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Water Heater Breakdown

Water Heater Break Down

Richard A. Acree
HABITEC Home and Building Inspections, LLC

DISCLAIMER: This is an article describing what to expect when your water heater fails and starts to leak. This is a true story that I experienced. The intent of this article is to share my experience and offer guidance from what I learned. Richard Acree and HABITEC Home and Building Inspections, LLC, is/are not experts in water heater installation or repair. Contact a licensed plumber for water heater installation and repair.

It’s 8:00 AM on a cool and damp Saturday morning and you walk down into your finished and carpeted basement to start your day. As you enter the main room you notice the carpet is discolored and odd looking. You cringe as you mentally assess what could have caused this. Who spilled something down here and did such a poor job cleaning it up? Then you stoop down to check out the stain and it hits you. This isn’t a stain, it’s a leak! The carpet is saturated and you immediately go to battle stations to find out where the water is coming from.

Your first thought is all the rain you have experienced lately and the potential for a leak. Fortunately your first thought turns out to be incorrect. A quick look at the ceiling and walls shows no leak from the rain. At least not that is obvious. However, given the location of the wet carpet, you realize that area is opposite the wall from the garage where the furnace and the water heaters are located. So you quickly maneuver to the garage which is located on the same level as the basement. As you enter the garage you see water on the floor of the garage. Still a chance for a leak from the rain but the trail of water leads to the furnace and water heaters. It’s cool and the air conditioner hasn’t operated much this year so chances are slim that the water is coming from the evaporator coils at the interior HVAC unit. As you turn the corner you see the problem and it’s the last of the possibilities. One of the two 50 gallon water heaters is leaking aggressively and the water is running across the garage floor towards the garage doors and also back towards the basement and seeping under the common wall and into the basement to saturate the carpet. Like I said earlier, it’s time for battle stations.

You obviously have several problems here. The water leak is foremost but there are several other problems associated with the leak. These include a potentially dangerous situation with the water heater itself and the wet carpet in the basement. First things first, shut off the water to the water heater. Usually there is a shutoff valve in the water line leading to the water heater. If so, shut it off. If you cannot find that valve or don’t have one, go to the whole-house water shutoff and shut down the system there.

Next deal with the potentially dangerous condition of the water heater. These appliances can leak for several reasons including corrosion or over-pressure. The danger may come from the cause of the leak. If the source of the leak is corrosion from age then the leak is not particularly dangerous. If the leak is from over-pressure then the situation can be very dangerous.
A component of any water heater is the TPR, or temperature/pressure relief valve. Most TPR valves are set for 150 psi. If the pressure inside the water heater is greater than 150 psi the TPR valve will open and relieve the pressure. That is why if you ever see water draining from the TPR valve, call a plumber. Either the system is over-pressurized or the valve has malfunctioned, or both. Either way, the system needs assessment and repair by a licensed plumber. The potentially dangerous condition in this scenario is the possibility that the water heater is over-pressurized and the TPR valve has not released the pressure. The result is the water is forced out of other openings that are being created by the pressure. In other words, the seams of the water heater are starting to fail and open up. If allowed to continue, the appliance can explode violently! The older the appliance the more likely it is for this failure to take place.

Since you have already turned off the supply of water to the water heaters you now only have to depressurize the tank(s) themselves. The easiest way to do that is simply open a hot water faucet in the house. You won’t get much from the faucet but what does come out will depressurize the water heater.

Now, if you have a gas fired water heater, turn off the gas line shutoff valve and the fuel control valve/pilot light valve controller. If you have an electric water heater, find the electrical control switch or circuit breaker and turn the electrical power to the unit off. OK, the appliance is now disabled and the immediate problem is under control. You can stand down from battle stations and go into a damage control mode.

Your first inclination is to deal with the massive water leak. I know it seems logical but I want to encourage another step first. You know you need a plumber eventually. And at this point the sooner the better. Plumbers are usually pretty busy and many are not available on weekends. So, I recommend you go to your favorite source and get one coming your way. On a Saturday you’ll be doing well if you can get one there before noon. So make that call and get yourself in the queue before someone gets ahead of you. Now go after that water.

One tool I encourage every homeowner to have available is a wet/dry vacuum. Whether its debris or water, these devices can come in handy when things go bad at home. Now is a good time to break out that wet/dry vacuum and put it to work pulling water out of the carpet. This will take the most amount of time in this entire recovery process. Water is slow to come out and sometimes seems to keep coming even though the leak is stopped. That’s because of things like capillary action and sloping floors, conditions that keep water moving although at a very slow pace. Make sure to empty the vacuum of dry debris first or you will create one huge mud puddle inside the vacuum. Also, make sure you take off the paper filter of the vacuum if the manufacturer recommends. Water will destroy a paper filter.

Another step in dealing with all this moisture is to get the air moving. First, go to the thermostat that controls conditioned air in the basement and find the FAN switch. It should be in AUTO. Turn it to the ON position. This engages the fan, or blower, continuously and start pulling air through the system. This will help deplete humidity in the air and dry the carpet quicker. If you are still in the heating season turn up the heat a little to help with the drying process.

Another way to move air is grab a portable fan and set it up to blow directly on the wet area. Again this will help expedite the drying process. Now go back and man that wet/back for the main water removal.

Keep pulling water out of the carpet until it no longer feels wet. It will feel damp for 24-36 hours depending on the humidity where you live. Once it is only damp you can stop vacuuming and leave the rest to the fans. Failure to do a thorough job and get the carpet dried within 48 hours can result in mold!

OK, the worst of the recovery is over. Hopefully about now the plumber is arriving. Let’s talk about what to expect.

First of all, the plumber will likely NOT have a water heater with him in his truck. If he does have one it probably is not the one you need. The plumber is really there on this first visit to assess the situation, recommend repairs and provide an estimate. He may also be able to help stabilize a situation if the homeowner was not able to do so. In the case of a failed water heater he will almost assuredly have to leave and go get one. Good luck on a weekend. Maybe a Home Depot or Lowes will have what you need but the supply stores will be closed.

The plumber may not be able to put in the same capacity water heater as you have installed originally. The higher priority is to put in a unit that has the same or close physical dimensions as the original unit. In other words the same height and width. This is so because a unit that is different in physical dimensions will incur additional expense to install because of all the modifications required for the plumbing and ventilation equipment. If the new unit has the same dimensions as the failed unit then the plumbing and ventilation components will match up better.

Once the plumber gives you the “all clear” you can restore cold water to the house using the whole-house shutoff. Leaving the shut-off valve at the water heater(s) in the OFF position will be necessary until after the new appliance is installed. All the cold water faucets in the house should work but you may need to go to the gym to take a shower.

That should do it. When this happened to me the process took about 7 hours and I was thrilled! After all I was fully operational the same day and it was a Saturday. Oh yeah, I forgot something. The check. Remember this is a Saturday and an emergency and a water heater MUST be installed by a plumber. Homeowners cannot do it legally. Grab your wallet and expect a bill of $900 to $1100. Ouch!

Most water heaters are built to last for between 10 to 15 years. If you have hard water they will last less time. If you have softer water they will last longer. Mine was 14 years old and 12 years in use from installation. I expected it to fail soon so I wasn’t surprised when it happened. I was just really happy I was home when it did. This also speaks to making it a habit to close your whole-house water shut-off when you go on vacation.

Sorry about the length of this article but this is a complicated issue. I hope you found the information helpful.

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