Exploding water heaters are a reality, not something crafted out of people’s imaginations. In fact, this was explored in the famous tv show ‘Mythbusters’ and they were able to prove that this really happens in real life. If you have not seen that episode, their experiment resulted in a 30-gallon water heater launching up at 234 mph, reaching 167 meters, and staying airborne for 11 seconds. The numbers are quite serious. Scary, right?
On this page:
- Can an Electric Water Heater Explode?
- What Causes a Water Heater to Explode?
- Signs of Failure: Is Your Water Heater About to Explode?
- Carbon Monoxide and Water Heaters
- Common Causes of Water Heater Failure
- Prevent Your Water Heater from Exploding
- Water Heater Making Noise
- How Long Do Water Heaters Last?
- How to Make Your Water Heater Last Longer
- Is it Time to Replace Your Water Heater?
- Getting Free Quotes from Contractors
If you still do not believe this can happen, just a simple search on the internet will yield so many results. You can see first-hand stories, news reports, and even photos of water heaters that exploded and RVs and homes that were severely damaged because of it. You don’t want a photo of your home to be the next one in that particular section.
Water heaters have many risks and hazards, such as leaks and flooding, but arguably the most dangerous is the risk of explosion. Not only will this cause damage, but this may also have fatal consequences, since it can catch people unaware.
Fortunately, there are different signs you can watch out for that will let you know if your water heater is at risk of exploding anytime soon. You need to be aware of them so that you can get in touch with a plumber as soon as you see these signs, preventing any possible disastrous consequences. To help you with that, we have prepared this article that details all you need to know about this potential hazard.
Can an Electric Water Heater Explode?
Thinking about water heaters exploding, most people would think that this can only happen to units powered by gas. After all, gas is known to cause an explosion when it comes into contact with fire.
In the case of water heaters, its source is irrelevant; both gas and electric water heaters have an equal risk of exploding. The gas content of water heaters is a fire hazard, but the electric coils found on electric water heaters are also the same. Other factors will play a bigger role in causing a water heater to explode, not only the power source.
But don’t let this deter you from buying and using your water heater. Explosions will not happen to all water heaters; only the poorly maintained ones are at risk for this. As long as you do periodic maintenance on yours, there’s only a very slim chance of it happening to you.
Doesn’t this make you want to rush out and get in touch with a professional to check out your water heater, especially if you’re guilty of not doing maintenance work on it?
What Causes a Water Heater to Explode?
Water heaters exploding are not caused by one single factor. However, there is one that you need to pay the closest attention to, which is the pressure inside the water heater.
The amount of pressure inside is the most important factor that can cause a water heater to explode or prevent it. It is normal for pressure to be present but if the water heater has too much of it and this not immediately rectified, that’s the time it will happen.
But this won’t immediately happen, since water heaters are equipped with safety measures to prevent such a thing from happening. In particular, the temperature and pressure relief valve, also known as the T&P valve, helps regulate the pressure in the tank. This is vital for any water heater and should always be in great condition. Any sign of problem must be immediately checked out.
Water heaters undergo thermal expansion, which means water expands in terms of volume while it is heating up and this also increases the pressure inside. The T&P valve stops the pressure from staying inside and acts as an outlet for the excess pressure to get out of it. If the valve does not work properly, pressure will remain inside and this can cause issues.
Other factors that can elevate these risks include the following:
- Rust – since water heaters have metal components, they can acquire rust. And when vital components accumulate rust, they won’t work properly. This will be a big problem if the parts affected are those involved in pressure regulation.
- Sediments – if regular flushing is not done on your water heater, especially on the tank, it will clump together at the bottom. When this happens, the water heater will need to work overtime to raise the temperature of the water. The sediments act as insulators and it will also likely affect the pressure of your unit, and this may cause your unit to overheat and later explode.
- Temperature – because they come with a thermostat, owners of water heaters think they can set it to whatever temperature they want. While this is true, there is still a limit that you should follow. If it goes beyond this, it can cause the T&P valve of your unit to fail and stop regulating pressure.
