If your water heater is leaking, there are a few easy steps to follow in order to protect your home from flooding and solve the issue. In this post, we’ll explore the topic of leaking water heaters from this angle and more, including prevention strategies.
What To Do When Your Water Heater Is Leaking
Step One: Disconnect The Power
Everybody knows that electricity and water don’t mix. It’s no different when your hot water heater is leaking. Having a gas water heater doesn’t necessarily protect you from this risk, either. Many gas heaters use electricity to keep the pilot light ignited. You can’t always tell this is the case by simply looking for a plug leading from the heater to an outlet, either; some gas heaters that use electricity don’t rely directly on the mainline.
Besides, disconnecting your water heater from electricity requires a simple process that is more than worth it considering the safety and peace of mind you’ll enjoy. Simply switch off the breaker that controls your water heater’s electrical supply if it’s an electrical unit. If you have a gas heater, turn the switch that usually lies near the tank’s bottom to the “OFF” position.
You don’t necessarily need to activate the gas shutoff valve. In fact, it’s recommended that you don’t as these valves are easy to damage.
Step Two: Avoid Coming Into Contact With The Water
This is less of a step and more of a precaution to keep in mind as you handle your hot water heater that’s leaking. Unlike water softeners (you can read about water softener leaks here), the water in your heater is, well, heated. Most water heaters in Phoenix ship with a default setting of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’ve ever had the system adjusted by a professional, they likely only turned it down to 120 degrees, which is the recommended temperature.
That’s still enough to cause first-degree burns upon immediate contact. If the heater is set at its maximum for some reason (this is usually 160 degrees and above), serious injury can result from even indirect contact.
In other words, avoid coming into contact with the water, even briefly.
If your hot water heater tank is leaking severely and there’s no way to proceed without coming into contact with the water, call a professional. If you’re in the Phoenix, Arizona area, our staff at American Home Water and Air will be more than happy to help you fix your leaking water heater safely.
Step Three: Disconnect The Water Supply
Assuming you’ve been able to disconnect the power and feel confident you can proceed without touching the water that is leaking from your heater, your next step is to shut off the water supply.
Most heaters have a shutoff valve located above it in the form of a handle or dial.
If you can’t reach the water shutoff near your heater, you can turn off your home’s main water supply.
The purpose of shutting the water supply off is to slow the leak. If it stops the leak altogether, you may need to reactivate the water supply so you can determine where the leak is coming from.
Step Four: Figure Out Where The Leak Is Coming From
Common diagnoses include:
- a water heater leaking from the top
- a water heater leaking from the bottom
- a water heater leaking from the relief valve
- a hot water heater leaking from the overflow pipe
- hot water heater tank leaking
The first two should be easy to spot, even if you’re not trained. The others can be harder for untrained folks to identify, so we’ll go through a brief run-through now.
Water Heater Leaking From The Relief Valve
Your water heater has a relief valve designed to guide water away in the case of a temperature or pressure buildup inside the tank. This valve is typically located on the side of the tank in the form of a pipe protruding from it.
If your water heater pressure valve is leaking while in the closed position, this is a sign that the valve is damaged and will need to be replaced.
If the valve is open and leaking, there is too much pressure or heat inside the tank for it to handle. This can signify a serious problem, so you should contact a professional instead of trying to fix your leaking water heater on your own unless you are very confident in your abilities.
Water Heater Leaking From The Overflow Pipe
When functioning properly, your water heater’s overflow pipe works in conjunction with the relief valve to drain excess pressure. The pipe is directly connected to the valve and points downward at the floor.
In other words, if your water heater overflow pipe is leaking, it may actually be doing its job by preventing a buildup of pressure in the tank, which would eventually lead to an explosion.
The overflow pipe can leak because of a malfunction, though. A professional can help you distinguish between the two. Given how dangerous a buildup of pressure in your tank can be, you’ll want to give them a call instead of tackling this issue by yourself, unless you’re confident you know what you’re doing.
Hot Water Heater Tank Leaking
The hot water heater tank itself can also leak. This tank contains insulation and an outer layer. If your water heater is leaking from the bottom, it’s usually because the insulation layer has become perforated. In such a case, the water leaks down in between the insulation and outer layer, eventually making its way out the bottom.
This issue is unfortunately common with aging water heater tanks. You’ll need to replace the water heater altogether.
Water Heater Leaking From The Top
We saved the best for last. You see, a water heater leaking from the top is probably the best-case scenario if you catch it early. Leaks from the top are usually the result of either a faulty cold water inlet valve, loose/damaged corded pipe fitting, or damaged relief valve.
You already know what to do about the latter (see the above section on that issue) but let’s take a look at the former two.
The cold water inlet valve has some apparatus (either a ball or gate valve) through which you can turn the water off. In some cases, water can drip from this valve and be the source of your leak. To fix this, you should first tighten the not connected to the handle. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to replace the valve entirely.
