Water Heater Failure Signs, Causes, and Solutions

Water heater failure signs can be easy to overlook, but it’s important to be aware of them in order to prevent a potential disaster. A water heater is a crucial appliance that provides hot water for your home, but when it starts to break, it can lead to leaks, floods, and even fire hazards. Being able to identify the warning signs of a failing water heater can help you take action before it’s too late.

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Some of the most common causes of water heater failure include thermal expansion, an undersized tank, sediment buildup, and a deteriorated anode rod. Each of these factors can contribute to reduced efficiency, leaks, or even complete system failure. By learning how to recognize these warning signs, you can take steps to extend the lifespan of your water heater and avoid unpleasant surprises, such as cold showers or water damage.

Signs of Water Heater Failure

It is important to know that identifying early signs of water heater failure can help you avoid a broken heater, damages, expensive replacements, and repairs.

So, what are the first signs of a water heater going bad?

If you are wondering whether water heaters are repairable, the answer is yes, but it’s important to take action quickly when you notice the first signs of failure. Some problems can be easily fixed, while others require more time, knowledge, proper skills, and the right tools.

However, for correct, fast, and safe repair of a broken water heater, it’s recommended to contact a professional plumber.

Water Heater Noise

When your water heater is functioning properly, it’s normal to hear sounds such as humming. However, some noises may indicate that something is wrong.

Noises like hissing, ticking, rumbling, and similar are often annoying, but they can also be indicators of a serious problem that requires investigation.

For example, popping and crackling sounds are often caused by sediment build-up, while a pounding noise can be caused by water hammer, and sizzling noises may be due to condensation. You can find more information about various water heating noises and repair tips in this article.

By identifying the source of the noise and taking action promptly, you can avoid further damage to your water heater and prevent costly repairs or replacements. So, don’t ignore strange sounds coming from your water heater – we have an article to help you diagnose and fix the noise issue.

Discolored and Rusty Water

Discolored and rusty water is often a sign of corrosion, sediment buildup, and deteriorated sacrificial anode rods in your water heater. Over time, the anode rod can become depleted to the point where it’s no longer effective in preventing corrosion. As a result, metal parts of the tank can begin to corrode, causing the water to appear brown or muddy-looking.

If you notice discolored water coming from your faucet, it’s important to take action to prevent further damage to your water heater. Sediment deposits and corroded parts can lead to leaks, reduced efficiency, and even complete system failure.

To avoid these problems, it’s recommended to regularly inspect your water heater and replace the anode rod as needed. This can help extend the lifespan of your water heater and prevent costly repairs or replacements.

Rotten Egg Smell

A common problem associated with poor anode rod performance is a sulfur or rotten eff smell coming from your water heater. If you notice this unpleasant odor, it’s possible that your anode rod is failing.

The anode rod plays a crucial role in preventing corrosion in your water heater by attracting the corrosive elements in the water. However, when the anode rod becomes depleted, it can no longer effectively neutralize these elements, resulting in a buildup of bacteria that produces the unpleasant sulfur smell.

If you suspect that your anode rod is failing and causing the sulfur smell, it’s important to replace it as soon as possible to avoid further damage to your water heater. Additionally, regular maintenance and inspection of your water heater can help prevent these issues from occurring in the first place.

Water Heater Leaking

Whether your water heater is showing signs of a minor leak, such as dripping from the valve, or there’s a significant puddle of water on the floor, it’s crucial to identify the cause and fix the problem as soon as possible. Leaking water from your unit is a clear indication that something is wrong, and ignoring it can lead to further damage and potentially hazardous situations.

Common causes of water heater leaks include a corroded tank, a faulty temperature and pressure relief valve, or a loose drain valve. If left unaddressed, leaks can lead to serious damage to your home, including water damage to floors, walls, and other structural components.

Significantly Reduced Energy Efficiency or Performance

If you notice a significant increase in your energy bill, hot water running out quickly, or water not getting hot enough, it’s time to check the elements of your water heater, such as the dip tube, thermostat, and heating elements, and replace them if necessary.

Alternatively, your water heater may need draining and flushing to remove mineral deposits that have accumulated inside the tank. Mineral buildup can reduce the amount of available hot water or cover the heating elements, making it difficult to transfer heat to the water.

Frequent Problems

There are many signs of hot water heater failure, some more obvious than others. While most of these problems can be fixed, there may come a time when the issues become too frequent or severe. At this point, it may be necessary to consider replacing the water heater altogether.

