If you know a lot about water heaters, stop reading. If you're like us -- water heater quasi-dummies, especially when it comes to leaks -- read on.
Yesterday we spent $99 to get educated from a pleasant George Morlan Plumbing guy about why what we thought was a leak in our water heater, almost certainly wasn't.
A few days ago my wife noticed water pooling around the tile floor in front of our water heater. Not a huge amount, but quite a bit. She put towels around the water heater.
When I got home, I had the bright idea of putting paper towels around the bottom of it, so we could identify where the leak was coming from. None of the inlet/outlet fittings, overflow tube, or drain valve were leaking.
And the leak wasn't constant. It came and went.
In fact, the evening before the day the George Morlan guy was going to come out and check the water heater, I told my wife "We should call them and cancel the appointment; we're going to look like fools, plus pay $99 for a service call, since there's no longer a leak."
But an hour or so later, some of the paper towels were wet again. Leak! I was happy, because now, when the doorbell rang the next morning, I wasn't worried about letting the guy in. We had a real problem!
Well, not really. What we learned in the next half hour, at that cost of $99 was...
(1) Water heater leaks don't stop and start. (Sort of obvious, but, hey, we're water heater dummies.) Once a leak begins, it'll continue.
(2) A leak will be obvious when the access panels to the temperature setting, etc. are removed. Because a tank always is full, a leak will distribute water all around the outer lining of the tank. The guy felt the insulation under both access panels. Bone dry. No leak.
(3) At first he thought we might have a drainage problem, water coming into that corner of the house from outside. But I peered over the top of the water heater with a flashlight. Also bone dry. Water wasn't coming through the wall.
(4) Last possibility, which probably was the culprit: condensation. The tank rests on a metal bottom. My wife was able to push a thin duster under the small space between the tank and floor. It came back damp. The George Morlan guy said there's a roundish opening in the middle of the tank, used in transport or something. Water could have condensed there and flowed outward to the utility room floor. Strange, because this had never happened in the twenty-two years we've lived here. Maybe a rare meteorological condition, combined with doing laundry, or whatever.
(5) As long as he was there, I asked another question that I'd been wondering about: should a water heater be drained regularly? He said, "No, there's no need." I told him that I occasionally hook up a hose to the valve at the bottom of the tank and drain a couple of gallons from it. Since we're on well water, usually there's some crud that comes out. He said newer tanks stir up the tank water in such a way, even that now isn't necessary.
So we learned some stuff about water heaters. Worth the $99, I guess.
Good news is that we have a 10 year warranty on our six year old water heater, so if there really is a leak (which seems unlikely), we'll get both the $99 back and a new water heater.
Anyway, the key tip was to check under the access panels for wetness if a leak is suspected. Somehow I thought the inside of a water heater had seams, but this isn't the case. Thus a leak anywhere leads to water all around the outside of a tank (under the outer cover, that is).