Loose/damaged corded pipe fitting usually results in a leak directly where the pipe in question connects to its fittings, which professionals often call dielectric nipples. You should also attempt to tighten this connection first and foremost as that often solves the issue. If it doesn’t, you may need to replace the nipples. Some of these units use copper tubing, in which case you’re better off contacting a professional to look at it.
In some cases, the area surrounding the fittings may be severely corroded. This is a sign that you need to replace the water heater.
Step Five: Fix Or Replace Your Water Heater
In the sections above, we’ve given you plenty of actionable steps for fixing a leak. In some cases, though, we’ve only told you the process that needs to be done. In this section, we’ll walk you through some of the more complicated steps through which you can fix your leaking water heater.
Replacing A Relief Valve
The part in question is called a temperature and pressure relief valve. You can find it at most hardware stores.
If the valve is leaking, it’s important that you do not, for any period of time, cog it. The valve is crucial for your heater’s safe function. Plugging it, even temporarily, can lead to an explosion, which is potentially fatal.
Instead, follow these steps.
- Drain the tank.
You can read the very detailed steps for doing this in our article on cleaning water heaters. As a general overview, this process involves switching the thermostat off, opening your faucets to avoid creating a vacuum, connecting a hose to your drain valve, activating the valve, and allowing the tank to drain into a container or floor drain.
You don’t need to completely drain the tank to replace the relief valve. You just need to ensure that the water is below the valve.
- Use channel locks to remove the valve.
Do not pry at the valve or attempt to tank it out. This will damage your tank and require a much more complicated and expensive repair. The valve is screwed in, meaning you can remove it by simply turning counter-clockwise.
- Coat your new valve’s threads in Teflon tape.
You only need to wrap around 4 to 5 times to achieve sufficient insulation against future leaks.
- Using your channel locks, install the new valve.
Screw the valve in clockwise until it’s snug. You can go partway by hand but be sure to use your channel locks to ensure a proper fit.
- Restore the tank to its operational state.
In the article about cleaning water heaters that we linked to above, we also discuss restoring the heater to its operational state. Read that piece for detailed instructions. In a nutshell, though, you need to turn the cold water valve on and, once the tank has refilled with water, restore power and attach an overflow/discharge pipe to the valve.
- Keep an eye out for future leaks.
If, when removing your old valve, you noticed corrosion on its threads, the tank itself may also be corroded. This is a more serious issue that requires replacing the entire tank.
If your new valve is leaking and you didn’t notice any corrosion on the old one, you may be dealing with abnormally high water pressure coming from your municipal system. You can solve this by adjusting the water pressure with the help of a professional.
Replacing An Overflow Pipe
As mentioned earlier, a leaky overflow pipe is closely related to a malfunctioning pressure valve or a buildup of pressure in your tank. If you’ve determined that the pipe is to blame, you can follow these steps to replace it.
- Disconnect your tank and drain it using the steps we mentioned and linked to above.
- Disconnect the overflow pipe from the pressure relief valve.
You can usually do this with your bare hands, depending on how the pipe is fixed to the valve. You’ll know you’re looking at the overflow pipe because it points directly at the floor or into a drain. You will almost certainly never see the pipe affixed to something at the bottom. This would inhibit the pipe’s ability to relieve pressure.
- Connect your new overflow pipe to the pressure relief valve.
- Monitor for future leaks.
If you notice a similar leak occurring even after you’ve replaced the overflow pipe, you may have been incorrect in your initial diagnosis of the issue. It may instead be a pressure relief valve leak, in which case you should refer to the section above on dealing with that.
How To Replace A Drain Valve
If your heater is leaking from the bottom and it’s not an internal issue like we described above, it may be a drain valve leak. There’s no mistaking this as the valve is on the outside of your water heater, so leaks from it will be very visible.
Follow these steps for replacing the faulty drain valve.
- Check for a buildup of debris in the valve.
With a bucket under the valve, open it. If there’s debris inside, the force of water coming out will usually dislodge and expel it. Remember that this water is extremely hot. If this stops the leak, congrats! You don’t need to proceed any further.
- If the leak continues, drain the tank completely.
This will prepare the tank for you to replace the valve. Once the tank is drained, the process for replacing the valve is similar to replacing your relief valve.
- Remove the old drain valve with a wrench, turning counter-clockwise.
- Apply Teflon tape to the threads of your new drain valve.
- Screw the new drain valve into place using your wrench, turning clockwise.
- Restore the water heater to its operational state.
Remember, we give you detailed instructions on doing this in the piece that we linked to above, in the “Replacing A Relief Valve” section.
Last Word Of Precaution: Consult Your Heater’s Manual and Warranty
The tips that we’ve mentioned above are great for general reference. Most modern water heaters operate in such a fashion that would allow you to use these tips with no issues. Still, we recommend that you check your water heater’s manual to confirm that everything is where we say it is based on our instructions.
While our technicians can certainly identify and work with any abnormal configurations, for the sake of brevity this post simply touches on the most common cases.
Lastly, be sure that anything you are doing does not void your warranty. Replacing the drain valve, pressure valve, or the like usually does not affect your warranty but, again, there may be some specific instances. Better safe than sorry!