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Is My Water Heater Failing? 5 Signs Your Water Heater Is About To Burst

5 Signs Of a Burst Water Heater Accident Waiting To Happen

Here’s a common scenario our customer’s experience: let’s say one day you’re sitting at home and your ceiling suddenly collapses, or you go into the garage and find it’s completely flooded.

The cause? Your water heater burst.

Standard water heaters contain up to 40-120 gallons of water, so when one unexpectedly leaks or bursts it can cause an immense amount of water damage. A malfunctioning water heater can also become a fire hazard.

If pressure builds up in the tank you’ve essentially got a ticking time bomb in your house waiting to explode.

All water heaters have a limited lifespan, but by doing routine maintenance you can prevent catastrophic water leaks and extend the life of your water heater.

Even if you can’t repair it yourself, knowing the warning signs can help you diagnose the problem faster when the plumber arrives.

Here are 5 signs that your water heater is failing and the steps you can take to fix it.

Sign #1: Popping Noises

If your water heater is making a popping noise, like popcorn cooking on a stove top, you might have a sediment problem.

This is the sound of water trying to heat up and percolate through the built-up gunk. 

When water is heated, minerals in the water separate and settle at the bottom of the tank.

When a layer of sediment forms, the heating element has to work harder to provide you with hot water (which can cost you more money in energy bills).

On a gas water heater, this can create burn marks or hot spots that can damage the tank. On an electric water heater, sediment buildup can cause the heating element to burn out.

How To Flush It:

Before you begin, you’ll need to shut off the power source. If you have a gas water heater you’ll need to turn off the gas valve connected to the unit. The gas valve is usually a red knob located on a gas supply pipe outside of the unit.

If you have an electric water heater, you’ll need to locate the breaker box and shut off the power connected to it.

You’ll also need to turn off the water supply line. The water supply valve is on a cold water supply pipe on top of the heater. Turn the handle counter-clockwise until it’s in the OFF position.

Wait about 20-30 minutes to allow the water to cool off inside the tank. After that, it’s time to flush.

  • Attach a garden hose to the drain valve at the base of the water heater like how you would attach a hose to a garden faucet outside of your home.
  • Place the other end of the hose in a large bucket to collect water or somewhere outside the home.
  • Turn a hot water faucet on all the way somewhere in your house (this helps relieve pressure inside the tank) and open the drain valve on your water heater. WARNING: the water that comes out will be scalding hot so make sure to stand back to avoid burns.
  • Wait until there is no more water flowing out of the drain valve and the faucet inside your home.
  • When the water stops, close the drain valve and remove the water hose. Also, turn off whatever hot water faucet you opened up.
  • Turn the water supply valve back on and let the tank fill up. Go inside and open a hot water faucet again. When you have a steady stream of water flowing from the faucet, turn it off.
  • Turn the power back on for your electric or gas heater.

Flush the tank of sediment at least every 6 months to prevent sediment from clogging up your heater.

Sign #2: All The Hot Water Is Gone

If you’re running out of hot water quicker than usual, the heating element inside the tank may have burned out or you might have sediment build-up.

Follow the steps above to flush out your water heater and remove the sediments.

If a flush doesn’t fix the problem then it might be a heating element issue, a broken dip tube, or that you simply need a bigger water heater to keep up with the consumption.

Inspect the water heater before you decide to invest in a bigger tank size.

How To Check The Lower Heating Element

Electric water heaters rely on two heating elements to warm up water; one at the bottom and one on the top.

The bottom heating element does the majority of the heating work, while the top one is used to keep the water at a consistent temperature.

So if the lower heating element is burned-out, you’ll definitely notice it the next time you take a shower. It could be that the heating element itself has burnt out or that the thermostat that controls it is broken.

  • Go to the breaker box and flip off the switch that powers your water heater.
  • Check to see if the lower heating element is working by using a non-contact voltage detector. Test to see if the detector is working by touching the cord of a lit lamp or outlet. You’ll see a series of flashes or hear beeping if its detected voltage.
  • The lower heating element is located at the base of the heater. Remove the metal covers to access the thermostat and heating elements.
  • Attach the tester to one of the elemental leads. If there is no continuity and the detector doesn’t light up, then the circuitry is bad and the element needs to be replaced.

If you’re not comfortable with the idea of working with water and electricity, then it’s best to leave this to a trusted plumbing company.

How To Check For a Broken Dip Tube

The dip tube is connected to a water supply pipe and directs incoming cold water to the bottom of the tank to be heated.

The colder dense water naturally stays separated at the bottom of the tank while the hot water rises to the top.

If the dip tube is broken,  the cold incoming water mixes with the hot water at the top of the tank and you’ll end up taking an icy shower.

  • Remove your shower head or faucet strainers and look for pieces of plastic. The small pieces of plastic will wind up in there if the dip tube has disintegrated.
  • Put the particles you found in a bowl of vinegar. If they float, they’re from the dip tube. If they dissolve, they’re probably sediment.
  • See if the dip tube is broken by testing the water temperature inside the heater.
  • Attach a garden hose to the drain valve at the base of the heater. Open the valve and let the water flow out. The water that comes out of the hose should cool quickly. If it’s cool, then your dip tube is probably functioning. If it’s not cool, then you might need to replace it.

