Hot Water in Attic
Richard Trethewey offers some solutions for an inconveniently located electric water heater
The tank-type electric water heater in my attic turns off during summer months, forcing me to climb into that very hot space and press the heater’s reset button. The heater resumes working, then shuts down again in a week or so. I’ve had new thermostats and elements installed, but I’m still going into the attic nearly every week during the summer. Would it help to cover the heater with an insulation jacket?
—Mickey Holloway, Ellaville, GA
When a water heater sits in an attic that may exceed 150 degrees on sunny summer days, it’s going to absorb that heat, whether it’s wrapped in an extra layer of insulation or not. And as soon as the water in the tank reaches 180 degrees F, the heater’s overheat safety switch—a.k.a. high-limit switch—is going to trip. That’s the reason you’re taking so many trips to the attic.
As its name implies, the switch is there for your safety, so it can’t be adjusted or removed. Let’s look at other options.
Could you move the heater out of the attic and into a conditioned space in the house, such as a closet or an attached garage? That’s probably the least costly solution. But if the heater has to stay in the attic, then consider turning the attic into conditioned space. That would require applying insulation to the underside of your roof deck and running supply and return ducts from your HVAC system into the attic.
In your climate zone, the minimum insulation requirement in this location is R-35, but packing on more wouldn’t hurt. An insulated attic will not only keep your water heater comfy, it will also reduce the amount of heat absorbed by the ductwork in your attic and thereby lower the cooling load of your entire house. Insulating an attic isn’t cheap, but your local utility may offer programs to help offset the cost of energy-saving projects like this.
One more thing: Like all tank-type heaters, yours will leak one of these days. And if it’s still in the attic at that time, you’ll have water pouring down through the ceiling. To prevent that nightmare scenario, place a water-heater drain pan under the heater and hook it up to a house drain. Then add a dedicated shutoff valve, such as a FloodMaster, to the tank’s cold-water supply. It’s hardwired to a moisture sensor that sits in the pan. In the event of a leak, the sensor detects the water, sounds an alarm, and signals the valve to shut off the heater’s water supply. That one device can save you thousands in repair bills.