Anode rods are often referred to as the sacrificial lamb of the water heater, which is high praise for what is, essentially, a metal stick. Their reputation is well-earned, though, since they are a relatively cheap way to significantly increase the longevity of your water heater.
Despite all of this, one of the most asked questions when it comes to anode rods is “can I remove it?” Below, I explain the science of anode rods and why it’s a bad idea to remove them. There is also one situation, which I discuss, in which removing the anode rod may be considered, but there is also a better and just-as-simple solution to this.
Anode rods should not be removed from water heaters. They should, however, be replaced regularly. Anode rods are installed in water heaters to attract corrosive ions away from the metal tank. The life of a water heater can be halved if the anode rod is removed.
Anode Rods Extend Water Heater Lifespan
An anode rod is a bar made of metal at the center of your water heater. The composition of an anode rod is often magnesium, aluminum, or an alloy of aluminum and zinc.
The chosen metal of the rod is more reactive than the material that the water heater is made of. This means it draws corrosive sediment and minerals in the water away from your water heater’s tank and towards itself.
Because of their erosive nature, anode rods eventually “fail” or completely break down so that they cannot serve their purpose. When they fail, it is necessary to replace them.
Why Do Water Heaters Need Anode Rods?
Unfortunately for the integrity of a water heater, the conditions that exist within it are ideal for the fast corrosion of its metal.
When in contact with oxygen or water, metals oxidize. An example would be rust when iron interacts with oxygen. This oxidized version of the metal is often weaker than the original metal and loses its shape and integrity, which causes corrosion.
Since water heaters contain a high volume of water that is in contact with their metal exterior (even if the tank is lined with glass), corrosion is likely to occur over time.
What makes corrosion in your water heater even more of a problem is the heat of a water heater. Heat accelerates chemical processes by increasing the molecules’ speed, which therefore accelerates the corrosion process.
Another problem that worsens the condition of your water heater is sediment build-up. When hard water is heated, the tiny particles of sediment within it are often left behind to form a pile on the water heater’s base. This build-up can cause the base to overheat, which can ultimately lead to the bottom of your water heater dropping out and causing flooding.
Water with high acidity can also cause or accelerate corrosion.
With all these factors at play, the integrity of a water heater could be in great danger without an anode rod to attract corrosive chemicals away from the heater’s metal.
Although anode rods are not necessary for water heaters to function, they are essential to the water heater’s ability to continue to function. With an anode rod, the water heater will be protected by the sacrifice of the rod, which submits itself to corrosion to protect the water heater.
How Do Anode Rods Carry out Their Function?
The anode rod effectively protects your water heater due to preferential corrosion of metals.
This means that when two metals are submerged in water and corrosion occurs, the more reactive metal will suffer the brunt of the corrosion, while the less reactive metal, called the nobler metal, is relatively untouched.
The reactive anode attracts corrosive ions towards it, drawing them away from the metal of the tank, and therefore protecting it from corrosion.
In most cases, the reactive metal of the anode is magnesium or aluminum while, the nobler metal of the tank is steel.
Over a few years, in most cases, the metal of the rod will continue to oxidize and corrode, exposing the layers beneath the initial layer of aluminum/magnesium. Eventually, the reactive metal will be completely gone with just its core steel wire exposed.
When the anode has failed, there is no preferential corrosion of metals since there is only steel left within the tank. This steel will begin corroding over time, expedited by the heat of the water heater. For this reason, it’s important to replace a failed rod to ensure the integrity of your water heater.
How Long Will Water Heater Last Without Anode Rod?
In most cases, a newly purchased water heater will already have an anode rod installed into its structure. It can be removed, though, but then the integrity of your water heater will suffer.
With a sacrificial anode rod, your water heater can last more than 20 years in ideal conditions.
With no preferential corrosion, the corrosion process will begin as soon as the new water heater is installed and functioning. It’ll still take some time for the tank will actually experience adverse effects, but its life can be shortened by quite a bit in this scenario.
With no anode rod, your water heater may last a max of 8 to 10 years, but it could still begin to fall apart as early as 5 years after installation. Factors that may affect this are how often the water heater is run, the quality of the water heater unit itself, as well as the acidity of your water.
Negative Results of Removing Anode Rod
Water Heaters More Expensive than Anode Rods
Refraining from installing and replacing an anode rod will save you around $20 to $50 for the rod if you install it yourself. The cost of installing one would be even higher if you have a professional install it for you since they can charge between $50 and $150 an hour for this installation.
Anode rods only have to be replaced every 3-5 years, though, and at a small fraction of the cost of a water heater.