- Corrosion – a corroded water heater is not only unsightly, it is also potentially dangerous. This may result in a short circuit that can start a fire or explode.
- Close proximity to flammables – if your water heater is installed in the basement, flooding due to leaks is the least of your problem. A water heater that is closely surrounded by various items, especially flammable ones, is in danger of exploding when it overheats due to inadequate ventilation. Yes, it’s not roof vents that provide much needed ventilation.
All these can cause a water heater to be at risk of exploding, but ultimately, it is the pressure building up inside the tank that you need to keep a very close eye on.
Signs of Failure: Is Your Water Heater About to Explode?
Now that you know what can cause water heaters to become potential threats, you should also be aware of the different instances that can indicate that your unit is at risk.
Water heaters will encounter issues every now and then, but there are some that you should take seriously; these may actually be part of a larger problem. But when it comes to the risk of explosion, these, in particular, are what you need to watch out for:
- Leaks – this is one of the most headache-inducing problems any homeowner can face. If leaking roofs annoy you, it would probably annoy you even more when it happens to your water heater. These can happen on different parts of your unit, including the overflow pipe, hot water outlet, cold water inlet, internal tank, and the expansion tank, among others. It can also happen at the top or at the bottom, with leaks originating from the latter more serious.
While this is a generally simple matter, there are certain leaks that signal an imminent explosion. If the leak on your water heater seems to originate from the T&P valve, especially the pressure relief valve, this can indicate two things: the safety precautions in place are working well or your T&P valve is failing. A plumber will be able to identify which of the two possibilities are applicable to your unit and can remedy it if needed.
- Malfunctioning T&P valve – earlier, we talked about how important the T&P valve is to regulate pressure in the water heater. Once it shows signs of failing, you need to get it replaced as soon as possible. If not, it will fail to release the pressure that exceeds the limit of what your water heater can handle.
- Strong gas smell – if you use a gas water heater, or have used any gas-powered appliance in the past, you know that you need to keep an eye out, or nose, rather, for any hint of gas smells, no matter how faint.
An indicator that a possible gas leak is present is when you smell something metallic, reminiscent of sulfur or rotten eggs. The heat produced by your unit during its operation may cause it to ignite, especially when flammable substances are found nearby. Also, fumes of flammable substances may reach the pilot light of your unit, and this can start a fire.
- Botched Installation – if your water heater has been installed in a rush and especially not by a professional, there is a chance that its installation has been compromised. This is not something to take likely, as it may result in soldered fittings, melting of internal components, and inaccurate control systems, which can cause your unit to blow up.
Wrong installations can also cause an electrical water heater to experience corrosion. If you continue to use it despite this, it can result in a short circuit.
- It starts producing popping sounds – Some noise may be tolerable but if the noise it makes reminds you of a popcorn machine, you need to have your unit checked. This may mean it is already working double time to heat the water and your unit may not be able to handle this later on.
- Cloudy or otherwise unclear water – changes to the taste in the tap water may be an indication that your water heater is struggling. When this happens, it’s not uncommon to experience that the water tastes more metallic.
All these are important signs that you need to watch out for. If you notice one or more of these appearing on your unit, you may have to stop using it and get it checked as soon as you can.
Carbon Monoxide and Water Heaters
Possible explosions are not the only thing you should watch out for when it comes to water heaters. Another fatal possibility is being poisoned due to carbon monoxide. This is much harder to watch out for because unlike gas leaks, carbon monoxide is odorless; you may only realize its presence when it’s already too late.
Carbon monoxide leaks do not happen easily, as they will only possibly occur at the following situations:
- Little to no ventilation on your water heater,
- Wrong handling and installation, and
You may think that these conditions will discourage you from installing your water heater downstairs in your basement. This is not the case; you just need to make sure that your water heater has enough space to breathe no matter where it is installed. This means you should not place items within close proximity of your unit, especially flammable ones. Even better, have a carbon monoxide detector or alarm installed where your unit is located.
