Basic Tools for Water Heater Maintenance

Water heaters seem a lot more complicated than they really are. As a result, you may be tempted to a professional every time the heater has a problem. However, you can perform most repairs with only a few simple tools that might already be in your tool kit. While not listed here, you may wish to invest in some thread sealing compound to create an airtight seal when replacing anode rods.

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Chances are, you have many of these tools already, and they tend to be relatively inexpensive. More complicated jobs may require additional tools, such as a hammer or screwdriver, but it’s a good bet most of your water heater repair needs will revolve around the anode rod.

Note that plumbers have a much wider range of water heater tools at their disposal, but these tend to be more specialized variations of the tools on this list.

1/2 Inch Drive Ratchet

1/2 inch ratchet

Having a good ratchet is essential for removing anode rods with minimal effort. Ratcheting wrenches lock in one direction, allowing you to turn the handle backwards without re-tightening a bolt. Most anodes have a hex head and, while you can replace anode rods with a wrench, a ratchet makes the job much easier. If you have a socket set (here’s one of my favorites), you’ll likely have at least a 3/8″ ratchet in there and probably a 1/2″ version.

Note that while a non-ratcheting wrench may be used, but you will need to frequently remove the wrench in order to continue the unscrewing process. You can also add a cheater bar for better torque if the hex head cannot be loosened with a ratchet.

1-1/16 Inch Socket

1-1/6" socket

This is the size of socket you’re going to need for removing those anode rods. The socket can have either a hex or star shaped head. The former works better but can be more difficult to fit onto the hex nut, while the latter is easier to fit but may strip or round the edges of the hex nut.

Basin Wrench or Crescent Wrench

crescent wrench

These can be used together or separately to tackle drain valves. A basin bar has a long, square shaft with a T-shaped handle and curved serrated edge. It’s sometimes referred to as a faucet wrench and is used on plumbing fixtures.

Meanwhile, the crescent wrench (or adjustable wrench) can be found in almost any home. The spiral screw allows you to open the lower jaw to fit a wider range of nuts. It also works well for holding a basin wrench to gain more turning power.

Breaker Bar (or Cheater Bar)

breaker bar

These are essentially long-handled, non-ratcheting socket wrenches. Their longer length allows for much higher torque, making it easier to loosen tight nuts. As anode rods can become very tight over time, a breaker bar may be necessary to work the hex head loose.

Typically, the breaker bar is only used for a fraction of a turn before being replaced with a normal ratchet wrench. For this reason, many DIYers will use a length of hollow pipe to artificially extend their ratchet wrench. This is known as a cheater bar, as it allows you to substitute one type of wrench for another.

Copper Pipe Cutter

copper pipe cutter

While a copper tubing cutter is used more for water heater installation, it may also be needed at times for maintenance in case a pipe gets damaged and springs a leak or a pipe fitting needs replacement. A pipe cutter uses a sharp wheel and adjustable jaw grips. It’s intended mainly for copper pipes but can also be used for PVC pipes.

After clamping the cutter onto the pipe, you turn the pipe cutter around the pipe. After every 1-2 turns you slightly tighten the cutter so the blade cuts slightly deeper into the pipe while rotating the cutter around the pipe. Eventually, the pipe is completely severed and the result is a clean cut.

Pipe Wrench

pipe wrench

These heavy-duty adjustable wrenches are used primarily by plumbers on metal pipes and fittings, but can often be found in DIY tool boxes. The F-shaped head has serrated jaws for superior grip and a sturdier body than other adjustable wrenches. You may wish to add a piece of cloth to the pipe to reduce making scratches from the teeth of this wrench.

Unlike most adjustable wrenches, the top jaw is the one which moves on pipe wrenches. As a result, they can be prone to rusting in. Be sure to keep your pipe wrench dry during storage to extend its lifespan.

Tongue and Groove Pliers

tongue and groove pliers

Made famous by the brand Channellock, tongue and groove pliers are a type of adjustable pliers that feature a toothed groove in the upper jaw. This allows the lower jaw to be locked into a number of positions. It can be used for turning nuts and bolts of various sizes.

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One of the things that makes tongue and groove pliers more useful in certain situations compared to wrenches is the angle of its jaws, which makes it easier to get into tight spaces.

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