Why Is My Water Heater Leaking?

Hot water heaters help make your home comfortable. However, a water heater leaking may cause property damage and pose multiple health risks. These challenges mean it is essential to ensure your water heater is always in good working condition.

Today, we’ll look at what causes water heaters to leak and discuss how to fix those problems. But first, let’s see how water heaters work to understand what we’re dealing with.

How Do Water Heaters Work?

To understand how water heaters work, we must consider three things — the water heater's components, how those components combine to heat the water and how modern tankless water heaters work.

The Basic Water Heater Components

The essential components of typical water heaters include the following:

  • Tank: The most common type of water heater in the United States is the tank heater. It has a large tank to hold 40 to 80 gallons of water at about 50 to 100 pounds per square inch (psi). The tank’s exterior is made from an insulated material such as polyurethane foam.
  • Shut-off valve: This is a separate component from the heater located outside and above the unit. The role of the shut-off valve is to stop the flow of water into the heater. They are instrumental when repairing the tank.
  • Drain valve: The drain valve makes it simple to empty the tank to replace the elements, move the tank to another location or remove sediments. It is positioned close to the bottom of the exterior housing,
  • Pressure relief valve: The tank holds water under high pressure. The pressure relief valve (PRV) releases excess pressure in the water heater tank. This allows you to prevent excess build-up, which can cause cracks and leaks.
  • Heat-out pipe: You can locate the heat-out pipe near the tank's top. The pipe brings hot water out of the tank into the hot water service line. Since hot water is less dense, it rises above the colder water to the top of the tank, meaning the water that comes out is the hottest.
  • Dip tube: The dip tube directs the cold water coming into the tank to the bottom, where it is heated. Without it, the incoming water would mix with the hot water at the top of the tank, which could result in a tepid flow instead of hot water.
  • ThermostatThe thermostat is a temperature control device. It is located outside the heater and allows you to measure and adjust the water temperature.
  • Heating mechanism: There are different heating mechanisms for water heaters. The water in an electric water heater is heated within the tanks with an electric heating element. For gas-powered water heaters, the tank heats the water from a gas-fired burner located at the top of the tank.
  • Anode rod: The anode rod is a safety mechanism that prevents tanks from rusting through electrolysis. It is a steel rod coated with magnesium, aluminum or zinc, which essentially sacrifices itself in place of the steel lining inside the tank.

The Heating Process

Let's see how these various components combine to give you that warm, cozy experience:

  • Your hot water journey starts from the main line.
  • Depending on the external temperature, the cold or cool water from the water lines races through the shut-off valve and then through the dip tube, which directs the water to the bottom of the tank. That is where the water begins to heat up.
  • The heating mechanism is activated until the water reaches the desired temperature. The thermostat informs the system which temperature you prefer, so it stays within that limit.
  • The warm water rises to the top of the tank and stays there until you open the tap.
  • When you open the hot tap, the hot water travels through the heat-out pipe to the outlet.

Tankless Water Heating System

Besides conventional tank water heaters, tankless water heaters, also known as demand-type or instantaneous water heaters, are growing more popular. As the name suggests, tankless heaters operate without tanks — the water heats up as it flows. When you open the hot water faucet, cold water flows through a heat exchanger, and the heating mechanism takes it from there. A high-powered tankless water can generate hot water within 10 to 15 seconds.

Common Problems With Water Heaters

There are five common reasons water leaks from the bottom of your water heater. These are:

1. Old and Cracked Tanks

Tank water heating systems tend to leak as they grow old. The unit’s parts wear out over time and become less efficient in keeping the water warm. Typically, the metallic components begin to corrode, which weakens the exterior. This causes them to crack.

New storage tanks can also crack, although not as quickly as the older ones. Some tanks have extra tanks to expand the amount of water they hold. Some of them have glass linings, which collect minerals and calcify over time. When this happens, the glass could crack and cause water to leak. Moreover, water expands when heated. This can put stress on the glass and cause minor breakage.

Some leaks are only visible from the inside of the tanks. Tank water heating systems have two shells — one internal and the other external. The external shell insulates the inner shell, which holds the water. A metal layer covers these two shells. As the tanks grow old and deteriorate, leakages may develop internally but are challenging to spot. The best solution in all of these instances is to replace the tanks.

2. Sediment Collection

What is sediment and how do they cause water leaks? Sediments are a collection of suspended or dissolved solid particles such as minerals in hard water, built-up rust, silt, dirt, sand and clay. With time, these particles are collected at the bottom of the water heater’s tank. These build up and form cracks, causing the tank to leak.

There are telltale signs of possible sediment collection in your water heater, including the following:

  • Unusual sounds: Popping, creaking, rumbling or hissing sounds are common indicators that sediments are collecting in the tank. Burning layers of minerals and particles usually cause this. Additionally, sometimes pockets of air get trapped under the settlement layers, creating a popping sound when heated.
  • Leaking pressure relief valves: Sediments such as corrosion and salt build-up can cause pipes' blockages. When the tank heats up and expands, it puts pressure on the water inside and can cause the valve to fail. This results in leaks in leakages and potential bursts.
  • Unusual color and taste: Metallic tastes and the cloudy, rust-like color are common indicators of sediment collection. Sediments may discolor the water and cause the heater's elements to corrode. This becomes prevalent when the water is heated, which is unavoidable because you need the water warm.
  • Decrease in temperature: Sometimes the water gets warm but not as hot as you want. Other times it takes too long before the temperature increases. This is because the sediments create layers of insulation between the heating element and the water, causing less heat to reach the water.
  • Reduction in hot water flow: Sediments may disrupt the water pressure and affect the flow of hot water. Sediments are notorious for seeping into pipes and spaces, which cause blockages.
  • Higher electricity bills: If your bills are unusually high, check your tank for sediment build-up, as it could cause the water to require more energy to heat up. 
  • Cracks in tanks: Sediments cause tanks to crack in several ways. For example, corrosion can weaken the structure and cause it to leak. Similarly, blockages can cause the tank to expand due to prolonged heating which can also lead to cracks.