Some of the most common tell-tale signs of being poisoned due to the presence of carbon monoxide are dizziness, confusion, headache, blurry vision, weakness, vomiting, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and fainting. If you or anyone from your household experiences many of these signs, those affected need to immediately be rushed out of the house to be able to breathe in fresh air. It is also important that you get a professional to check not only your water heater but the condition of your home and the air immediately.
This is not something you should take lightly. As much as 200 people die every year and 10,000 more get sent to the hospital because of carbon dioxide poisoning, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Don’t allow you and your family to be part of this statistic.
Common Causes of Water Heater Failure
It is not uncommon for water heaters to fail. What is surprising is when it happens earlier than expected, since they are known to last for a decade or so. A lot of premature failures are generally attributed to one cause: neglect.
Water heaters failing earlier than expected is an avoidable scenario, but only if the necessary precautions and maintenance are done regularly. It’s also easy to spot if your water heater is about to give up on you. If the following are present, you need to take steps to remedy the problems to prevent them from worsening:
- Excessive pressure – if too much pressure does not cause your water heater to explode, it will cause your unit to break down soon, as well as other systems connected to it. These include your plumbing system and appliances. When water is released by the T&P valve and is coming out from the overflow pipe, this indicates too much pressure inside the tank of your unit.
- Rust – rust will also cause your water heater to fail earlier than average, as it will spread out quickly and cause corrosion. This will damage your unit and if you continue to use it, its operation will be less ideal.
Not only that, the water quality will also be affected. Instead of colorless and odorless water, don’t be surprised to see brownish or reddish hot water with a metallic smell coming out of your unit. Another effect of this happening is that harmful bacteria is likely to be present. If this is only happening for hot water, rust may have already greatly affected your unit.
- Sediments and corrosion – if you recall, we already mentioned how sediments can increase the risk of your water heater exploding. This is also the case in terms of the lifespan of a water heater, especially if you use hardwater; the more sediment buildups inside your unit, the more likely it is to fail soon.
To prevent this, the anode rod on your water heater needs to be in working condition and immediately replaced when needed. These rods help prevent corrosion, as they serve as the primary target of corrosive substances. If no anode rod is left, that’s the time they will eat away parts of your water heater itself.
- Poor air quality the presence of fumes – you probably know that water heaters need ventilation, but not everyone knows that they also take in air to work. This is similar to how humans need to inhale and exhale, and water heaters also require good quality air to work properly.
Corrosive air is dangerous for water heaters. Aside from possibly igniting the pilot light of gas-powered units, it can also trigger corrosion to occur on both electric and gas water heaters. Like we mentioned, corrosion is a major factor why water heaters fail.
- High temperature – despite having the option to set the thermostat to your preference, it is important that your water heater is still set to the ideal levels. You should not set it to the maximum level just because you want the hottest water temperature possible. Very hot water is usually only used for sanitary purposes, and even this does not require the water to be scalding hot.
A broken thermostat will also affect the temperature of your unit, as this has the tendency to operate at higher temperatures than it should without your knowledge. Continuous operation at this scenario will shorten its lifespan.
By now, you may have realized the importance of caring for your water heater. The causes we highlighted above are easily preventable, again, as long as you do periodic maintenance on your unit.
Aside from the ones above, there are two other factors that can affect the longevity of a water heater, namely its size and age.
There is a reason why water heaters come in different sizes – the larger your house, the bigger the capacity of the water heater that needs to be installed. Some homeowners make the mistake of buying smaller units than they are supposed to, because they think this will allow them to cut costs on bills. This is not the case, since using a smaller-than-needed unit will force the water heater to work harder and more than it should, which can lead to it being overused.
Age is also a key factor for water heaters to fail. It is a given that water heaters are expected to last for years, yet they will encounter various problems as time passes. The older your unit is, the more fragile it will become. If your unit is nearing a decade of use, expect different issues to come up sooner.
