If you haven’t already, someday you’ll probably experience a water heater leak. Water heater leaks are a fairly common occurrence. After all, water heaters don’t last forever.
On average you can expect to get anywhere from 7 to 12 years of trouble-free use from a water heater depending on the quality, care and usage of the tank. Over time however, leaks can and often do occur, making it necessary to repair or replace the unit. Some water heater leaks are small and can often be fixed without replacing the tank; but left unattended, small leaks can quickly turn into a much bigger problem.
Types of Leaking Water Heaters
Leaks can occur at any number of locations on a water heater and the location of the leak will determine whether the leak can be repaired or if you will need to replace the water heater.
In most cases leaks that occur at valves and pipes connected to the tank can be repaired without having to replace the tank. On the other hand, leaks that occur inside the tank unfortunately can’t be repaired and so you’ll probably need to replace it.
Determine if the Water Heater is Leaking
A common source of water around a water heater is condensation. It’s not unusual for condensation to accumulate on pipes before falling and pooling on the floor. This could give a “false-positive” that the water heater is leaking. In addition to checking overhead pipes, check the water lines leading to and from the water heater for signs of any condensation.Identifying the location of a water tank leak can prove to be tricky. Where you see the water is not always where you’ll find the leak. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious, like when there is a steady stream of water coming from the rust encrusted base of the tank. Other times water around the base of the water heater could have gotten there from someplace other than the water heater. So it’s important to know the source of any leak before making repairs.
Water around the water heater might also be coming from a drain line connected to the furnace. This happens especially during warm temperatures when central air conditioning is running. Also, check other nearby appliance (e.g. refrigerator, washer) to see if any of them may be producing condensation or leaking.
To help determine the source of a leak (when it isn’t obvious) first wipe away puddles or dampness on the floor, any water around the tank and along the connecting pipes. This will make tracing the leak easier. Next run your fingers along the top and sides of the water heater, connecting pipes and valves to determine if any of them have new traces of water. Remember that water runs downhill, so always start your examination at the highest point and work down from there. That means checking overhead waterlines and the top of appliances first.
Finally, check along the base and underside of the tank for any signs of seepage. Be careful to guard against finger cuts from jagged edges you may not see. If you’re still unable to identify the source of the leakage try this: after wiping up any standing water place a few sheets of newspaper or paper towels at the base of the tank and then check it periodically for wetness. Consider doing the same around nearby appliances (furnace, washer, etc.) to see if they’re the cause of the leak. Taking these steps should let you know for certain if your water heater is leaking.
General questions –
When it Occurs..
When water leaks occur it’s important to take immediate action. Follow these steps to protect your family and to prevent property loss or damage.
- Turn off power supply: Nearly every water heater is powered by either electricity or gas. Electric heaters should be on a dedicated power circuit. So find your breaker box and turn off the breaker to the tank.
If your tank is heated by gas, locate the power switch or dial on the side of the tank and turn it to the “OFF” position. NOTE: While most gas heaters have shut-off valves controlling the flow of gas to the tank, try to avoid turning off the gas to the tank. Gas shut-off valves become susceptible to leakage as they age. Unless you’re certain about the condition of the shut-off valve, exercise caution before turning it off.
- Turn off water supply: Once you’ve turned off the power to the tank next turn off the water supply. Be aware that turning off the water supply to the water heater will not stop the leak right away. Unless the leak is happening at the inlet or outlet connections the tank will continue to leak until it is fully drained – which could take several hours depending on the size of the tank and the extent of the leak.
Once fully drained, the tank will not refill once the water supply is turned off. More importantly, with the power and water supply turned off it is now safe to make any repairs.
Find out more about How to stop a leaking water heater?
Identify the Cause of the Leak
- Inlet and outlet pipes. Cold water enters the water heater through one pipe (inlet), is heated, and then exits the tank through a different pipe (outlet). Leaks can occur at either of these pipes or at smaller pipes connecting to them. So inspect them first. Leaks at these locations should be fairly easy to spot. Just look for evidence of water at or near the top of the tank.
Leaks at the inlet or outlet pipes also tend to be small in size and minor in severity, making the solution as simple as tightening the affected pipe with a pipe wrench.
If however water pipes are badly corroded, tightening them will be of no benefit. When pipes are corroded all or a portion of the piping system may have to be replaced.
