By Kehli Mason, The Handy Woman, LLC
“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this - you haven’t.” ~Thomas A. Edison
I recently received a phone call from a client who noticed a small puddle of water under her water heater. She was understandably concerned since this was only a three-year old water heater. Generally with water heaters this can either be a bad sign, or a relatively simple to remedy repair. When I got to the job, sure enough, there was a puddle of water about the size of a dinner plate
right under the water heater, and the client said that it was about twice that size when she noticed it the day before. Looking for the easiest first, I started by checking the temperature and pressure relief (T & P) valve that was sticking out of the side of the tank near the top (some models are located on the top of the tank.) This little device is designed to protect the water heater tank from building up too much pressure due to overheating caused by faulty heating sources, either electric or gas, that do not turn off when required. (I don’t want to alarm you with the word ‘explode’ but, yeah, it has been known to happen.) Reasons why a water heater may overheat is for another time, but a little T&P 101 may be helpful.
The T & P valve functions as a controlled pressure relief should a dangerous situation occur. I say ‘controlled’ because, when installed correctly, the valve has a downward pointing drain pipe (usually copper or CPVC) attached that should terminate within 6 inches of the floor, or in some cases a drain pan that the heater sits in that in turn has a drain line leading to a floor drain or other desired location. The control comes from the fact that when this little valve opens up to release pressure, the scalding water is directed down and away from anything that may be harmed by it. It is a good idea to test the valve annually (maybe when you change your smoke alarm batteries!) by pulling up on the handle on the top. You might want to put a bucket under the drain line to keep the water off your shoes, but make sure to remove the bucket when you are done. When you lift that handle, water should flow from the drain pipe with a good amount of speed (like opening a faucet full bore). If nothing happens, or just a trickle or some drops come out, then the valve will need to be replaced, and right away. The valve is not functioning properly.
Replacing a T & P valve is a relatively easy repair, but in my client’s case, was not the problem. The valve was not leaking, the drain pipe was bone dry, and the water temperature was within a safe range, 120-125º F. (You generally would not want residential water temperature set above 125º F. Temperatures above that can burn children and adults quite badly and quickly). Next step, check for tank leaks. Though this tank was only three-years old, product failure has been known to happen. Weakness in the metal of the tank itself, faulty welds, and corrosion can all lead to pinhole leaks. Hard water can wreak havoc on water heaters, diminishing capacity and efficiency of both electric and gas heaters. Gas heaters can accumulate hard water deposits in the bottom of the tanks, sometimes inches thick. Tell-tale signs are rumbling and popping sounds when the burners kick on for the heat cycle. Electric heaters too can get quite a hard water scale buildup, so much so that I have actually seen the lower tank elements (there are two, one upper and one lower) buried in sediment. (Maybe that is why one manufacturer has an element called the Sandhog!) The hard water scenario wouldn’t really apply to this situation, though, because my client had this tank installed downstream from the water softener (a very good idea).
I checked the bottom of the casing that surrounds the tank for signs of leaks, and came up with nothing. Since this was an electric heater I checked around each of the elements. Sometimes a gasket can leak a little, but nothing. There is a drain valve at the bottom of water heaters for yes, you guessed it, draining them out. This valve is also helpful when you want to flush the tank to remove some of the hard water scale that may build up in the tank. Connecting a garden hose and opening the valve can allow some of the sediment to leave the tank. A shop vac also does a great job. But alas, again no sign of leaking.
I was becoming more and more baffled. There were no signs of water, new or old, anywhere on the top, bottom, or sides of the tank or the valves. And yet, there was the plate sized puddle under the heater. Now, I am no quitter but I was on the verge of crying “Uncle” when I noticed something suspicious about three feet away. When I tested the temperature of the hot water I used a utility sink near the water heater. I had to run the water for a minute or two to get the proper temperature reading. Guess what was under the sink? A little puddle of water that had started flowing toward the water heater across the basement floor! I turned on the faucet in the sink again and watched underneath to see where the water was coming from. Sure enough a drop of water, began to form up at the drain basket nut on the bottom of the sink. I dried it off, tightened the nut and turned the water on again. Problem solved! Oh, Tom, so true, so true.
Don’t forget to send in your home repair and maintenance questions to
. Until next month remember: Measure twice, cut once and keep smiling!
Kheli Mason, The Handy Woman, LLC
With over 20 years experience in Home Maintenance and Repair, Remodeling, and Building Inspection, Kheli started the Handy Woman LLC to be ‘not just your average contracting company’, but to also teach people how to take care of their homes by offering do-it-yourself coaching and how-to classes. Along with typical home repair and maintenance services, her focus is to help our elders age-in-place and teach women homeowners how to understand and care for their homes.
For more information please call Kheli @ 303.999.5812 www.thehandywomanllc.com