If you notice these on your water heater, your next move is to get in touch with a professional to correctly diagnose what needs to be done. They can make the necessary judgment call if the issues can still be fixed or there’s no other option but to replace your water heater.
Prevent Your Water Heater from Exploding
As they say, prevention is better than cure. This also applies to your water heater; it is important that you know how to avoid turning your unit into a ticking disaster, not just learn about the signs you need to watch out for. Here are some of the important things you need to keep in mind to avoid the fatal scenario of your water heater blowing up your home:
- Get your unit checked by a professional annually and when you see the first signs of leaks, rust, or corrosion.
- Water heaters should never work beyond 212 ˚F and the pressure must never reach 80 psi, so set the thermostat of your unit to the ideal range. The temperature should be less than 140 ˚C and the pressure should not reach 60 psi.
- Have your water heater undergo periodic cleaning and maintenance, especially flushing.
- Check the condition of your water heater’s T&P valve, particularly its ability to open up by itself when needed, by lifting it up manually. Do this around every two months, or as often as you want, and get the valve changed every three years.
- Most valves of water heaters are replaceable, so have any damaged or malfunctioning ones replaced as soon as you can.
- For closed water heater systems, have an expansion tank installed.
This list should make you realize how important water heater maintenance is. It will not only give you peace of mind and minimize the risk of explosions to nearly zero, but it will also allow you to use your unit for a very long time.
Water Heater Making Noise
Water heaters in general normally operate with tolerable noise, that’s why it is easy to notice when it starts making noise that you don’t usually hear. When this happens, there are a number of possibilities that you can look into, depending on the kind of noise present:
- Popping or crackling noises on your water heater indicates sediment buildup inside, particularly on the heating element
- A rumbling sound means sediments are moving around inside the tank due to the movement of water
- Knocking sounds, also known as the “water hammer” may be heard on the walls where the pipes of your water heater are connected. This is produced when the water supply to the unit is suddenly cut off and the pipes vibrate as a result of it, often when using the toilet bowl, a water pump that has no holding tank installed, or a dishwasher.
- Humming sounds can also be produced by the heating element of a water heater that is placed vertically, relative to the tank’s position.
- Sounds reminiscent of tapping or ticking are a result of heat traps that stop water from flowing in the pipes in the reverse direction.
- Screeching sounds occur when only a tiny opening is available due to valves that are not completely opened up, and water forcefully passes through it.
- Clicking noises on a tankless water heater may be a sign that either its flow switch is just moving from on to off or there are significant buildups of calcium inside the unit.
Fortunately, these noises can be easily remedied. These alone may not be enough to get your water heater to explode, but they should still be taken seriously. Once neglected for a lengthy period, especially if the noise is due to sediment buildup, that’s the time it increases the chance of a disaster happening.
How Long Do Water Heaters Last?
Do you remember when you had your water heater unit installed at home? If it is not fairly recent, there is a chance that you’ve had yours for some time now. It’s even more likely that you’ve had it for years already.
Various home appliances get upgraded in a typical household in just a few years, but this is not usually the case for water heaters. More often than not, water heaters will only be replaced when they completely break down.
On average, traditional water heaters that come with tanks can last between eight to twelve years, even longer if properly maintained. These appliances are designed to work for a maximum of fifteen years or so. If the tank is made up of fiberglass, it may even operate longer. Electricity powered ones have a slight advantage, since they are said to last one or two years longer than gas water heaters.
Tankless water heaters, on the other hand, can work well for as long as two decades. This is largely due to the fact that they are not required to run 24/7 and will only operate when required.
How to Make Your Water Heater Last Longer
You may not switch on your entertainment system frequently, but you will definitely use your water heater everyday, not just for bathing but also for washing the dishes and doing your laundry, among others. It may not be that obvious to you but this appliance is actually among the ones you use the most often.
As a result, water heaters are subjected to more wear and tear. This can take a huge toll on your unit, shortening its life. To remedy this, you need to make sure that it is well-maintained.