Did you find that you need to replace the dip tube? consult this article or contact a local plumbing company.

Electrical Shock Warning

If you need to replace the dip tube, you’ll need to drain the tank to access it. It’s important to turn off the power to avoid electric shock. If you have a gas heater, turn off the pilot light on the tank. If you have an electric water heater, go to the breaker box and flip off the switch.

Sign #3: Rusty Water

Water heater tanks are made out of durable materials like steel. The problem is water likes to eat steel and this means that the tank will inevitably rust.

Water heater developers know this, and create them with a built-in rust protection element called a “sacrificial anode rod”.

Water molecules are more attracted to the metals in this rod and the rod will “sacrifice” itself and rust in place of the tank.

Eventually, this rod will deteriorate too, and once the water is done eating up the anode rod, your water heater is next.

If you turn on the hot water faucet and the water is a rusty, brown color it likely means the anode rod deteriorated. 

How to replace the anode rod:

  • Turn off the power supply. For gas heaters, turn off the gas valve outside of the unit. For electric water heaters, you’ll need to go to the breaker box and flip off the switch.
  • Turn off the water supply valve.
  • Go inside and turn on a hot water faucet to relieve some of the pressure inside the tank.
  • Connect a water hose to the drain valve at the base of the tank and place the other end in a bucket.
  • Drain a couple gallons of water, but don’t drain it all the way. You’ll need the weight of the water to hold the tank in place while you’re lifting. WARNING: The water that comes out will be extremely hot so stand back to avoid burns.
  • Locate the anode rod. In most instances, the hex head of the anode rod will be visible on top of the water heater. Sometimes, you’ll need to unscrew and lift up the cover on top of the heater to find the anode rod.
  • Use a ratchet wrench and 1 1/16-inch deep socket to remove the anode rod.
  • The anode rod can be difficult to remove. If you’re having a hard time, slip a steel pipe onto ratchet wrench handle for extra leverage.
  • Remove the deteriorated rod and replace it with a new one. Consider purchasing a segmented one for easier installation. You can usually purchase them at any plumbing supply store.
  • Wrap Teflon tape around the threads of your new anode rod.
  • Insert the new anode rod into the water heater and tighten it with 1 1/16-inch socket.
  • Drain the remaining water flush out any debris that might be lingering in the tank.
  • Turn the water and fuel supply back on.

Sign #4: Smelly Egg Odors

If you turn on the tap and smell that rotten egg stench, it’s because your water contains hydrogen sulfide. While this usually doesn’t pose a health risk, the taste and the odor is unpleasant. 

The bacteria that causes this smell usually exists in well water, but occasionally a water heater can be the culprit.

You can use your nose to determine if your water heater is causing the problem. Turn on the tap and check to see if the cold water AND the hot water both smell then it’s coming from your water supply. 

Call a local welling contractor to put a filter to reduce the hydrogen sulfide.

If it’s only the hot water that smells, then it might be coming from your water heater. The magnesium rod in water heaters can mix with bacteria in the water and produce that hydrogen sulfide egg smell. 

How to fix it:

  • Standard anode rods are made out of magnesium, which is susceptible to a hydrogen sulfide attack. Replace your magnesium rod with an Aluminum-Zinc alloy one. These rods are much more resistant to that hydrogen sulfide breakdown.
  • Follow the steps above to replace the anode rod or consult this helpful video.

Sign #5: Too Much Pressure

If pressure builds up in your water heater it forces water to leak, overflow, or even worst— explode.

Water heaters are built with a Temperature and Pressure valve that opens up to release water and keep the pressure down.

Excess pressure occurs when the water temperature is set too high or if the T&P valve is defective.

If the T&P valve keeps releasing water you might have an excessive pressure or temperature problem.

Also, sometimes the T&P valves go bad and start leaking. If you have a defective T&P valve, you’ll need to replace it to prevent pressure from building up in the tank.

How to fix it:

  • Test the T&P valve at least once a year to make sure it’s functioning properly.
  • Make sure your water heater temperature is set at 120-125 degrees.
  • Test the water pressure by purchasing a (usually inexpensive) pressure gauge and screwing it onto the hose faucet. The water pressure should be 80 psi or less.
  • Place a bucket beneath the discharge tube, flip open the T&P relief valve, and let it run for a few seconds to make sure it opens fully. The T&P valve is located on the top or side of the tank.
  • Be careful to stand back as the water will be scalding hot.

The T&P valve is the only thing preventing your water heater from becoming a rocket so make sure to inspect it annually or hire a plumber to inspect it.

Conclusion: Don’t Let An Overflowing Water Heater Turn Your Home Into a Water Park

75% of water heaters fail before they reach 12 years of age. So It’s not a question of if they’ll fail, but when. If you notice your water heater is on the fritz, call out a plumber and water damage specialists immediately.

Water damage professionals can determine if your property is structurally sound, remove water, and restore your home back to safer conditions.

If you live in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex and dealing with water damage, we’re here to help. Whether you need water leak cleanup or you’re dealing with an overflowing appliance, we can handle it all.

Our techs are on-call 24/7 to respond to your burst or overflowing water heater emergency. Call us at (214)-731-4624 to clean up the mess and return your property back to a safer, drier condition. 

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