- Temperature and pressure valve. To prevent water heaters from overheating and “exploding” tanks are equipped with a temperature and pressure valve located on the side of the tank. There should also be a pipe connected to the temperature and pressure valve that extends down the side of the tank. This pipe safely directs any water released from the valve down and away from the tank. Inspect this area for any leakage.
Inspect the area around the temperature and pressure valve to make certain the connection is secure. The area around the valve should be completely dry. Then check the valve itself. It too should be completely dry. Water escaping from the valve is an indication that either the tank is building up excessive pressure or that the valve is malfunctioning.
Many times leaks occurring at the T&P valve can be easily fixed, but if you’re uncertain or uncomfortable making this repair it’s probably best that you turn the job over to a qualified professional.
- Heater drain valve. All heaters have a drain valve for draining the tank. It’s the spigot (tap, faucet or silcock as some people refer to it) that is located at the base of the water heater. Drain valves are used to drain water from the tank when you have a need to empty it. NOTE: Make certain you always turn off the power to the tank BEFORE draining it of water. Heating an empty or near empty tank can cause damage to the tank’s heating element. See the unit’s owner’s manual for more details on draining the tank.
Heater drain valves are operated by turning the valve handle left or right to open or close the valve. Leaks can occur when the valve is partially open, when the valve stem has become defective, or from a poor tank-valve connection.
If it’s evident that leakage is occurring at the drain valve, first check to make certain the valve is completely closed. Tighten the valve by gently turning it to the right without over-stressing it. If after tightening the valve it continues to leak, it may be that the valve stem inside the valve is worn. In order to replace the valve stem you will first need to turn off the power supply and water supply to the tank before unscrewing the drain valve handle to access the stem.
Replacing the drain valve stem or drain valve can be complicated tasks for first-time do-it-yourselfers. If you suspect problems in or around the tank’s drain valve you may want to contact a qualified professional. Even if you have to call a professional you’ll have the advantage of knowing the cause of the leak.
- Leaks inside the tank. If it’s clear the cause of the water leak is not from one of the aforementioned places then chances are the leak is coming from inside the tank. Water leaks inside the water tank are no less common than leaks anywhere else on the tank, but they are more severe.
Leaks coming from inside the tank are usually a clear indication the water heater needs to be replaced. Symptoms of interior leakage include visible rust around the base of the tank or a steady stream of water coming from the metal seam at the base of the tank.
As stated above, interior water heater leaks are not uncommon. It’s just a matter of time before the interior lining of even the most expensive water heater deteriorates and leaks. However age isn’t the only cause of an interior leak. Interior damage can also occur from accidentally banging the side of the tank. So caution should be used whenever working around the water heater.
Find out more about What Causes a Hot Water Heater to Leak?
We’ve given you quite a bit of information to get you started. But before we wrap up let’s review the important points about a leaky water heater.
- Do. Remember that water leaks should be taken seriously no matter how small the leak may seem. So DO take immediate steps to correct the problem once you’ve identified a leak.
- Look. Know where the leak is coming from. LOOK closely at overhead pipes, connections, fittings, and especially other nearby appliances to make certain that the leak is coming from the water heater. Look for evidence of condensation being the source of the water. Then scan the surface of the water heater with your hand for evidence of water and the exact location it’s coming from.
- Caution. Before taking any corrective action use CAUTION. Turn off the circuit if you have an electric tank; and the power switch if it’s gas. Use care and caution before turning off the gas shut-off valve. A malfunctioning shut-off valve could presents an even bigger problem – a dangerous gas leak.
Know Your Limitations
A leaky water heater should always be taken seriously. Leaks, no matter how small they are can quickly and easily turn into a major water problem. And when left unattended water leaks can lead to mold and costly property damage, while threatening the safety and welfare of your family.
As with every home repair project take proper safety precautions when conducting water heater inspections and making needed repairs. Plan your work by first identifying the steps you’ll need to follow and the sequence of steps you will need to follow. Most importantly make certain you give yourself enough time to do the job. In fact it’s always a good idea to set aside extra time to do a project that you’re doing for the first time.
You should also make certain you have proper tools. Much like other repair projects, plumbing has its dangers. Having the proper tools for the job at hand not only will help you do the job properly; but it will save you time and minimize the risk of accidents.
Lastly, know your limitations. Challenging yourself with a new project is a good way to grow your home repair skills but you shouldn’t undertake a job without reasonable confidence in your ability to safely complete the tasks. If you have any doubt in your ability it’s probably best to turn the job over to a professional.