Water Heater Failures – Not a Matter of If, But When

Matt HunterMost homeowners take their hot water heaters for granted as long as the hot water is flowing; they are often installed and forgotten. However, a hot water heater, just like any other plumbing and heating system within a home, requires proper maintenance. In fact, most water heater failures occur when the tank begins to rust and corrode, which can occur without any outward signs of a problem.

A study of homeowners’ insurance claims resulting from water heater failures conducted by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) found:

  • Water heater failures are one of the top five sources of residential water damage
  • 69% of all water heater failures result from a slow leak or a sudden burst
  • The rate of failure resulting in a water leak increases dramatically after the
    hot water heater reaches 5 years of age
  • The average age of a failed water heater is 10.7 years, and by the time a hot water heater reaches 12 years of age, nearly 3 in 4 have failed.

What can be done to reduce the risk? With proper maintenance, you can help minimize the chances you’ll be hit with a damaging leak, unanticipated repair bills and an unwanted cold shower. Here are some tips to help keep your hot water flowing without incident:

  • Conduct regular visual inspections of the water heater. Check for signs of corrosion around pipe connections or standing water at the base that may indicate that the hot water heater has reached its life expectancy.
  • Flush the tank annually to remove buildup of sediment within the tank. This is done by attaching a hose to the valve at the base of the water heater. In areas with hard water, more frequent flushing may be required. This procedure should be initiated when a water heater is new and should not be done on an older water heater that has never been drained.
  • Check your water heater’s age. The manufacturing date of a water heater can usually be determined by deciphering its rating plate. For example, the first photo shows a tank that was manufactured in the 17th week of 1998 – the first 4 digits of the serial number tell the year and week of manufacture. The second photo shows a tank that was manufactured in December 1991 (1291). If you are uncertain how to determine the age of your water heater from the rating plate, contact the manufacturer for guidance.

  • Consider replacing the tank as it reaches the end of its stated useful life, even if it is not yet leaking. Once a hot water heater has reached or exceeded its life expectancy, the risk of a slow leak or sudden burst increases dramatically. This proactive measure may save you from having to deal with an expensive and damaging leak.
  • Consider the location of the hot water heater. If the hot water heater is located above or adjacent to a living area, the potential for severe water damage to your property exists and a proactive maintenance and replacement schedule should be followed.
  • Have a certified plumber inspect your water heater annually; include all pipe connections, the anode rod and the shut-off valve.
  • Secure it. In areas that are prone to earthquakes, ensure that the water heater is properly secured with approved earthquake strapping.

Matt Hunter is Risk Consulting Service Leader for Chubb Personal Risk Services. He has 26 years of insurance experience in claims, risk management, and loss prevention.

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