How to Clean a Water Heater to Perform Better: DIY Maintenance Guide

If you’re looking to improve your hot water heater’s efficiency and extend its lifespan, then you need to know how to clean a water heater.

Regular maintenance and cleaning are crucial to keep your heater running smoothly, as recommended by manufacturers.

In this DIY guide, we’ll provide you with step-by-step instructions on cleaning gas water heater elements such as the flame arrestor, gas burner, venting system, thermocouple, and flame rod. We’ll also share tips on how to use vinegar for cleaning and more.

So, let’s get started and give your hot water heater the care it deserves!

Proper maintenance and cleaning are essential to keep your water heater functioning at peak performance. With industry regulations and the implementation of flammable vapor ignition resistance (FVIR) technology, neglecting a dirty environment can lead to significant issues.

From removing sediments buildup in the tank and elements to simple dust cleaning techniques, every component must be cleaned regularly to avoid problems.

So How Do You Clean the Inside of a Hot Water Heater?

Water heater
Gas water heater (photo:

To clean a water heater, you’ll need some basic tools like a vacuum cleaner, air compressor, wire brush, flashlight, wrench, grit paper, cloth, and soapy water.

Fortunately, most of these tools are probably already part of your daily or weekly toolkit.

Keep in mind that professional technicians should do most of the repairs and maintenance. Before calling for help, here are some measures you can take yourself:

  • Keep your water heater clean, especially if you notice drips from leaky water pipes.
  • Keep the space around the water heater clean from dirt, household cleaners, paint, and flammable materials.
  • Before performing any maintenance, a visual inspection of the external and internal components should be performed regularly.

Regular cleaning of a hot water heater is essential to prevent the buildup of sediment and rust, which can decrease its efficiency and lifespan. However, it’s crucial to exercise caution when cleaning around the water heater, particularly if there are any spilled or leaked flammable liquids in the vicinity. Before beginning any cleaning or maintenance, make sure to turn off all sources of flame, including the main burner and pilot, to avoid any potential fire hazards.

How to Clean a Gas Water Heater

One of the most important steps when cleaning a gas-powered hot water heater is to clean the combustion chamber and burner elements. The main burner, pilot burner, and flame arrestor must be cleaned at periodic intervals, not more than six months.

Cleaning the air intake screen is also critical because the air at the bottom of the water tank heater is drawn in for gas combustion. Keep this area free of dirt and dust and free from flammables so that the proper gas combustion won’t be affected.

To clean the combustion chamber, burner assembly, and flame arrestor, remove the burner assembly first. This is how…

How to Clean a Water Heater Flame Arrestor

The flame arrestor is a crucial component of the FVIR technology that helps keep the flame inside the combustion chamber. A dirty flame arrestor can hinder combustion air and cause issues with insufficient airflow. To avoid these problems, it’s important to keep the flame arrestor and the space under the tank clean.

If you notice a problem with the combustion air, one solution is to clean the flame arrestor. Here’s how:

  • Remove the access door.
  • Disconnect the main burner, pilot tube, and thermocouple.
  • Remove the burner assembly.
  • Inspect and clean the flame arrestor using a stiff brush. Use the compressed air or vacuum cleaner with blowing capabilities to clear the dust or debris from the flame arrestor. Once you are done blowing down and through the arrestor ports, use the vacuum below the flame arrestor to collect the dirt.
  • Reinstall burner assembly.
  • Reconnect feedline, pilot, and thermocouple.
  • Bring the access door back.
  • Resume operation.

If your water heater has an LDO screen at the base of the heater, which is an additional screen against lint, dust, and oil, it must be cleaned or washed regularly. This area is critical as all the combustion air enters the heater there. Cleaning the air intake screen will help improve performance and save you from incurring a costly service call.

Venting Installation Tips

If planning to connect a gas vent to a chimney, ensure that the chimney passageway is free of obstruction and clear, especially if the chimney was previously used with other appliances.

In the case of “direct venting,” the water heater uses the air from outside directly using the sealed intake air pipe. To ensure clean combustion and a safe environment, the air must not be contaminated with chemicals and chemical vapor due to its highly corrosive nature. This is why direct vent models are recommended for beauty shops, laundries, and where the chemicals are used.

How to Clean a Water Heater Main Burner

The main burner in a water heater is susceptible to carbon deposits, which are also known as soot. When the burner becomes dirty or clogged, it can impact the efficiency and performance of the water heater. One way to clean the burner is to use soap and hot water. Here are the steps you can follow:

  • Turn the control knob on the gas valve to the OFF position.
  • Remove the inner door assembly.
  • Disconnect the main burner feed line, pilot assembly, and thermocouple.
  • Remove the burner assembly from the combustion chamber.
  • Inspect the burner surface, burner ports and remove the dirt and debris.
  • Remove the main burner orifice, inspect and clean it.
  • Next, wipe clean the pilot assembly (or electrode) from dirt as it might prevent the ignition spark. If there is rust accumulated on the surface, use sandpaper to remove it.

