What are the Top 5 Signs of a Bad Water Heater?

hot water heaters

What are the top 5 signs of a bad water heater? This is a question we field almost weekly, mostly from homeowners but it affects retail stores and restaurants as well.

So often we take our hot water heater for granted. A bad water heater, on the other hand, is something that brings trembles. Here are the top 5 signs of a bad water heater, and what you can expect if it finally goes. In the spirit of Dave Letterman, I want to lead up to the absolute worst, but all of these are signs that it is time for a change. Depending on where your situation falls will determine how much time you have left. Your plumber can perform routine inspections if you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself.

  • Temperature
  • Noise
  • Corrosion
  • Puddles
  • Age

There is a much more serious side to water tank failure than being out of hot water for a while. According to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety1, claims resulting from a failed water heater produced some pretty-scary statistics.

Water Heater Failure Risks

A review of homeowners’ insurance claims resulting from water heater failures from multiple insurance companies around the country revealed:

  • Water heater failures are one of the top five sources of residential water losses.
  • 69% of all water heater failures result from a slow leak or a sudden burst.
  • Water heater failures cost an average of $4,444 per incident after the deductible was paid.
  • Supply line failure was the cause in only 10% of claims, but these claims typically were 60% higher than those caused by leaking or bursting.
  • The age at which a water heater tank failed due to leaking or bursting was available for 32% of the claims. Water heaters up to 20 years old accounted for 95% of these claims.
  • Failures of water heaters located on the first floor resulted in 33% greater losses than those resulting from water heaters in basements.
  • Approximately 9% of all water heater failures occurred in unoccupied homes and resulted in 49% higher claims.

Water Heater Failure Mode Claim Frequency and Severity:

In a review of 700 water heater claims, nearly seven of 10 failures were due to a tank bursting or leaking. (See Figure 1) The exact failure mode for 13% of water heater claims in this study could not be determined based on the information provided. It is likely, however, that many of these failures are also the result of a tank that has burst or leaked.

There are a lot of warning signs that your water heater is nearing the end of its life cycle, but you can extend the life a bit if you know what to look for.

  1. Banging, Clanging Noise – Should noise come from the water tank system, chances are the valves are being forced closed without warning or intent. Involuntary valve system failures are indicators that the system’s life expectancy has run its course. Not only are the noises unexpected and unsettling, they are also a warning cry to immediately replace the unit. With oxidation of the metal elements within the system, along with high levels of calcium and magnesium (heavy minerals within the water that form solids) causing the valves to fail, combined with years of sediment build-up, these noises are serious warning signs to replace the unit.
  2. Inconsistent temperature – If you notice that it takes longer for your water temperature to reach optimal temperature, more than likely there is sediment in the bottom of the tank. There are varying degrees of this type of problem, so you need to pay attention as a rule. Sediment in the base of the tank are preventing the water from heat, so bringing it to temperature is inconsistent and spotty. Draining the tank to remove the sediment won’t extend the life of your tank, because the majority of the water and “sludge” will remain in the tank . Draining the tank semi-annually can prevent heavy build-up of sediment, which may provide a more consistent water temperature longer into the life span of the tank.
  3. Age – The average life span of the standard water tank is 10 years. Proper maintenance is an expectation of the manufacturer, so the age limit is something relatively reliable. As noted in the IIBHS information above, tanks have been known to last much longer, but failure occurs nearly 95% of the time when a tank is functioning beyond its recommended life stage. If your tank is working fine, with consistent water temperature, no noise, puddles or corrosion, it is still time to change out the system. That is unless you like to gamble with your home.
  4. Corrosion – We’re getting to a “must replace” point in the discussion. Visible corrosion at the base of the tank is a sure sign that the internal sleeve of the tank has already failed, and that the end is nigh. The weight of the water and sediment against corroding metal is a foregone conclusion. It’s past time to replace the unit. It could go without a moment’s notice.
  5. Puddles – If you have blissfully lived beyond the previous signs of impending water heater doom, the witnessing of water accumulating under the tank is the last straw. The tank has failed completely and like the little Danish boy with his finger in the dyke, there is little, if anything keeping the tank from bursting. If you have missed or ignored the previous listed signs of required replacement, this one you cannot overlook. Your personal belongings, physical structure of your home and safety and security of your family are at stake. Insurance companies do not look favorably on claims resulting from negligent homeowners when it comes to water heater failure claims.

There you have it, in true Letterman fashion. Each of these signs are worth noticing and reacting to, but most importantly, pre-planning will save you the most grief and inconvenience. Nearing the ten year mark in the life of your system, you should schedule the replacement before any problems occur.

Be on the lookout for trouble by performing routine inspections of your home’s water heater, furnace, electrical and air conditioning systems. Vigilance and good maintenance inspections can save a lot of anxiety and inconvenience.

Citations: https://www.disastersafety.org/studies-reports/water-heater-failure-risks/

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