A water heater leak may seem like just a minor nuisance, but it can quickly turn into a big problem. Even a small amount of water will cause damage to your floors, sub-floors and walls. Keep in mind that water heater leaking may be a symptom of a much larger problem. In extreme cases, a catastrophic and complete water heater failure can cause a significant flood that could lead to hefty repair bills and damaged personal property.
Water heater leaking can also be a health concern. Damp and wet areas can sprout mold and mildew that can cause allergic reactions and asthma in some individuals. According to the EPA, some mold spores are toxic and can lead to serious health problems.
A water heater leak does not shrink or go away with time. It only gets worse, so it’s best to move quickly to fix the problem.
Not every small puddle of water found at the base of a water heater is necessarily due to a leak. A water heater and the pipes around it, plus the other appliances typically found nearby, can form condensation, which can accumulate and drip to the floor; especially in a basement or during damp weather.
Furnace drain lines, water softener discharge lines and other plumbing can also be the cause of the leak. If a small amount of water is noticed under or near a water heater for the first time, wipe it up and try to determine its source through simple observation. Closely inspect the water heater and its plumbing fittings for obvious signs of water leakage. If none are found, inspect other nearby possible sources. Water faithfully obeys the laws of gravity, so pay particular attention to anything directly overhead, especially water pipes.
If still nothing is found, lay down some paper towels over the area that was damp and come back to check on it every few hours. If, after a day or so, the problem does not re-appear, it’s likely nothing to be concerned about. If, however, water does show up again and no other source for it can be readily identified, the water heater leaking is the likely cause, and the inspection steps that follow should be carried out
Once you determine that your water heater is leaking, the first thing you should do is turn off the power supply.
If you have an electric water heater simply locate your circuit breaker box and switch off the breaker for your water heater. Water and electricity can be a dangerous combination, so it’s important you do this before going forward.
If you have a natural gas water heater, it should have an on/off switch< or dial. Make sure it is set to “off”. Avoid closing the gas shut-off valve if possible. These valves can be finicky and susceptible to failure over time, so it is best that they be left alone.
WARNING: Water heaters are typically factory-set to heat water to 125° F, which is hot enough to inflict first degree burns on skin on contact. When turned all the way up to maximum temperature (which can be anywhere from 160ºF to 190º F) serious injuries can result from even indirect contact with the water. Always take precautions to avoid coming into contact with heated water.
If the water heater leaking is significant and obvious, turn off the water supply at the cold water shut-off valve.
Most water heaters will have a valve located above the water heater (by code they are required to be here) that will shut off the water supply. This valve will either have a handle that you have to pull down, or a gate valve (essentially a dial) that you will have to turn clockwise to close. Before closing the valve, make sure you can get to it safely without coming in contact with any water. If you have a large, serious leak and cannot reach the water shut-off valve safely then you should find the main shut-off valve for the house and close it to stop the water supply to your water heater. Shutting the water off should slow, and may even stop the leak, depending on where it is coming from.
If the actual leak source is not yet identified, leave the water supply on for the time being, to assist in locating it.
There are a number of problems that can cause water heater leaking, so it’s a good idea to perform a quick inspection. A proper diagnosis of the leak before calling a professional will make it easier for them to solve the problem.