Not Funny: Side-Splitting Water Heaters & What to Do About ‘Em


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Given how much we all depend on water heaters for our daily schedules going smoothly, it surprises me how folks neglect water heater maintenance, even when they’re seeing warning signs. 

A friend’s water heater conked recently, right in the midst of his family reunion. The kicker? He could’ve had it replaced a fortnight earlier, and saved himself some grief. It turns out that he’d spotted a small rupture on his water heater that bled water when he pressed on it. He told himself that he’d get around to it on the weekend and then forgot about it.

A cracked water heater requires immediate attention, and replacement is recommended. A water heater’s outer wall is a thin, metal jacket that may crack or rupture owing to corrosion, as excessive moisture builds up in the foam padding within, usually from leaky plumbing or a ruptured storage tank.

If you’re wondering, “Is a cracked water heater a big deal?”, or asking, “Can it be fixed?”, or even trying to figure out, “How can I do some damage control on my wallet?!”, this post will answer all your questions, and more.

Spotting a Cracked or Ruptured Water Heater

You might think that if a crack or a rupture, especially a big one, developed on your water heater’s outer wall, you’d obviously notice it. Well, think again. There are multiple reasons why a ruptured water heater might go unnoticed, including, but not limited to:

  • Water heaters are often installed in closets, basements or crawl spaces that nobody inspects regularly.
  • Even where water heaters are in areas that are frequented, the corner in which the water heater sits might be poorly lit, making it difficult to spot damage.
  • Water heaters are typically installed close to a wall, and might be further stabilized by earthquake straps. This means that almost two-thirds of the water heater’s outer wall could be hidden from view, where a crack or rupture couldn’t be seen easily.

Elec-WaterHeater-Cracked_Lochinvar-50gal.png

For instance, the ruptured seam on the nine year-old, 50-gallon electric water heater in the pictured above was out of sight, against the basement wall. The only clue that there might be a crack in the water heater’s outer wall came from a suspicious bulge in its side. On inspection, the bulge proved to lead up to a huge crack in the rear, where the seam should’ve been.

So, the only really safe bet to ensure that you detect any cracks or ruptures is to:

  1. Inspect the unit regularly, at least once every 6 months, and
  2. Be sure to get a look at the rear outer wall of the unit that might not be easily visible.

Tip: Shine a flashlight down the back of your water heater, while sliding a mirror into the gap between the water heater and the wall, to enable you to see what’s back there.

Can a Cracked or Ruptured Water Heater be Fixed?

For most practical purposes, the answer to this question is ‘no’. Here’s why:

  • As stated earlier, the crack or rupture is the result of corrosion, eating away at the water heater’s outer jacket from within.
  • For corrosion to build up to the point where the outer wall cracks, it typically takes a large amount of water leaking into the foam padding around the storage tank.
  • The source of the water leakage is usually difficult to pinpoint. One or more of the plumbing connections at the top of the water heater might have a leak – the cold water inlet, the hot water outlet, or the pressure relief valve (PRV).
  • Even if you identify a leak (or two, or three) at the top of the unit by inspecting for rust and moisture, that wouldn’t rule out the existence of a rupture on the storage tank within.
  • Suppose, for argument’s sake, you figured out that the inner storage tank had no leak at all. (Fill the tank up, then measure the exact quantity of water as you drain it. If Input Quantity = Output Quantity, then there’s no leak.) Even so, you’d have to dry out the foam padding or replace it entirely to stop further corrosion.
  • And finally, of course, you’d need to fix the crack in the outer wall itself, or the water heater’s insulation would be compromised. 

Of course, all of this hasn’t stopped people from trying to fix a cracked water heater outer wall. I heard about a guy who welded a crack in his water heater using an MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welder. But unless you’ve had considerable experience with welding and soldering, I wouldn’t recommend trying to take on such a project yourself. 

(For example, in the case I mentioned above, the guy used an MIG welder for a good reason: A regular oxy-acetylene torch flame attains much higher temperatures than an MIG welder. If used on a water heater outer wall, it could melt through the thin sheet metal and potentially cause serious damage to the water heater.) 

Also, bear in mind that a licensed welding and soldering service will typically not accept a job for welding a water heater because of the safety risks involved in using a water heater that’s been welded back together.

What to Do if My Water Heater Cracks

As you can see, trying to fix a cracked or ruptured water heater is likely to be far too time- and effort-intensive. In the end, you’re unlikely to have the assurance that you’re using a safe product, anyway!

Your best bet would be to have the unit replaced. Here are a few points to keep in mind before you swing into action:

  • As you know, most water heaters come with a warranty. Some, like the Rheem Marathon, even carry a lifetime warranty. So, unless your water heater’s so old that it’s no longer covered by the warranty it came with, the cost of your new water heater is likely to be borne by the supplier.
  • Regardless of the warranty status of your broken water heater, a supplier will usually charge you for the labor involved in installing the new unit. Most suppliers will ask you to arrange for the disposal of the old one yourself – and this could cost quite a bit.
  • One way of bringing costs down while having a water heater replaced is to reduce the on-site time spent by the professionals. Otherwise, you could end up being charged for the extra hour the plumber spends at your place, while waiting for the water heater to drain!

To get the water heater ready for the plumber to take away, you could:

  • Make sure to drain the water heater and have it ready for the professional plumber to cart away. Read more on how to do this in this handy post.
  • Disconnect the power supply if yours is an electric water heater. See how to do that in this post.
  • If your water heater is gas-powered, turn off the gas supply and drain the water heater before the plumber gets there. Watch the video in the link below to see how to do this.

Now you’re all ready to have your cracked water heater replaced. Hopefully that gets you out of the figurative hot water and back into the literal hot water.

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Joonas

I like it when I'm able to fix everything that needs fixing around the house. In order to do that, I have to do a lot of research. This site will cover everything I learn and maybe help others do the same.

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