A water heater can cost around $800 at the lowest and up to $1,500 at the highest. It is certainly a bit of an investment, but, as I’ve already mentioned, with an anode rod, it could last more than 20 years in the right conditions.
Think of it this way, with the routine replacement of an anode rod, you’ll pay, at the highest, $150 every 5 years or so over the course of 15-20 years. That’s a total of $450-600 over the water heater’s lifespan.
Without replacing of anode rods, you may have to replace your water heater every 5 years adding up to an average of $2,400-$3,200 over that same period of time.
The rusted water heater would also fetch less in scrap metal than one that is simply old and past its prime.
Rusting Water Heaters Cost More to Run
It’s not only the outlay of finances for a new water heater that are going to affect you. As the integrity of your water heater begins to deteriorate through oxidation and corrosion, your wallet will most likely begin to suffer as your energy bills increase.
Oxidation and corrosion of the metal of your water heater thin out the metal exterior of your water heater and may even form holes. This thinning or hole-forming damages the insulation of your water heater and therefore lets heat escape.
Since a water heater requires higher temperatures in order to adequately heat the needed amount of water, heat escaping damages the efficiency of the appliance. More electricity or gas has to be used to compensate for the heat escaping which then raises your electricity bill.
Not only will water heaters without anode rods have to be replaced more often than those that utilize anode rods, but they will also cost more to run.
Water Heater Can Burst Easily (Water Damage)
A water heater bursting is a scary occurrence, and unfortunately, not a rare one.
The bursting of a water heater happens when the water becomes overheated. Overheating occurs when the inner thermostat is faulty or when the build-up of sediment interferes with the thermostat’s readings.
With the water being too hot, the volume of the water increases and begins to push outwards at the seams and fittings of the tank.
A structurally intact water heater might be able to handle this increase in pressure, but one that is beginning to rust due to the lack of an anode rod can easily begin to leak or even burst at the seams due to this pressure.
The bursting of a water heater is a rather unfortunate occurrence. Not only does your water heater, which is essential for providing hot water to your bathroom, kitchen, and laundry room, now have to be replaced, but your basement is now full of large amounts of hot water. Some people even install their heaters in the ceiling above bathrooms; you can image the horror caused when these burst.
Since the explosion is a result of overheating of the water heater’s water, it is likely that the water is quite hot to the touch. These high temperatures can cause physical harm to pets or people in the area.
Water itself, hot or not, can cause damage to living spaces, especially those with electrical appliances. Flooring can be damaged, electronics can short out, ceiling and walls get stained, fabric items can become water-logged, and mold can grow.
Since water heaters are often in the basements of buildings, and basements are often used for storage, any sort of storage, whether they’re paper goods or decorations, can be damaged by this water if they come in contact with it.
Water Can Become Rusty
It is not uncommon for small amounts of rust in our water to occur. This is perfectly safe, but once levels rise to a certain amount, there can be negative health effects.
Although rusty water may not make you sick, it can negatively impact your skin and hair.
High amounts of oxidized iron in the water can leach moisture from your skin. This can cause uncomfortable dryness and the need for more lotion or other moisturizing products. High iron amounts can also lead to a worsening of pre-existing wrinkles or the formation of new wrinkles.
Acne can worsen due to rusty water. It can clog pores due to the iron content of the water not allowing oil to be removed properly from the pores of the skin. This is especially likely for those with oily skin.
Iron-rich water can also leach moisture from your hair. Even with quality conditioner and shampoo, with each washing of your hair, it will become increasingly more brittle and dry. Rusty water can also change the color of your hair, darkening it and adding a rusty orange color.
One Reason to Remove an Anode Rod
Although an anode rod is fairly inexpensive and greatly improves the longevity of your water heater, it is not without its possible cons.
One possible con is that the rod is making your water smell and taste gross.
This occurs when you have a magnesium or aluminum anode rod and your water is sourced from wells. When this metal corrodes and reacts with the sulfates in the water, hydrogen sulfate forms, which has a terrible rotten egg smell.
Replace Removed Rod With New One
Your anode rod causing a terrible smell is a completely acceptable reason to remove your anode rod. It is important to note, though, that you should still have an anode rod in your water heater, just not a magnesium or aluminum one.
A new anode rod made of zinc or an aluminum-zinc alloy will perform just as well as a normal anode rod, but it will not react with sulfates the same way a magnesium or aluminum rod would. This is because a zinc or aluminum-zinc alloy rod will greatly reduce the chances of hydrogen sulfide occurring in your water heater.