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There are a number of reasons why your water heater may suddenly stop producing hot water, but one of the most common causes is a bad thermocouple. If you've lit your pilot light numerous times but it won't stay on, then you may need to replace the appliance's thermocouple. Here's how to diagnose the problem and step by step instructions for completing this simple repair at home.
The purpose of the thermocouple device is to detect whether the pilot light is on or off and regulate the flow of gas to the appliance appropriately. It sends a signal to the gas valve to stay closed when the pilot light goes out to prevent gas from leaking into your home and causing a safety hazard.
Most of the older models and some newer ones have the standing pilot design where the thermocouple is connected to the burner assembly and control box. Newer models may have electronic ignition pilots where an electronic igniter is also attached to the burner assembly. There may also be a burner manifold cover plate.
Troubleshooting Thermocouple Problems
Before going through the trouble of diagnosing and replacing your thermocouple device, check your pilot light to make sure there isn't any debris in or around its mouth or in the tubing connecting the valve and pilot light. Sometimes small insects such as spiders will climb in these areas and cause clogs, particularly if the water heater hasn't been used in a long time. Use a thin piece of wire to clean the area or tube being careful not to scratch or enlarge the either the mouth or the tubing.
To confirm that the problem is the thermocouple, relight the pilot light according to the directions on your appliance. Be certain to hold the button a full 30-60 seconds to allow the thermocouple to heat up (this signals to the device that pilot is on). If the pilot light goes out immediately after you release the button, then the thermocouple needs to be repaired or replaced.
Repairing and Replacing the Thermocouple
Before purchasing a new thermocouple, inspect the probe. If the surface of the probe is white, then it is covered in carbon, which can prevent the device from sensing when the pilot light is on. Using a fine emery cloth, sand the carbon away and try to relight the pilot.
If the pilot still won't stay on then replace the thermocouple completely. Here are the step-by-step instructions on how to do that (here's an instructional video for visual learners):
If a burnt out thermocouple was the only problem affecting the pilot light, then it should start working normally. However, if the pilot light won't stay on or another problem manifests once you get the water heater working, then it's probably best to contact an experienced plumber from a place like Smedley & Associates, Plumbing, Heating, Air Conditioning for advice and assistance.