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What To Do If Rusty Water Is Leaking From Your Water Heater

If you’ve noticed rusty water leaking from your water heater and want to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix the problem, I found myself in the same situation recently. And with the help of a few handy online guides, I successfully solved the rusty water leak with my own two hands!

If you see rusty water leaking from your water heater, you should act as soon as possible. You’ll want to shut off the power and the cold water supply and identify the site of the leak. Depending on where it is, you may have to tighten connections, adjust valves, or replace the water tank entirely.

In certain scenarios, it may be better to call professional services instead. Rusty or orange water leaking from water heater is typically a sign of rust, which may require further investigation of your system.

If you have a leak that’s currently worrying you, this article will cover:

  • the dangers of a leaking water heater
  • the cause of rusty water
  • the reasons a leak may happen
  • instructions for resolving a leak
  • advice on when to call a professional.

Let’s get into some details!

Is a Leaking Water Heater Dangerous?

One of the first questions that pops into your mind when you see dirty water leaking from water heater is likely, “Is this dangerous?” Simply put, yes. A leak from your water heater can cause water damage that spreads throughout your property, weakening its structural integrity or inviting other problems.

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Over time, water damage poses a risk to your health and your property’s safety. Aside from seeping into your foundation, it can also encourage mold and mildew growth. This can reduce your indoor air quality and lead to long-term health risks, especially in the case of toxic mold.

Other risks presented by a leaking water heater are:

  • Flooding risk – If left unaddressed, even a small leak can lead to significant amounts of water flooding the room that your heater is in. Not only will this lead to the effects of water damage mentioned earlier, but it may also require you to repair or replace the room’s flooring.
  • Scalding risk – Water heaters are designed to heat up water. Unlike a leak from other water pipes or fixtures, a leak from a water heater may be scalding hot. Even just two seconds of exposure to water at 150 degrees Fahrenheit will cause most adults third-degree burns. At 140 degrees, it takes six seconds. At 130 degrees, it takes thirty seconds. Be careful when working around a water heater leak to prevent injury to yourself or others in your household.
  • Fire risk – Sometimes, the problem may lie with your water heater’s gas valve, leading to a gas leak in addition to the water leak. This presents a serious fire hazard. If you notice the smell of gas, shut off the gas supply, exit your home, and call a professional.
  • Explosion risk – This is a very rare case, but if your dirty water leak is caused by a broken or faulty pressure relief valve, the pressure inside your heater may be building up. This presents a risk of explosion.

To avoid these risks, it’s best to carry out regular preventive maintenance. This reduces the chance of your water heater malfunctioning suddenly.

When a leak has already happened however, your priority is to identify and resolve its cause while being mindful of the risks.

Why Is the Water Rusty? What Is Causing This?

If the water coming from your water heater is rusty, then it’s a sure sign that rust has formed either on the heater’s surface, in the interior of the tank, or around the valves, inlets, or pipes.

If the water is cloudy, it can also indicate excessive mineral deposits in your tank.

Rust not only makes the water look and taste terrible but also signals that your water heater is now vulnerable to failure. The weakened metal can lead to leaks, ruptures, or floods. (This means it may even be the cause of the original leak you noticed.)

Rust inside your water tank is likely caused by the deterioration of the tank’s sacrificial anode rod. This rod extends through the interior of the tank and is made to attract minerals in the water, so it corrodes instead of the tank.

If you want to resolve a leak caused by rust, here are the steps you can take:

  1. Turn off the power to your water heater.
  2. Check the sacrificial anode rod to verify if it has completely deteriorated. You can do this by consulting your manufacturer’s manual, which will have instructions on where to locate your anode rod and how to retrieve it. Most can be accessed from the top of the tank.
  3. Some models will require you to drain the tank partially or completely to remove the rod. Since you should also inspect the interior for rust damage, it’s best to drain it completely. Consult your manual for the proper draining process.
  4. Wear work gloves to protect your hands before removing the rod, as the metal may still be hot. Use a wrench to remove the rod. Expect some resistance before it gets freed, but exercise caution.
  5. You can check the state of your anode rod and your tank with a visual inspection. If the damage to the inside of your tank is minimal, you can simply replace the rod. If you replace your rod regularly (recommended schedule is every four to five years, less if you have a large family and use more hot water), you should be able to keep using the heater with no problems. Once you’ve installed a new anode, you can restart your water heater according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  6. If the damage to the inside of your tank is too significant (e.g. caused cracks in the bottom of your tank), you have no choice but to replace the tank entirely. Significant rust on valves and inlets may also require a full replacement.

Reasons Why Your Water Heater May Be Leaking

Aside from rust inside your water heater, there are other reasons why your water heater may be leaking. Here are some other common scenarios:

Leak at the Top of the Heater

Leaks at the top of the heater usually involve the pipes and are often the easiest to resolve. Check the two pipes on the top of your heater (the hot water outlet and cold water inlet pipes) to determine if there are any loose connections or fittings. All you need to do is tighten it back up with a pipe wrench.

Leak at the Side or Bottom of the Heater

A leak from the side may be from your temperature and pressure relief valve (T&P valve), which is meant to protect the system from excessive water pressure buildup. To address a leak from this valve, check if the temperature isn’t set too high.

Ideally, it should be around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Department of Energy. If the leak continues even after this, you may need to call a professional to replace the valve.

A leak from the bottom of the heater may be from your drain valve, which is used for the maintenance of your heater. Check to see if your drain valve is completely closed. If it’s leaking even while closed, you can use a pipe wrench to tighten it slightly. Exercise caution, as over-tightening can lead to the leak getting worse. If it still continues to drip, you may need a replacement.

Leak at the Base of the Heater

Water pooling at the base of your tank is usually due to cracks in the tank itself. You will need to replace the water heater.

When To Call a Professional vs When To Fix It Yourself?

Some repairs are simple enough that you can accomplish them yourself, such as tightening a connection or a valve. All you need is a wrench and some caution.

Replacing a corroded anode rod is a bit more complicated, but you should be able to accomplish it as long as you pay close attention to the manufacturer’s instructions.

However, when it comes to issues like:

  • a gas leak
  • a faulty T&P valve
  • a complete  water heater replacement

Or something else that is pretty significant, it’s best to leave it up to the professionals. Trying to solve these problems by yourself is too risky. You’re jeopardizing your safety and the longevity of your water heater. Professionals come equipped with the experience and tools to accurately diagnose the problem and take the right steps to fix up your water heater.