Before installing a gas unit and connecting a vent to the chimney, ensure that the chimney passageway is clear and free of obstructions, especially if it was previously used for solid fuel appliances or fireplaces.

Cleaning a Thermocouple/Flame Rod

To learn about the water heater thermocouple, its purpose, and how to install/remove it, please refer to this article.

Regularly cleaning the thermocouple will ensure the proper functioning of the element. Due to corrosion, soot, and dirt buildup, the thermocouple may fail to detect the pilot flame and provide accurate measurements, resulting in a pilot outage, flame failure, and no hot water.

The solution to this problem is to sand the end of the thermocouple that comes in contact with the flame using ultra-fine steel wool or sandpaper and wiping it off with a cloth to remove any particles.

In the case of tankless water heaters equipped with flame rods or electrodes, use the same method for cleaning.

Remember to turn off the power before performing any maintenance.

How to Clean a Water Heater With Vinegar

Cleaning a water heater with vinegar is an easy job and recommended way to remove sediment and limescale deposits from the tank.

The problem with deposits is that they reduce efficiency and make the unit work harder than necessary. If regular flushing can’t remove the buildup and deposits, vinegar can help break down and loosen them into smaller pieces, making it easier to flush them out.

You may need a few gallons of vinegar for this job. Basic flushing only requires the drain valve and garden hose, but for this, you also need access to the tank and a spot to pour the vinegar.

The perfect spot is an opening where the anode rod is installed.

Other than that, the rest of the procedure is the same.

Here are the basics:

  • First, remove a few gallons from the water heater tank using the garden hose attached to the drain valve.
  • Close the drain valve and all taps.
  • Remove the anode rod located at the top of the unit, and pour the vinegar using the funnel.
  • Put the anode rod back (if it got deteriorated, replace it).
  • Open the cold water supply to fill up the tank and stir up the water/vinegar solution.
  • Let it sit for a few hours, then flush it out of the tank. Be aware that some large pieces might clog the drain valve.

If you have a tankless water heater, it is recommended to buy a tankless water heater flushing kit. The kit can be easily connected to isolation valves using a rubber hose. The flushing kit usually comes with a utility pump, hose, and bucket, while vinegar or other cleansers must be purchased separately.

Isolation valves (sold on are great to have installed because they allow easy and fast service and maintenance, including tankless flushing.

For more information about tankless flushing, click here.

Why Cleaning a Hot Water Heater Is a Good Idea

There are many problems associated with the dirty and clogged heater’s elements. The following issues will be easily prevented if cleaning hot water heater regularly.

  • The main burner or pilot will not ignite.
  • The burner flame is yellow.
  • The pilot flame is too small.

Reasons: Pilot line, burner line or orifice is dirty and clogged.

  • Smoking and carbon formation.
  • Combustion odors.
  • Sooting.
  • Slow hot water recovery.
  • Burner flame floats and lifts off ports.

Reasons: Air supply or flue pipes are obstructed, clogged burner.

How to Clean an Electric Water Heater

Electric water heater (photo:

If you have an electric water heater, sediment buildup at the bottom of the tank can cause annoying noises and, if left unchecked, may lead to permanent tank failure. These sediments can also build up on the heating elements, reducing their efficiency and causing the water heater to consume more energy than it should.

To clean the sediments from an electric water heater, follow the instructions to drain, flush, and clean the tank. If necessary, consider replacing the heating elements altogether. Regular maintenance of your electric water heater can help prevent sediment buildup and extend the lifespan of your unit.

Should I Buy a Self-Cleaning Water Heater? Is It Worth It?

A self-cleaning water heater is designed to reduce sediment buildup in the tank. Sediment buildup is a common problem that occurs over time when minerals and other debris settle at the bottom of the tank. This buildup can decrease the water heater’s efficiency, resulting in higher energy bills and a potentially shorter lifespan for the appliance.

Self-cleaning water heaters use a system of jets or other mechanisms to stir up the sediment and flush it out of the tank. This process may happen automatically or require occasional maintenance by the homeowner.

The benefits of a self-cleaning water heater include improved efficiency, longer lifespan, and reduced maintenance needs. However, they may be more expensive than traditional water heaters, so it’s essential to weigh the upfront cost against the long-term benefits before making a purchase decision.


How Often Should I Clean My Water Heater?

It is recommended to clean your water heater at least once a year to prevent sediment buildup and ensure optimal performance. However, the frequency of cleaning may vary depending on factors such as the water quality in your area, the age of the water heater, and the level of usage. 

Can I Clean My Water Heater Without Professional Help?

Yes, you can clean your water heater yourself using the proper tools and following the manufacturer’s instructions. However, if you’re unsure or uncomfortable with the process, it’s always best to hire a professional.

What Should I Use to Clean My Water Heater?

Depending on the type of water heater, you can use vinegar, specialized cleaning products, or a mixture of water and baking soda. Always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and safety guidelines.

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