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Make sure your water heater is safe

One home appliance that seldom gets much attention is the water heater. However, neglecting the appliance that we depend on to turn cold water into hot can cause serious havoc.

You may only notice issues with this appliance at the prospect of a cold shower, but a water heater that’s improperly installed or maintained could cause much more serious consequences than that.

Once it blows, it could blast off like a missile with enough force to lift your house off its foundation. Or, you could be sitting on the couch binge watching Netflix when suddenly it bursts and your ceiling caves in (depending on its location) and you have an instant flood and massive mess on your hands.

A water heater could explode or malfunction for the following reasons:

  1. Sediment buildup in the tank
  2. Rust corroding the tank
  3. Too much internal pressure

How will you know if your heater suffers from one of these maladies?

If your water heater makes a popping or knocking noise, there could be water trapped under the sediment. It is like when you boil water and it puts pressure on the lid from the inside out. To prevent this from happening, flush and drain your water heater tank once every year.

If your tap water is a brown, rusty color, you may have rust in the water tank. Although water heaters have something called an anode rod to prevent this, it can deteriorate over time. Be sure to inspect the rod every two years and at least annually once your warranty has expired. The rod itself should be replaced every four to five years; sooner if you have a water softener.

If your water heater’s temperature and pressure relief valve (aka T&P) keeps opening to release water or it leaks (a sign that your valve is bad), you could have a potential bomb-projectile combo on your hands. To help prevent too much pressure in your tank:

  1. Set the temperature at 120 to 125 degrees. Setting it too high (140+ degrees) causes pressure to build in the tank. (Additional benefit: this will help lower your energy bill.)
  2. Test your T&P twice a year (or have it tested by a professional) to make sure it is working properly. You can find the valve on the top or side of your tank (be careful—the water will be extremely hot; it is not like the sink or shower when you wait for hot water to make its way through the pipes).

For additional information, consult a qualified service technician. For more information about electrical safety, visit SafeElectricity.org.

Simple safety steps for your water heater

After you’ve checked your water heater for sediment, rust and pressure, follow these other simple safety steps:

  • Remove paper, accumulated dust or other combustibles from around the heater.
  • Extinguish the pilot light before using flammable liquids or setting off aerosol bug bombs near the unit. Never store combustibles nearby.
  • If the device is in the garage, raise it so the pilot light is 18 inches above the floor. This can help prevent floor-level gasoline vapors from igniting.
  • Inspect the flue for breaks or gaps that could leak deadly exhaust gas. (This is a good practice to do on other gas appliances too.)
  • Consider installing an automatic gas-shutoff valve (or consider getting one installed) that stops the flow of gas if the ground moves or if gas flow increases dramatically. The valve, which costs around $300, prevents fires when a gas line breaks due to flood, earthquake or other disaster.
  • Install carbon monoxide detectors as close to a gas water heater as possible and within 15 feet of all bedrooms; change batteries per manufacturer’s directions.
  • Some jurisdictions require expansion tanks installed on the cold-water line to allow for thermal expansion; check your local requirements and the manufacturer’s specifications for more information.