If you find yourself dealing with frequent headaches and repairs with your water heater, it’s time to evaluate whether it’s worth continuing to fix or if a replacement is a more cost-effective solution in the long run. A professional plumber can help assess the situation and provide recommendations on whether repair or replacement is the best option for your specific needs.

Water Heater Is Old

Typically, water heaters with a storage tank last around 10-15 years, while tankless water heaters can last even longer. However, as they approach the end of their lifespan, they may begin to lose functionality, performance, and efficiency, resulting in less hot water and higher operating costs.

It’s important to be aware of the signs that your water heater is approaching failure in order to plan for a replacement. Upgrading to a new, high-efficiency water heater can ensure reliable hot water delivery and help save you money on energy costs in the long run.

Common Causes of Premature Water Heater Failure

We all enjoy long hot showers at the end of a long day, and we often take them for granted, assuming that our water heaters will never fail us. Unfortunately, water heaters can stop heating suddenly, and for various reasons. Here are some of the most critical reasons:

  • Thermal expansion
  • Improper water heater sizing
  • Bad cathodic protection of the tank and other elements
  • Heavy mineral deposits 

Water Heater Fails Due to Thermal Expansion

Thermal expansion occurs when the water temperature inside the water heating system rises, causing the water to expand and increase in volume. If the pressure and temperature inside the water heater tank become too high, it can cause the TPR valve to leak, bulging heater, and other deformations.

Water tank heaters are designed to withstand an internal pressure of up to 300 psi. However, if the pressure exceeds this value, the tank can bulge, its elements (such as nipples, flue tube) can become deformed, or the welds and joints can rupture.

To prevent extremely high thermal expansion, it is essential to install a correctly sized expansion tank to maintain constant and safe water pressure. These small expansion vessels are mandatory for heaters installed in closed systems. If you don’t install one, the manufacturer may void the warranty.

To avoid failure, make sure that the supply water pressure does not exceed 60 psi. If it does, it’s recommended to install a pressure reducing valve.

Undersized Water Heater Can Cause Problems

Improperly sizing a water heater is typically the primary cause of heavy condensation and rusting, leading to premature heater failure.

Condensation is normal, heavy condensation is not. Extensive condensation and acidic condensate dripping on the burner and other elements can cause corrosion, create leaks, affect performance, and shorten the unit’s life.

The fix for this problem is to properly size the unit, including the right storage capacity and recovery rate. Refer to this guide to learn how properly to size a water heater properly.

Cathodic Protection Failing

Every water tank heater, whether gas-powered or electric, is equipped with an anode rod. The anode is used to protect the metal tank from aggressive water heater conditions or corrosive action.

The current derived from this rod makes the inner metal tank surface cathodic, thereby protecting it from the chemical reaction with water ions and rusting.

If the rod is depleted or removed, the steel tank won’t have such protection (actually only the glass lining), and it will eventually corrode.

Regular maintenance, including visual inspection, cleaning, and replacement, is recommended to ensure the proper functioning of the anode rod and to prolong the life of your water heater.

Hot Water Heater Failure Due to Mineral Buildup

Hard water, which is prevalent in almost any region, can cause heavy mineral deposits, sediment, or limescale buildup on a water heater’s components.

While water softeners are often recommended to deal with such a problem, it’s important to consider their detrimental effect on anode rods. Rapid anode consumption means that the rod should be inspected more often.

Limescale and mineral deposits on the heater’s components and bottom can clog narrow water passages, reducing heat transfer and efficiency.

Instead of using water softeners, it’s recommended to perform regular deliming and flushing procedures to remove mineral buildup and prevent water heater failure.

Should I Replace My Water Heater Before It Fails?

It is important to know that the life expectancy of a water tank heater is between 10 and 15 years, depending on the unit’s design, element quality, water quality, installation, and usage. Additionally, note that the standard warranty is 6 years, while better-built models offer 12 years.

So, when is the right time to replace a water heater?

Should you replace it before it fails, or wait until it dies?

If your water heater is over 10 years old and showing signs of age, such as rusty water, reduced performance, low efficiency, higher energy bills, or leaks, it is better to replace it to prevent property damage. Plus, you will have enough time to get familiar with other, even better options, such as installing a tankless.

If you wait until the unit dies, you might end up without hot water for days or until your plumber comes. Or, even worse, you could end up with severe water damage and health risk due to mold and mildew growth.

Dealing With Hot Water Heater Failure

So, if your water heater gives you only cold water, not enough hot water, makes a strange noise, water is discolored, or has a weird taste and smell, it might be failing. Or it is just nearing the end of its life and needs some care.

As there are many reasons for premature water heater failure, you should not ignore signs of a unit going out. More is to be found in this troubleshooting guide.

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