How do I know I have a broken water heater?

water heater in a modern bathroom

Got any hot water?

One of the best ways to know you have a broken water heater is get in the shower one morning and to find there is absolutely no hot water. But that could also happen if somebody used all the hot water up with their shower, or doing laundry, or even running the dishwasher. So that leaves you asking, “How do I know my water heater is broken then?”

Signs to Watch Out For

Every appliance has a limited lifetime these days, including water heaters. Fortunately, if you pay attention, there are indicators that a broken water heater is your future before it breaks. There are some situations in which repairs can be made and other times, you’ll need to replace the unit. An experienced plumber can inspect your water heater and advise you on which scenario you’re facing. But take note of three common indicators you possibly have a broken water heater on your hands. 

Visible Corrosion

Water heater tanks are typically made from steel, and steel is susceptible to corrosion and rust. When you start seeing rust flakes coming from the faucets, corrosion, and rust around the PRV (pressure release valve) and connections, it is time to replace your water heater. 

Lukewarm Water

A water heater that has a malfunctioning heating element or thermostat might only give you lukewarm water. This will usually happen over a gradual period of time, so you can have a plumber inspect the unit if it seems to be headed in that direction. Replacing the dip tube may fix it, but chances are, you have a broken water heater and need to replace it. 

Leaking Heaters

There are times that, unfortunately, a water heater will simply quit, and all the water will leak from the tank. Hopefully, your water heater is in the garage where it won’t make a big mess or cause a lot of damage. Regardless of where your water heater is, when this happens, you definitely have a broken water heater. 

What are the signs your water heater is going out?

In addition to the things we mentioned above, like the water coming out brownish or reddish, the water not getting very hot and staying hot, and water leaking from the tank or PRV (pressure release valve), there are some indicators that you should replace your water heater. Take note of these factors.

The Age

A quality water heater in an area with good water and one that’s has the recommended maintenance performed (flushing the tank) can give you 20 years. However, most water heaters will begin showing their age at 10 to 12 years. The serial number on the tank will tell you when the water heater was manufactured if you aren’t sure how old the unit is. 

Strange Sounds

A water heater that is popping or rumbling is telling you that it is on its way to becoming a broken water heater. The older water heaters get, the noisier they get from the build-up of minerals and sediment inside the tank. As these build up, they become thicker and harder, and the water heater takes more energy to heat the water. The unit will be less efficient and the components inside the tank and connected to the tanks wear out. 

Expensive Repairs

A regular water heater tune-up isn’t that expensive. It will usually include flushing the tank and checking that all the connections are tight. If your water heater needs repairs as it ages, you need to consider the cost of the repairs and its age versus the cost of replacing the unit. 

Do you know what to do when a water heater breaks?

It is the worst-case scenario for a homeowner – Walking into the garage early one morning and finding the floor underwater. Yup, you have a broken water heater. So what do you do? 

  • Stop the Flow of Water – Find the cold water supply pipe, which comes from the main water line and to the top of the water heater. If the water heater is working, the water will turn off at this point because the tank is full. However, in this scenario, with a broken water heater, the water is flowing out of the tank, so this cold water line is still filling the tank with more water. Turn this connection off to stop the flow of water.
  • Turn Off the Power – If you have a broken water heater that keeps running, it will burn the heating element up, and possibly cause the tank to catch on fire, and in the worst possible cases even explode. Flip the breaker off to the water heater if it is electric and for a gas water heater, turn the gas off at the water heater. 
  • Cleanup – For anything that isn’t damaged, remove it from the area to prevent it from getting damaged. Take pictures and make notes of everything that is damaged. Then with a shop vac (wet/dry vacuum), clean up any standing water. If you have a humidifier, let it run in the area where the water heater is located to minimize any mildew or mold growth. 
  • File an Insurance Claim – Contact your homeowner’s insurance agent and file a claim even if you don’t feel there is any loss. An expert team of restoration specialists will inspect the area and situation and determine what, if any, damage is present. Keep the old water heater for their inspection as well even if you have replaced it with a new one. 

Is a broken water heater an emergency?

Just like any broken appliance, a broken water heater can be an emergency with various risks, mainly water damage. If you find yourself standing in water that’s ankle-deep, that water is soaking into the floor, creating an environment perfect for mildew and mold growth. This does become an emergency service at that point to prevent the growth that can be hazardous to your health. While it is a rarity, a broken water heater can be deadly if the tank builds up the pressure inside and the PRV malfunctions.

Why did my water heater burst?

When a water heater has any excess pressure in the tank, it can cause the unit to explode. Three possible causes are a bad anode rod, excessive sediment buildup, or a gas leak. 

Can a broken water heater cause a high electric bill?

Yes – at the most, a water heater may last fifteen years. Each year it gets older, the efficiency declines, and that can cause the energy bill to increase. Another issue that can cause the energy bill to increase is a water heater that is the wrong size. The sizes recommended for water heaters are: 

  • 1 to 2 people – 30-gallon tank 
  • 3 to 4 people – 40-gallon tank 
  • 4 to 5 people – 50-gallon tank 

One of the most common causes for the water heater to increase your energy bills is the temperature. When set too high, it will reflect on your energy bills. The Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) suggests a setting of 120ºF to be sufficient for most households. 

Can a broken water heater cause carbon monoxide?

Yes, and so can a working water heater. An improperly installed water heater will cause a carbon monoxide leak and so will blocked vents. In either case, whether you have a perfectly working or broken water heater, this can leak carbon monoxide poisoning. 

view of water heater in a basement

Wrapping Things Up – How much does it cost to fix a broken water heater?

As with anything, it will depend on the make, model, what is wrong, and if any parts need to be replaced. The national average for repairing a broken water heater is around $500. Some can cost up to $800, though at that point, replacing it would be the better choice. If you’re looking for help with water heater repair, reach out to our team at (817) 475-2800.