While we all want our water heaters to work without trouble, sometimes trouble finds us anyway. For these occasions, it is handy to know how to react when you find a leak, or worse, a flood, coming from your heater.
If your heater is flooding or spraying, it is important to turn off the water supply immediately. If the leak is coming from the heater itself, there is usually a valve or handle next to it that you can use to shut down the water. If the leak is coming from the supply pipe, you have to turn off the main water supply, which is most often located near where the pipe enters your house or apartment. If your heater is electric, you also have to shut down power to it, by switching off the right fuse in your main fuse box. After doing this, it is very important not to turn the power on again before consulting an expert and/or venting the pipes, because if there is still air stuck in the heater when you turn it on, your electric heater might become permanently damaged.
If your heater is just dripping, you don’t need to shut off the water supply and electricity right away, unless it is dripping onto an exposed wire. The most important thing is to find out where the drips are coming from. Once you have wiped away the accumulated water, put a paper towel under it, and if you find that towel still dry when you look again a few hours later, you might not even have to do anything. For a more persistent drip, it should be easy enough to find out where it is coming from. Water tends to follow gravity and the path of least resistance on its way down, so you should be able to follow it back up.
If the drip appears to be coming from the drain valve, you might only need to tighten it. If it looks like it is coming from the temperature pressure relief valve, it might be that the temperature of the heater is set too high, the water pressure in your house is too high, or it could be broken. For this, it might be best to contact a plumber. The third cause of dripping is condensation build-up. This can happen when the weather turns cold, in which case there is not much you can do, except buy a better heater. Condensation may even be coming from the gas vent, which you can’t do much about either. A faulty heater might also be the cause though, and this can be fixed. If you’re not sure what is causing the dripping or condensation, it is always best to place something suitable underneath it so your floors are not permanently damaged.
Big leak problems
Aside from the immediate response of shutting down the water and electricity, there is not a lot you can do yourself to fix a flooded or spraying water heater. What you can do is to locate the leak as best as possible, to make it easier for a professional to diagnose, and to make sure the water does not cause permanent damage to your floors. If a floor becomes too damp for too long, it is likely to develop mold or mildew, which can cause allergies and other health problems.
There are several different possibilities to explain flooding and spraying. The simplest to fix would be a loose valve. There are several different valves located around the heater, including the temperature, pressure relief, heat drainer valve and in- and out-connecting pipes, all of which can be problematic. This kind of leak would be more likely to cause spraying than flooding.
The worst cause of flooding would probably come from a corroded water tank. For this you would need to drain the tank completely, even if it still has hot water in it (using the drain valve, a hose, and your nearest drain, or a certified plumber), and means you’re going to need a completely new tank. For an electric heater, something could be wrong with the electricity supply as well, which will be hard to determine by yourself.
A water heater, on average, should last you 10 years. If it breaks down within a few years, this might be an indication that it was installed incorrectly, it was used more intensely than standard, it was not well maintained, or it could simply be a badly designed heater. These are things to keep in mind when you are looking to replace a broken heater, so you can maximize your chances of getting a full 10 years of use out of your next heater.