How to Avoid a Hot Water Heater Nightmare

Jane Douglass July 12, 2017

A hot water heater isn't typically something homeowners think much about - until, of course, it fails spectacularly. Hot water heaters warm our showers, help disinfect our dishes, and clean our clothes, but they can also cause very costly and dangerous damage if not properly maintained and monitored.

Disaster firsthand

Shawn Gehrt, a homeowner in the Seattle area and senior sales executive at Zillow, found out just how damaging hot water heaters can be.

"My wife called and said it sounded like it was raining downstairs,” Gehrt recalls. “When she went down there, the whole basement was flooded. There were about 4 to 6 inches of water on the ground."

Gehrt immediately went home, turned the water off, and cleaned up as much of the water as he could with his Shop-Vac.

"It was a good gush of water. It was probably the equivalent of about three baths filling at once. That's how much water was dumping out the side of our hot water tank," he says.

Gehrt and his wife called their homeowners insurance company, which sent the restoration emergency company ServPro to help. The professionals pumped out the water, working in the basement for about four hours. In addition to clearing out the water, they cleaned up the damage the flooding had caused.

"They had to remove all the baseboards, because water got behind the Sheetrock,” says Gehrt. “They drilled holes in the Sheetrock every 4 to 6 inches. And then I probably had about 20 fans going in my basement for a week to dry everything out."

Signs of damage to come

Gehrt and his wife certainly didn't expect their hot water heater to fail on them, but looking back, there was a major sign of damage.

"My storage room is where my furnace and hot water heater is, and I noticed that there was a little bit of water - just a tiny bit - maybe a 6-inch puddle of water in front of the hot water heater. I cleaned it up, and when I came back down about a week later, it was back," Gehrt says.

When you see any hint of moisture or water stains around your water heater, it's a major indicator that there's something wrong with it, according to Paul Abrams, public relations director at Roto-Rooter. He says there should be absolutely no leaking in any of the joints or on the floor. Besides leaking, the hot water heater’s age is really the biggest determinant of the appliance failing.

"Homeowners should be cognizant of how old the water heater is, because that often determines the period of time when there’s some danger of it failing," Abrams advises.

Most water heaters, under the best conditions, will last about nine to 11 years, unless you live in an area with especially hard water. Typically, a plumber will note the installation date on the water heater, but you can also look at the serial number on the tank to see when it was manufactured.

Reasons for failure

So, why exactly does a hot water heater fail? The water and its minerals essentially erode the container and create holes.

"The inside of the tank is usually glass-lined, but there's steel in there. And anytime you have minerals and hard water, they’ll attack that steel and eventually rust it out from the inside," Abrams says.

Although there are things you can do to prolong a water tank's life - such as replacing the anode rod (essentially a sacrificial rod made of magnesium, which deflects the minerals from attacking the tank) every five years, installing a water softener, and draining the sediment out of the tank once a year - the best thing you can do is set a replacement schedule.

Advice to homeowners

The restoration professionals came to Gehrt's house as soon as they could, but plenty of damage had already been done. They removed the base trim from all the doors. They cut the Sheetrock, because it had swelled up beyond repair. And the carpets, tile, and cabinets were all damaged and waterlogged.

The amount of damage came to a whopping total of $14,000. And while the insurance covered the damage, it didn't cover appliance replacement or labor costs. A home warranty, Gehrt learned after his experience, would have covered the cost of the water heater and a plumber.

The biggest lesson Gehrt and his wife learned, however, is that there are a couple of simple things homeowners can do to prevent hot water heater failures and floods.

"I spent $15 on a water sensor. It's just an alarm - a box that's 3 inches by 3 inches. It's loud, and it has a little sensor that you stick at the bottom of the tank on the ground. When the water hits it, it alerts you. If it would have alerted [my wife], she could have shut it off immediately, and we wouldn't have had all the damage that we did," Gehrt says.

Additionally, knowing where your water shutoff is and how to turn it off is something every homeowner should know in case of an emergency. But mostly, it's all about prevention.

"A lot of homeowners just ignore [their hot water tank]. It's like the elephant in the room. It's really easy to ignore. It's complicated, but the years go by, and something goes wrong. A lot of times, these things could have been prevented," Abrams says.


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