What to Do When Your Water Heater Starts Leaking

When your water heater springs a leak, you don’t want to get caught off guard. Here are tips you can use to locate and troubleshoot the leak from the plumbing experts at Chas Roberts.

Step 1: Stay calm

The first step when any plumbing issue rears its head is to stay calm. Take a deep breath and get ready to do your part to mitigate the problem. Even large leaks can be stopped temporarily to prevent water damage. While a plumber will need to repair the leak for good, you can do your part to buy yourself some time.

Step 2: Find the source of the leak

Is your heater leaking from the bottom or the top? This is also the time to confirm that you have a leak in the first place. If you’re concerned about a small puddle at the base of your water heater, the cause may not be a leak, but normal condensation instead.

Once you’ve located the leak, you’ll proceed with the next steps: turning off the water, and the heater itself, before draining the tank and ultimately fixing the leak or calling a plumber.

Common sources of leaks include:

Cold-water inlet and hot-water outlet connections

The points where pipes connect to your water heater can have a tendency to leak. The cold-water inlet valve is where cold water enters the heater. If you have a leak here, you should be able to see water dripping. But if you don’t, take a paper towel and wipe the valve with it. If the towel comes back wet, then you’ve got a leak.

Temperature/pressure-relief valve

The temperature, also known as the pressure relief, valve is a safety feature designed to keep the pressure inside your water-heater tank from climbing to dangerous levels. In the event that levels get too high, the valve opens and releases hot water, which brings the pressure back to normal. Sometimes, the valve can malfunction and not close completely, allowing hot water to leak out.

Loose or corroded pipe fittings

Over time, water heater pipe fittings can loosen and corrode with normal usage. Take a close look at the connection points between pipes. Corroded pipe fittings are also often a sign that corrosion is occurring within the tank itself. If it is, you’ll need to replace your water heater.

Step 3: Turn off the water

Once you locate the leak, you can work towards fixing it. Before you can fix a leak, it’s recommended that you turn off the water to avoid further waste. Even small leaks can add up quickly and waste gallons upon gallons of water. You can turn off the supply of water to your heater easily. Just locate the cold water shut-off valve, typically located above the heater, and turn it clockwise. Some heaters have handles that will need to be pulled down instead.

If the leak is so severe that you can’t reach or turn the water shut-off valve, you can turn off the water to your entire house by using the main shut-off valve. The location of your home’s main shut-off valve can vary by the home’s design. Common locations near the hot water heater, in the garage, or in a crawlspace.

Your home’s shut off valve may be also located outdoors. If it is, it’s likely below underground near the street or sidewalk outside of your home, with a metal cover over it. If you’re not sure where your main water shut off is, you have several options. One is to review the property inspection report you received when you purchased your home. Another option is to contact the city or your home builder.

No matter the location, the main shutoff valve can be turned off by twisting clockwise with an adjustable wrench or by using specific tools such as a meter key. Old valves may be difficult to turn by hand, which is why it’s important to regularly test them to ensure they can still operate correctly.

Step 4: Turn off the heater

Now that the water is turned off, the next step is to turn off the heater itself. This process differs depending on if your heater is powered by gas or electricity.

  • If you have a gas water heater: Turn the thermostat so that it’s on the “pilot” setting.
  • If you have an electric water heater: Locate your breaker box and turn off the electricity.

Even with the heating element turned off, the water in the tank is very hot. To avoid getting burned, it’s recommended that you wait overnight for the water to cool before proceeding with draining the tank.

Step 5: Drain the water tank

Once the water’s off, and the heater is powered down, you should drain the tank to make sure it’s empty before attempting to fix the leak. This process is easy enough to do on your own, but you can always call a plumber to do it for you if you’re unsure.

  1. Open some of your home’s hot water taps. Preferably, ones that are on second story above the heater.
  2. Locate the drain valve near the bottom of your water heater.
  3. Attach a garden hose to the drain valve and run the hose to a place it can drain safely, like a floor drain or your driveway.
  4. Open the drain valve and let the water start flowing. Generally, this step takes 10 minutes or less.
  5. Once the tank is empty, disconnect the hose and close both the drain valve and the hot water taps you opened in step 1.

Step 6: Fix the leak, or call a plumber

Some leaks can be fixed on your own, while others require the expertise of a professional.

Cold-water inlet and hot-water outlet connections

Tighten the nut that connects to the valve’s handle and see if that fixes the problem. If the leak continues, the valve likely needs to be replaced.

Temperature/pressure relief valve

The best course of action is to have a plumber replace the valve. Since it’s an important safety feature, it’s crucial that a professional repair it to ensure that it’s going to work correctly.

Loose or corroded pipe fittings

If there’s a leak, tighten the connection. If the pipe fittings are corroded, you may need to replace them.

Trust the plumbing experts at Chas Roberts

Whether your water heater is leaking, or you have other plumbing questions, concerns, or emergencies, the plumbing experts at Chas Roberts are always ready to lend a helping hand. Contact us to get started.