Can a Hot Water Heater Be Painted? (step-by-step instructions)


After a garage or basement remodel the old water heater looks like a complete eyesore?

Replacing a completely functional albeit ugly and dated looking water heater is unpractical. And let’s face it, nobody want’s to spend the $1000 that it will cost to replace it with a new unit.

Instead, it would be much better to give the water heater a new life with a paint job.

A water heater can be painted. Care must be taken to mask parts of the water heater that get hot. When painting a gas water heater, it is absolutely vital that the gas valve is turned off, and the water heater unplugged, so that the pilot light can’t ignite the paint fumes.

Here are the steps to a lasting water heater paint job. This will give new life to your old buddy.

Things You’ll Need

Here is everything you need for a successful long-lasting water heater paint job. Here I have listed spray paint because it is easier to get a good looking even finish with that. The same exact process can be used with a paintbrush.

NameQtyAmazon LinkAdditional info
Masking tape1ViewOpens in a new tab.To mask labels and pipes
Masking plastic with tape1ViewOpens in a new tab.To cover floor, walls and other nearby objects
Scuff pads1ViewOpens in a new tab.Those are used to rough up the surface before painting. This ensures good adhesion.
Grease and Wax remover1ViewOpens in a new tab.For final cleaning before painting
PrimerSee table belowViewOpens in a new tab.Pick a color that matches the finish. For example Dark blue finish – black primer. Silver finish – grey primer.
PaintSee table belowViewOpens in a new tab.For best results use primer and paint from the same manufacturer and series
Things needed for painting a water heater

How much paint will I need?

Here is a helpful table to find out how many cans of paint you will need

Water heater sizePaintPrimer
20 gal (Approx 22 sq. ft.)2 can (2 coats)1 can (1 coat)
50 gal (Approx 50 sq. ft.)4 cans (2 coats)2 cans (1 coat)
Paint quantity for water heater

Turn Off The Water Heater

When painting a gas water heater, it is absolutely essential that the heater is unplugged and the gas line closed. Since most paint fumes are flammable you don’t want the pilot light igniting the paint fumes.

This is especially dangerous when using spray paint.

Even when your water heater is electric, it is a good idea to turn off the heater a couple of hours before you begin.

The outer skin does not get very warm, since it is insulated from the water thank, but it will be too warm to paint, and it is difficult to get a smooth paint-job when the surface is too hot.

Mask Things That Will Not be Painted

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After you have moved everything out of the way that can be moved, you are ready to mask everything that you don’t want paint on.

The degree to which you have to mask depends on whether you use spray-paint or a roller/paintbrush.

When using spray-paint you need to also cover the walls and floor adjacent to the water heater, this will protect them from the paint dust. I like to use the pre-taped plastic. This makes it very easy to cover up everything in a short time.

Be sure to mask the warning labels, vent openings, and pipes/fittings. All warning labels must be left unpainted.

All we want to paint is the outer skin of the water heater and not the pipes. The paint we will be using is not heat resistant and can not be used on the pipes.

If you want to paint the pipes/fittings you need to use heat resistant paint (Amazon link). Radiator paint works well since the temperature ranges are about the same for both.

Wash the Surface

Depending on how dirty your water heater is, you might want to start with cleaning it first with soap and water.

You can use a bucket of warm water with a drop of dishwasher liquid. Use a sponge with a scouring pad to get all of the loose dirt off. After you are done dry the water heater using an old towel or rag.

Scuff The Surface

This step is extremely important. Many people don’t spend much time preparing the surface before painting and then wonder why the paint start peeling and flaking off.

Scuffing the smooth surface will give the new paint maximum adhesion to the old finish. Whatever it might be, plastic, paint, or, metal.

Some people use fine grit sandpaper for this, but I prefer scuffing pads. Especially when the surface is not completely flat.

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Now take the grey scuffing pad and go over the entire water heater. Scuff until the finish turns matte.

Next, take the finer red scuffing pad and go over the entire water heater once more. (This step is optional, it will give you a slightly better finish)

Final Clean

After you have protected everything that does not need to be painted with masking tape, it is time to give the water heater one last clean before applying primer.

Use a paper towel and grease remover to get rid of any sanding dust and other contaminants that could be still left.

Important. Do not use soap water for this step. This will leave soap residue on the surface and can seriously hinder paint adhesion.

Prime The Surface

A primer gives the main coat better adhesion. Depending on the material this step could be absolutely vital, or optional. To be safe, I always use primer whenever I paint something, especially over existing paint.

The type of primer you need to use depends on the surface you are working with. Most of the water heaters have painted sheet-metal skins painted with enamel paint. The primer that is on the shopping list is perfect for this.

Try to get a primer that is a close match to the finish paint tone. This will make it much easier to get good coverage with the finish paint.

For example, you would want to buy a white primer for all light colors such as white, light pink, yellow; and black primer for anything dark.

In rare cases, the water heater skin could be made of stainless steel or plastic. Then this primer will not work and a special primer should be used.

  • Shake primer can for at least 60 seconds.
  • Spray from approximately 7 inches
  • Spray an even light coat moving up and down*

*it is very difficult to get an even coat moving side to side since the water heater is round and it is impossible to keep the distance same when you move.

Paint The Water Heater

Now the final step that you have been waiting for. The step that makes your water heater look as new.

You might wonder are all the previous steps really worth it?

Absolutely they are! If you skip only one of them, you will not get a long-lasting finish. I have seen people spray paint directly on years of dust. And then they blame the “cheap spray paint” when the paint begins to flake off after a week.

Whenever you are painting something, remember, the prep work takes 90% of the time and is responsible for 95% of the result.

I remember when I was painting the doors on my car, I spend almost the entire day applying filler, sanding, masking, cleaning only to spend 10 minutes the next day to spray the paint.

Before you begin, listen to me carefully. Apply a light coat, I can’t stress this enough. Don’t try to get perfect coverage with the first coat. If you do, you will end up with running paint and you will have to start over.

Practice spraying on a scrap piece of cardboard to get a feel for the distance and the speed you have to move.

Wait at-least 20 minutes after priming before you apply the finish coat. *

*Will vary with different primers so check the datasheet if you use something else than what was on the shopping list.

The process is the same for the finish coat as it was for the primer. The only difference is that you will apply several coats of paint to get a good coverage.

  • Shake can for at least 60 seconds.
  • Spray from approximately 7 inches
  • Spray an even light coat moving up and down*
  • Wait 15 minutes and spray another light coat (Apply next coat within 4 hours or after 48 hours)
  • Repeat until even finish is achieved

Remove Tape/Plastic

Wait 15 minutes, so that the paint is touch dry and remove all masking tape and plastic that you used to cover things up.

Don’t leave them on for very long as it is easier to remove them when the paint is touch dry, but not completely cured.

And now you are done! Congratulations on a job well done!

Joonas Pütsepp

I like it when I'm able to fix everything that needs fixing around the house. In order to do that, I have to do a lot of research. This site will cover everything I learn and maybe help others do the same.

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