You’ve probably noticed how much we mentioned the importance of maintenance throughout the entire article. This needs emphasis because maintenance is actually the one that will make-or-break your water heater. Periodic maintenance equals a longer time that you can use your unit.
Regular maintenance is not limited to cleaning or flushing. It also involves the proper use and operation, replacement of parts that have corroded, broken down, or are failing, and having adequate insulation and ventilation, among others. Most of these maintenance works are best done by a professional who can also assess the overall condition of your water heater at the same time.
Is it Time to Replace Your Water Heater?
If you have been using the same water heater for the longest time, you may ask yourself if it is already high time for you to get a new one as an upgrade, especially if you can no longer recall when you had it installed. Or, if you have been spending a lot of time with a plumber because of the numerous repairs your water heater needs, such as its refusal to drain, you might wonder if it is still practical for you to keep repairing your unit.
Water heaters will eventually need replacing, and not just because your unit is no longer functioning. There are also other reasons you should consider to decide whether to keep using yours or not. To help you out, we have come up with this list that you can use as a guide:
- You want to cut down on your bills – water heaters are known as resource hogs. That is, a bulk of your household bills is taken up just by it. Technology has made it possible to produce models that work more efficiently, yet require less resources. This may be an economical choice for you, instead of continuing to use your current unit.
- Your water heater has been in constant operation for the longest time – in connection with the previous point, you should also think about replacing your unit if you have been using it for a decade or so. It is already nearing its end of life at this point and will show signs of its age soon, if it will not completely break down.
- It no longer produces hot water – what’s the point of having a hot water heater if it is unable to produce hot water, or is only capable of giving you lukewarm at best? You may still opt to try and fix it but this happening to your unit may be a sign that your water heater is starting to fail.
- Various signs that pinpoint to a possible explosion are starting to appear – one or two of the signs of a potential water heater explosion we mentioned may still be manageable or repairable if it occurs on yours, but if the plumber believes it is already dangerous to use, stop using it and just get a new one.
- You use your water heater the same way, but you wind up paying higher bills – a sure sign that there is an issue on your unit is when you know that nothing changed on how you consume hot water in your household, yet the related bills’ total amounts seem to increase. This likely means that your unit is working less efficiently and is using an obsolete technology.
- Hot water coming out is different than normal – too many sediments and rust inside your water heater can result in murky and smelly water, which may even be dangerous when used. While this may still be fixed if caught early, it will inevitably destroy your unit the longer you put off resolving it.
- Noise and leaks are evident – catch and resolve these early and there’s a chance you can still use your unit for years. But if you leave them alone for too long, there will soon come a time that you will eventually have to get rid of it.
If you are still hesitating, it would be better for you to consult with a professional. They will help you determine the practicality of either continuing to use your current one and doing the necessary repairs and maintenance on it or choosing to have a new one installed.
Getting Free Quotes from Contractors
If you are uneasy at the fact that your water heater may explode anytime, especially when you notice some of the signs we mentioned happening to your unit, the next step you should take is have it checked by a qualified professional.
You may be tempted to just get the services of the first plumber you get in touch with, but you should always remember that the rates of these professionals are not fixed. They always have room for negotiation and this is one thing you need to maximize on.
Once you get in touch with a contractor or plumber, they will give you a free estimate on how much their services would cost. You need to inform them that there are other options available for you that you are looking into and that they are just one of those. This is the key to get the best rates possible.
Once they realize they have competition, they will compare the rates you got from other professionals with theirs and make the adjustments accordingly. You won’t normally even have to ask them to do it for you; they would volunteer to do it for free to entice you as a client. All you would have to do next is to choose which one you think will give you the best value in terms of both service and price, not just the cheapest one.
When you’re ready to find a plumber, you should use the form on our site to do so, and we’ll match you with the most relevant contractors in your area, free of charge and at no obligation to you. You can always turn them down if you’re not interested anyway, and filling out the form only takes 2 minutes.