Just about everyone has likely taken their hot water heater for granted at least a handful of times throughout their lives. It’s something that you always expect to work and those few times it doesn’t, it can be very frustrating! While they’re certainly not built to last forever, hot water heaters can last a lot longer if they’re maintained properly. The best part for homeowners is the majority of this maintenance can easily be turned into a weekend DIY project! Today though, I’m going to walk you through how to spot a hot water heater that’s on it’s last leg, as well as those instances where you may have the dreaded leak coming from either the top or bottom of the unit.
Spotting a Failing Hot Water Heater
As we’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog, the majority of plumbing problems aren’t afraid of making themselves well-known when something is wrong. More often than not, you’ll notice something is off right away, whether that be leaking water or exposed pipe. The hot water heater is no different. Here’s a few to get you started:
No Hot Water – We’ve all been there. You wake up in the morning, hop in the shower and there’s nothing but cold water. You may let it run for a minute or two to see if anything changes, but it quickly becomes apparent that something is wrong. Essentially, sediment builds up in the tank and the more sediment there is, the harder the tank has to work. All of this can be fixed with an annual flushing. (For those feeling like tackling their first plumbing project, here’s a quick guide to a successful hot water heater flush!)
Loud Noises – There is a common myth out there that when a hot water heater makes loud rumbling noises, it might explode. Luckily, this is false! However, that doesn’t mean this doesn’t foreshadow a hot water heater that might be ready to kick the bucket! A lot of this is a result of mineral build-up on the sides of the heater itself.
Leaking Water – Perhaps nothing is more noticeable of a failing hot water heater than when you start noticing leaks! This is what we’ll primarily focus on in the next sections to ensure you know exactly what to do if this were to happen to you.
While this is a quick guide to the signs of a water heater that’ll either need repaired or replaced, it doesn’t cover every potential scenario. Some others to keep in mind include faulty pressure release valves, cloudy or rusty water and even water pressure issues.
Feel free to use the diagram above throughout the article so you know which parts we’re referring to!
Leak #1: Water Coming Out of the Top
First and foremost, water leaking out of the top of a hot water heater is something that can scare any homeowner quickly. It’s typically not as common as a bottom leak and usually comes as a bit of a surprise. However, before you get too worried, keep in mind that these leaks tend to be easier repairs than those from the bottom! On the flipside, you’ll want to make sure to get it fixed ASAP, as the water running downhill can lead to other issues like electrical shorts!
What Causes It?
- Inlet Valve – This valve is what delivers the water to your heater. If the nuts that hold the handle in place aren’t tight, it’s possible it will drip water onto the top of your tank. In that case, tightening the nuts could fix the issue. However, if it doesn’t do anything, the valve may need to be replaced.
- Pressure Relief Valve – Also referred to as the T&P Relief Valve, this valve acts as a safety component and will release extremely hot water if there’s a thermostat failure or even overpressurization. Since it’s a quick and easy fix, this is something that might make more sense to just replace altogether, which will be covered in an upcoming blog post!
- Pipe Fittings – Here’s another potential culprit that can be fixed easily. Check all of the connections and make sure nothing is loose. If repairs are needed, make sure to turn off the water supply and drain out the heater before doing anything.
- Tank or Expansion Tank – In some cases, you’ll actually have a crack in the top of the tank. In these situations, a replacement will need to be made immediately. What you’re witnessing is some corrosion from the inside. Additionally, the expansion tank is typically installed on top of hot water heaters and acts as a safety tool. If you ever notice this leaking, you’re likely looking at a replacement as well.
What Can You Do?
For most of the issues above, you’ll be able to do some quick troubleshooting before hiring a professional plumbing company. Here’s a rundown of the items covered above:
- Inlet Valve – First try tightening the nut that’s holding the handle in place. If it’s still leaking, you’ll need a professional plumber.
- Pressure Relief Valve – If there’s any leak with the T&P Valve, what needs to be done is a replacement. Luckily, this is a rather inexpensive fix!
- Pipe Fittings – Here’s another one you can attempt fixing by tightening with a wrench. However, if there’s any corrosion or rust, you’ll likely need to replace them!
- The Tank Itself – If you notice any visible cracks or holes, call a professional immediately. At the same time, if there’s water bubbling, it’s time to bring in added help! This likely means the anode rod is corroded and will need replaced!
Leak #2: Water Coming Out of the Bottom
If you ask anyone that’s been in the plumbing industry for awhile, they will tell you there’s a lot more serious problems that arise from puddles of water on the ground, compared to a leak up top. While you could potentially attempt to fix these yourself, you’re usually best off putting it in the hands of a professional plumber to ensure it’s done correctly and no one gets hurt!
What Causes It?
- T&P Relief Valve – As mentioned above, the T&P Relief Valve is designed as a safety component to relieve pressure when it gets too high! While it can lead to a leak up top, it can also do so below the hot water heater. This is because it includes a discharge tube that travels from the valve to the floor. It’s set up this way to prevent water from spraying in the air when there’s an issue. If you notice a puddle of water below the tube, you may have found your issue. Keep reading to learn what you should do about it!
- Drain Valve – The drain valve is at the bottom of the tank and used when you go to perform any maintenance on the tank, such as flushing out the sediment. Typically, when you notice a leak here, it’s either because the valve simply needs replaced or the valve isn’t water-tight.
- Tank – As was the case with the leaks on the top, the more severe problems come when the issue is dealing with the tank itself. If not maintained properly, sediment builds up inside the tank and eventually will cause rust to the insides. After awhile, you can probably guess the end result isn’t pleasant!
What Can You Do?
Unfortunately, when it comes to leaks below the hot water heater, there’s not a whole lot you can do. You can try replacing the T&P Relief Valve or the Drain Valve, but you’re likely looking at a more serious issue. In any case, we always recommend getting a trusted plumbing company out there to take a look. A leak below is just going to continue to get worse and the only solution is typically a complete replacement of the hot water heater!
If you’ve followed all of the steps above and are worried you might have a more serious issue than just tightening some fittings, you’ve come to the right place. Our team has worked with nearly every model of traditional and tankless hot water heaters and works throughout the Kansas City area and surrounding cities. Give us a call at 816-348-3481 and we’ll have an experienced plumber out there in no time to figure out where the problem lies!