Why Even Today’s Water Heaters Can Leak

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Water heaters have been around for decades. Other than the introduction of tankless models in the 1990s and the more recent introduction of solar water heaters in the US, they have remained relatively unchanged. For something that is found in practically every home and business, it’s mind-boggling to me that the average lifespan of a water heater has not changed much and they are just as prone to leaks as they were 50 years ago.

As someone who’s experienced a leak and had no clue what to do, I want to prevent others from having that helpless feeling when you see water OUTSIDE of your water heater. Fortunately, it’s easier than you think to troubleshoot and fix a leaking water heater.

How Can I Check for Leaking from the Top of a Water Tank?

Typically, if you see some kind of water buildup at the top of your water tank, it is more than likely one of two issues: an outlet pipe or water inlet malfunction.

Look for a valve called the gate valve or an in-line valve. It will look like an actual lever in a parallel position to the valve. This means that it is open to let water into the tank. With the valve in the open position, you should be able to observe any water drips or seepage coming from the mechanism. If there is, then try to tighten the component by locating the nut that connects the lever to the valve itself. If this does not fix the water leak, then it is more likely that you need a new valve altogether.

With a water inlet or outlet issue, find these areas at the top of the water tank and observe if water leaks from these areas when the water is flowing. Specifically, pay close attention to the connecting points between the water heater itself and the pipe or tubing that is connected. Possibly, these connecting parts are loose and you can attempt to tighten them with a wrench to see if the water leak subsides. A more serious issue would be if these connecting parts have formed corrosion inside from mineral deposits and moisture buildup. Then, the pipe or tubing will have to be replaced for the water leak to be repaired.

Water heater leaking can also be an issue related to the pressure building up within the structure of the water heater. For safety reasons, when pressure builds up on the two main valves, temperature and pressure relief (T & P valve), both valves work to alleviate the buildup and remain open. This usually leads to water leakage. On older water tanks, these valves are usually located on the top, but newer models will have them on the side.
Observe the valve for any water that may be leaking from it. It is a threaded valve, so if you see water, you will need to take off the valve from the threading to see if the leaking continues. If it does, then the temperature and pressure valve needs to be entirely replaced. You can view troubleshooting for these issues at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JkLeNC-3PE

How Can I Check for Leaking from the Bottom of a Water Tank?

The first thing you should check if you see water puddles at the bottom of your tank is for moisture that may be inside the component called the discharge tube. This is usually caused by a T & P valve issue. Then, it needs to be determined if it is a pressure issue or a faulty valve problem. This may be the time to consult with a professional to determine this for you.

Another malfunction that could lead to water leaks has to do with a component called the drain valve. No matter what type of water heater you have—either gas or electric—all water heaters have this part at the bottom of each tank. There are times that the drain valve has to be used to remove all of the water from the tank in order to clean the inside of any small particles from rust and minerals in the water that can accumulate in a water tank and cause damage to the interior. Drain valves have fittings that seal the valve tightly against the valve opening, but it may deteriorate over time from moisture and cause water leakage.

Troubleshooting Gas Water Heater Leaks

There may be a few issues with a gas water heater and why it may be leaking water:

  • The control valve for the pilot light may be malfunctioning
  • The thermocouple component may need to be replaced
  • Gas pilot is not working properly
  • The sacrificial anode component has deteriorated causing bacteria and sediment to block the valves

Before checking for any of these, make sure the pilot light has been turned off. This may be an electric switch that simply needs to be turned to the “off” position. Let the water tank cool, then check all the elements of the tank itself for corrosion, loose fittings, punctures, and even pinched tubing. Do not poke at the parts with anything sharp or pointed as you troubleshoot each part or area. This may cause a spark or gas to be emitted and could result in an explosion even though the gas has been turned off. Also, if you smell gas of any kind (rotten egg smell), call a professional immediately to determine what the problem is; don’t try to troubleshoot it on your own.

Troubleshooting Electric Water Heater Leaks

Instead of a pilot light, the water in this type of tank is heated by two elements in the top and bottom of the water tank. Begin by turning off the source of electricity completely in your electric panel. There should not be any interference with other appliances or electric outlets in your home since electric water tanks are usually on a dedicated breaker.

The first thing you want to check is if there is an issue with the circuit breaker itself with a blown fuse and not actually with the water tank. So, immediately flip the switch back on in the electrical panel and observe whether the water tank turns on properly. If this is not an issue, then switch it back off and look for other causes for the leaking water which could be the following:

  • Loose pipe fittings
  • Temperature is set too high
  • Malfunctioning thermostat
  • Water storage tank is corroded
  • Heating elements (upper, lower, or both) are malfunctioning

Once you confirm any of these elements are the cause, most often it simply means replacing the part like a new heating element or thermostat. You can view troubleshooting for these issues at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlyStHM9Nr0

With both a gas and electric water heater, once you have begun to troubleshoot, you should not open any connections or tubing unless you have completely drained the water tank. If any pressure has built up in any of these areas and there is residual water still inside, removing a part could cause hot water to spray out and cause serious injury. It is best to take some old towels and put it over the piping or tubing as you drain the water tank completely.