How to Improve Water Heater Safety at Home

Have you ever thought that your water heater, operating for so many years in the basement of your house, could be dangerous, even if it was professionally installed?

While water heaters are mostly safe and reliable, what happens if something goes wrong, the unit is not installed properly, maintained, or serviced?

Water heater safety is the first thing, before installing and repairing
photo: pixabay

Here’s why you should care about your water heater safety.

One of the most overlooked dangers we have at home is the use of water heaters. We tend to think that these devices are safe and entirely beneficial, when in reality, they might come with a few drawbacks that make them dangerous.

While having access to hot water is undoubtedly convenient, failing to understand the potential consequences of neglecting proper maintenance can put us in a dangerous situation.

That’s why we are here to help you understand more about water heaters, how to avoid common hazards, and why regular maintenance is vital.

In the following sections, we will delve into the importance of water heater safety and provide practical tips on how to enhance it. By becoming knowledgeable about these matters, you can take proactive steps to ensure the well-being of yourself and your loved ones in relation to your water heater.

How to Improve Water Heater Safety at Home: Common Dangers

Water heaters are designed to efficiently heat water and provide hot or warm water for various purposes, including showers, washing machines, and hot water taps. These heating devices operate using either gas or electric power to heat the water.

However, the chemistry of water can lead to significant wear and tear on the components of the water heater over time. If left unaddressed, this deterioration can escalate into highly dangerous accidents and long-term problems, including contamination, bulging, rupture, and even explosion.

Here are some common issues that you may encounter with water heaters:

Carbon Monoxide Danger

Gas-powered water heaters, similar to vehicles, continuously produce carbon monoxide (CO). However, the production of CO is typically low and not considered dangerous, especially when the unit’s vents are functioning correctly. Nevertheless, there are instances where the vents of the water heater may not be working properly, leading to an increased release of CO into the home environment, posing health risks to its occupants.

Toxic CO can cause severe poisoning, leading to symptoms such as vomiting, confusion, headaches, nausea, dizziness, weakness, and in extreme cases, it can be life-threatening. Improper operation and maintenance of water heaters, particularly those located in bathrooms and living spaces, can result in the release of this harmful gas. The danger lies in the fact that CO is a silent killer, with symptoms that may go unnoticed until it is too late.

If your water heater is emitting carbon monoxide, it is crucial to address the issue promptly and before a dangerous level of CO is released. Installing a carbon monoxide alarm is essential for detecting any presence of this gas in your home. This early warning system can alert you to potential CO leaks, allowing you to take immediate action and ensure the safety of yourself and your household.

Bacterial Contamination

Water heaters are often a vast depository of bacteria as well, especially if not properly maintained, cleaned, and kept at the recommended temperature. Especially those that have tanks, warm and humid places are perfect for bacteria to develop and flourish. This bacteria-rich water is eventually delivered in showers and sinks, having direct contact with people and possibly infecting them with dangerous contaminants. 

One example of a common water contaminant is Legionella, which can lead to pneumonia. Research has shown that lower tank temperatures can promote the growth of this bacteria, further emphasizing the importance of temperature regulation.

To address this issue, it is crucial to maintain the hot water temperature within the recommended range, typically advised by the manufacturer, which is typically between 125°F and 140°F (52°C and 60°C). By keeping the temperature within this range, you can effectively inhibit the growth and proliferation of harmful bacteria, ensuring safer hot water delivery throughout your home.

Flashback Fire

The primary issue arises when flammable products, including paints, gasoline cans, paper, dust, clothes, and other combustible materials, are stored in close proximity to a water heater. The vapors emitted by these flammable substances can ignite if they come into contact with the combustion chamber, leading to a potential fire hazard.

In the United States alone, flashback fires related to water heaters are a prevalent problem, with approximately 800 cases reported in residential homes each year. These incidents result in an average of 130 people sustaining injuries and up to 5 fatalities annually, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

One effective solution to mitigate the risk of such fires is to invest in a gas water heater equipped with the Flammable Vapor Ignition Resistant (FVIR) system. This system is specifically designed to prevent the combustion of vapors outside the combustion chamber. By incorporating FVIR technology into the water heater, the potential for ignition and subsequent fire caused by flammable vapors is significantly reduced.

