasn’t been changed,” says Richardson. “And your furnace is trying to pull in air from around it.” And that’s not good, he says. The furnace is working too hard. “What it will do is start sucking exhaust gasses from the furnace into the house.”

The Solution: Install clean filters regularly — “anywhere from three months to monthly, depending on atmospheric conditions,” says Richardson.



The Problem: If you’ve got a well for your water, you’ve got a well pump — either in the house or above the well in your yard. “If you are sitting in your house and hearing the pump switch click on and off, you may have a problem,” says Kuhn. The pump pulls water from the well and into a holding tank, where it’s stored for your use. If you’re hearing it when you, say, turn on the faucet, something may be wrong. The pump “should not operate every time there is a call for water. The wear and tear would cause the pump to fail prematurely,” he says. It’s likely that you have a leak in the system. “The leak is either going to be in the well equipment itself, or in a fixture” — for example, a leaky toilet — that is causing the holding tank to drain, says Kuhn.

The Solution: First, check your fixtures for leaks. Then, if needed, call a plumber familiar with well systems.



The Problem: If your home has gas, a strange noise that sounds like hissing could indicate a gas leak, says Richardson. Sometimes you can hear a hissing outside at the gas meter, or at a home’s outdoor gas light post—places where the line could have corroded, he says. “You should be able to smell it, but you never know.”

The Solution: If you you smell gas around the gas main, don’t mess with the gas shutoff unless you absolutely know what you’re doing, because any mishandling or spark could make things much worse, says Richardson. If you hear the noise and smell the gas, immediately evacuate the house and call the gas company.

What Would Bob Do? Draining a Water Heater

Drain your water heater regularly to keep it running efficiently and safely.

How to Drain a Water Heater


I just drained my water heater for the first time since it was installed back in ’89…24 years ago! The water came out very clean, with no sign of sediment, so I stopped after about five minutes. Does this mean that my heater has no sediment?

It’s smart to drain a water heater every year, no matter what type of storage tank water heater you own. Sediment builds up over time within the appliance, compromising its energy efficiency and leading to clogs in fixtures throughout the house. The fact that you witnessed clean-looking water come out of your tank does not necessarily mean you’re in the clear. To remove sediment, you must drain a water heater not just for five minutes, but for as long as it takes to empty out completely.

In the future, follow these steps to drain a water heater:

1. Check the pressure-relief valve.
Before you drain a water heater, check its pressure-relief valve—the means by which the tank keeps from bursting due to excess pressure. How do you ensure that the valve is functioning properly? Switch off the power to the water heater. (If the unit runs on electricity, simply turn it off. If it burns gas, then switch the heater over to “pilot” mode.) Next, trip the lever on the valve in the cold water supply line. Finally, to minimize mess, position a bucket under the pressure-relief valve. Once you have opened the valve, listen for air and look for water. If you experience either, that means the valve is working as designed and you proceed to the next step. (Note that if you open the pressure-release valve and nothing happens—no hissing air, no dripping water—then it probably needs to be replaced.)

How to Drain a Water Heater - Valve


2. Run your drain line.
Run a garden hose from the water heater drain to the exterior of your home. If the tank sits below grade (say, in the basement), you’ll likely need at least two lengths: one that runs from the tank to a portable pump, plus another that runs from the pump to the outdoors. If your water heater is located anywhere besides the basement, then gravity ought to do the trick. To be on the safe side, give the water in the switched-off heater ample time to cool down (allot several hours) before opening the drain valve. Note that taking a long, hot shower proves an effective strategy for speeding up this part of the draining process!

Related: Why You Should Consider Installing a Tankless Water Heater

3. Flush your tank.
After opening all the hot water faucets around your house, proceed to open the water heater drain valve. (Now is the time to activate your pump, if you’ve chosen to use one.) Let the tank drain completely, then turn on the water supply (short bursts of water may help to dislodge any sediment buildup). If sediment slows or obstructs the flow of water from the drain valve, get it out of the way: In other words, remove the drain valve, so the sediment can exit through a larger opening. With the valve removed, a long screwdriver or dowel may assist you in dislodging sediment. Keep several large buckets on hand to capture the outflow.

4. Finish up.
Once the water coming out of your tank appears to be running clear, turn the supply off once more. Then close the water heater drain valve and turn on the cold water supply. Remember also to return the pressure-relief valve to its initial position. Shut off the hot water faucets around your house (which you had turned on in Step 3) and, finally, restore the power to your water heater, which is now free of sediment.