The most straightforward way to avoid this challenge is by regularly opening the drain valves and cleaning the sediments. This disrupts the sediment’s build-up process. However, purchasing a new tank is the best solution when the leaking starts.

3. Pressure Imbalance

High water pressure helps the flow of water. However, when the pressure is too high, it can cause several challenges to the plumbing system and wreck your water heater. The warm spring months and high water pressure cause thermal expansion. The tank can break at the seam when the heater is too full and has no expansion tank.

Installing a PRV can be helpful in this situation. As explained earlier, the PRV regulates the water heating system's water pressure. They release stress from the pipes, tanks and other appliances. Installing PRV with gauges on both ends allows you to see the external pressure and what the system receives.

If you have already installed a PRV, but the heat still leaks, you can do a few things. First, test the pressure. Attach a pressure gauge at either the hot-water pipe or the cold-water pipe. You can also use a garden hose pressure gauge to test the pressure at the outdoor hose faucet. Turn off all faucets and water outlets and read the pressure on the meter. It should be between 40 and 100 psi. When the reading is above 150 psi, the leakage may be due to high pressure.

Second, if your PRV has remained closed for a long time, that may also cause leaks. Excessive high temperatures can also cause the PRV to leak. Reducing the temperature to around 120 degrees Fahrenheit may resolve the problem.

Finally, a faulty PRV can also cause leakages. They can break due to improper installation and excessive wear. Sometimes, tightening the valve restores it. Other times, you may need to replace the valve.

4. Loose Inlet and Outlet Connections

Inlet and outlet connections allow the entry of cold water and the exit of warm water, respectively. A leaking water heater may signify that the connection is loose. This may occur due to continuous usage, especially over a long period. Tightening them may resolve the problem.

5. Old Anode Rod

Through the process of electrolysis, anode rods prevent corrosion in the tanks. It attracts the corrosive substances so that the rest of the water heater remains unaffected. After continuous usage, the anode rod corrodes until it finally disappears. This creates a vacuum. This allows water to seep through the spaces. Replace the anode rod quickly to stop the leak and prevent further damage to the system.

How Do You Prevent Hot Water Heater Leaks?

Here are five additional tips on preventing water heater leaks:

1. Conduct Preventive Maintenance

Preventive maintenance is the best and most proactive way to increase your water heating system's life span and prevent leaks. Preventive maintenance means performing regularly scheduled maintenance activities to reduce unexpected failures in the future. It allows you to fix the water heating system before they break. Preventive maintenance has many benefits.

It reduces frustration, inconvenience and stress due to unexpected failures. While preventive maintenance appears to be cost-intensive, the long-term benefit is that it prevents significant damages, which can cost tremendous amounts of money to fix. Preventive maintenance also makes your home safer. When you check and repair the heater regularly, you can detect faults that could have caused harm, such as electric shocks.

2. Drain the Tank

Sediments are one of the most notorious causes of leakages in your water heater. This makes it crucial to drain the tank and wash out the residues from time to time. To do this, follow these steps:

  • Turn off the thermostat on your hot water heater.
  • Then turn off the power supply. If you use a gas water heater, locate the gas valve and turn it off.
  • Turn off the cold water valve to the water heater.
  • Turn on the faucet to let the water run.
  • Connect a hose to the drain valve and place the other end in a bucket. If your water heater is in the basement, you may need to secure a portable pump.
  • Turn on the drain valve and let the water flow into the bucket.
  • Flush the water tank by opening the cold water valve. Let the water run until it's clear.
  • Put everything back together and test if it works.

3. Fix the Temperature and Pressure Release Valve (TPR)

Excessive pressure or high temperatures put stress on the tank. To test the TPR, follow these steps:

  • Shut off the power and the cold water supply valve.
  • Position a bucket under the pipe connected to the TPR.
  • Open the valve to allow the water to flow out. If the water keeps following, contact a professional to replace the valve.

If you want to adjust the temperature on the water heater, locate the temperature dial on the tank and unscrew it. Use a flathead screwdriver to adjust the temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. You can quickly turn the temperature knob on some heaters to regulate the temperature.

4. Replace the Anode Rod

When the anode rod corrodes, it leaves a vacuum in the tank, which causes leaks. This makes it crucial to check and replace the anode rod regularly. The following steps should guide you:

  • Turn off the thermostat and power supply to the water heater.
  • Open the drain valve to release a few gallons of water.
  • Fit a 1 and 1/16-inch socket onto the rod's hex head and unscrew it.
  • If the anode rod is coated with calcium or is less than 1/2 inch thick, purchase a new one.
  • To replace the anode rod, wrap the threads with Teflon tape, insert it in the tank and tighten it until it is secure.

Need a New Water Heater? Choose Ingrams Water and Air

Leaking water heaters can be one of the most challenging things to deal with, making it vital to maintain them regularly. Replacing your old water heater with a quality model is the best alternative when the unit stops functioning as efficiently. Besides making your home comfy and safe, a premium water heating system saves you money and reduces your carbon footprint.

Ingrams Water and Air offers only the best modern water heaters at competitive prices. Our local technicians evaluate your household’s needs and provide you with a tailored solution to optimize your HVAC usage. Learn more about our products and services today!

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