The Risk of Explosion

A water heater explosion happens for two reasons: the device is too old, and its bottom is not sealed, so it doesn’t maintain heat and gasses inside, or it simply has pressure problems which produce an explosion when the device cannot hold the pressure inside anymore.

These incidents are not uncommon, particularly when pressure problems arise in devices lacking a functioning T&P valve (temperature and pressure relief valve). The T&P valve plays a critical role in releasing excess pressure, thereby preventing catastrophic failures.

However, it is important to note that broken thermostats can also contribute to water heater explosions. When thermostats malfunction, they can cause temperature instability, resulting in extreme values that put the water heater under excessive strain.

Tips to Improve Water Heater Safety

For the unit’s safety, it is crucial maintaining the device correctly. Here are a few tips that will help you do just that:

Know Your Device

Learning about the different parts that compose a water heating appliance and how to maintain each will help you avoid dangerous situations.

Copper piping: Used to transport gas from the gas meter to the water heater. They should be exempt from leaks and physical harm.

Dip tube: Distributes cold water into the tank. Not as dangerous as other parts, but it could make the device malfunction if broken.

Anode rod: It protects the tank from corrosion. It should never be taken out, even if the water is smelly.

Thermostat: A little device that is part of the gas control valve, which controls the hot water temperature inside the tank. It is essential to it check regularly and that it is working correctly.

Drain valve: Helps to flush the tank from impurities and sediments that stay on the bottom. It is an essential part of maintaining the tank clean and in working condition.

T&P valve: Stabilizes the heater regarding temperature and pressure. Professionals recommend testing the valve regularly to make sure it works correctly, so it opens when needed. 

Discharge tube: Maintains scalding water inside the device when pressure or temperature is too high.

Common Safety Features

Common safety features are essential components of water heaters designed to enhance user protection and prevent accidents. These features are incorporated into water heater designs to mitigate risks and ensure proper operation. Here are some common safety features found in modern water heaters:

  • Temperature and pressure relief valve (TPR valve): This valve is a crucial safety device that automatically releases excess pressure and temperature inside the water heater. If the temperature or pressure inside the tank reaches unsafe levels, the TPR valve opens to relieve the pressure and prevent the tank from exploding.
  • Sacrificial anode rod: Water heaters contain a sacrificial anode rod made of a more reactive metal, such as magnesium or aluminum. This rod attracts corrosive elements in the water, sacrificing itself and preventing the tank from corroding. Regular inspection and replacement of the anode rod can extend the life of the water heater and prevent leaks.
  • Thermal cutoff switch: This feature is typically found in electric water heaters. It automatically shuts off power to the heating elements if the water temperature exceeds a certain limit, preventing overheating and potential damage.
  • Flame arrestor: Gas-powered water heaters are equipped with a flame arrestor, a metal plate or mesh located near the burner or pilot light. It prevents the ignition of flammable vapors outside the combustion chamber, reducing the risk of fires.
  • Combustion air intake: Gas water heaters require an adequate supply of combustion air for proper combustion. They are designed with dedicated air intake openings or vents to ensure sufficient airflow, preventing the buildup of dangerous gases and maintaining correct operation.
  • Overheat protection: Water heaters may incorporate overheat protection mechanisms that monitor the temperature of the water and shut off the heating elements or gas burner if an unsafe temperature is detected. This feature helps prevent damage to the tank and reduces the risk of fires.
  • Self-cleaning system: Some water heaters feature a self-cleaning mechanism to reduce sediment buildup inside the tank. This helps maintain the efficiency and performance of the water heater while minimizing the risk of corrosion or clogging.
  • Flammable Vapor Ignition Resistant (FVIR) Technology: FVIR is a safety feature designed to prevent the ignition of flammable vapors outside the water heater. It incorporates an air intake system and special components to redirect any potential flames back into the combustion chamber, reducing the risk of fires caused by flammable vapors.
  • Gas control valve: Gas water heaters are equipped with a gas control valve that regulates the flow of natural gas or propane to the burner. These valves include safety features such as a pilot light and a thermocouple or flame sensor, which ensure that the gas supply is shut off if the pilot light goes out or if a flame is not detected.

Perform Regular Maintenance and Inspection

Regular maintenance and inspections are crucial aspects of water heater safety. By scheduling routine maintenance and conducting regular inspections, you can identify potential issues early on, prevent malfunctions, and ensure the optimal performance of your water heater.

During maintenance, it is important to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and recommendations. This may involve tasks such as flushing the tank to remove sediment buildup, checking and replacing the sacrificial anode rod, inspecting the pressure relief valve, and examining the overall condition of the tank and components. By addressing these maintenance tasks, you can prevent corrosion, leaks, and other issues that may compromise the safety and functionality of the water heater.

Regular inspections allow you to visually assess the condition of the water heater and identify any signs of damage or deterioration. Look for any rust, corrosion, leaks, or unusual noises. Pay attention to the performance of the water heater, such as water temperature fluctuations or decreased hot water supply.

If you are familiar with how water heaters work and have experience in plumbing, you can do the maintenance yourself to make sure the device is operating efficiently and complies with all the safety measures. If you are not familiar with these devices, let a professional plumber do it for you.

Let Professionals Handle It

If you sense that the device needs reparation, there is nothing safer than leaving a professional handle it. When installing a water heater, the right choice is always as suggested by the manufacturer. Bad installations and reparations done wrong may cause many problems, including the ones we mentioned earlier, such as explosions and contamination.

Maintain the Right Temperature

To avoid scalding burns, bacterial growth, and even explosions, ensuring the proper temperature in your water heater is crucial. Professionals and manufacturers recommend setting the temperature no lower than 125°F (51°C) to prevent bacteria growth and avoiding temperatures above 140°F (60°C) to prevent scalding and burns. Higher temperatures can also lead to device malfunctions.

Additionally, installing anti-scald devices, such as temperature-limiting valves or thermostatic mixing valves, at points of use such as faucets, showers, and tubs is highly recommended. These devices help regulate the water temperature and prevent sudden surges of hot water that can cause scalding injuries.

Insulate a Water Heater

There are insulation kits on the market that you can use to maintain your water heater safe. These kits also avoid any filtering of scalding water, diminish the risk of fires and explosions, and keep your device a lot cooler, which makes it last longer and function more efficiently. Insulation kits, however, should always be installed by professionals.

There is nothing more important than using a water heater – safe and making sure to comply with the safety requirements. Follow our advice and start enjoying your hot water without worrying.

Ventilation and Combustion Safety

Proper ventilation and combustion safety are vital aspects of water heater safety that should not be overlooked. Gas-powered water heaters require adequate airflow for efficient combustion and to prevent the buildup of dangerous gases, such as carbon monoxide. Additionally, ensuring proper ventilation reduces the risk of overheating and potential fires.

To ensure ventilation and combustion safety, it is important to install the water heater in a well-ventilated area, following local building codes and manufacturer’s instructions. This includes maintaining clear access to air vents, flue pipes, and exhaust outlets.

Regular inspections should be conducted to identify any signs of damage or blockages in the ventilation system, flue pipes, or exhaust outlets. Any rust, corrosion, or loose connections should be addressed promptly.

Additionally, it is essential to keep the area around the water heater clear of flammable materials and to install a carbon monoxide detector near the appliance.

By taking these measures, you can minimize the risk of gas accumulation, fires, and exposure to harmful gases, ensuring a safer environment for you and your family.

Emergency Preparedness

Emergency preparedness is a vital aspect of water heater safety as it ensures that you and your household members are well-prepared to handle unexpected situations effectively. By being proactive and knowledgeable about emergency procedures, you can mitigate potential risks and safeguard the well-being of everyone in your home.

Key aspects of emergency preparedness include:

  • Knowing the location of shut-off valves for water and gas connected to the water heater.
  • Learning how to safely turn off the water heater during emergencies.
  • Installing smoke detectors near the water heater and keeping a fire extinguisher accessible.
  • Creating an emergency plan with procedures for water heater-related issues.

By following these measures, you can enhance your ability to respond to water heater emergencies and protect your household from potential hazards.


By implementing these measures to improve water heater safety at home, you can significantly reduce the risk of accidents and create a secure environment for yourself and your loved ones. Remember, safety should always be a top priority when it comes to operating and maintaining water heaters. By following these guidelines and staying vigilant, you can enjoy the comfort and convenience of hot water without compromising your well-being.

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