A tankless water heater attached to a bathroom wall.

Can a Water Heater Explode Without Proper Maintenance?

You never really expect something in your house to explode. A water heater exploding sounds unlikely, right? The truth of it is that water heaters can explode, albeit rare. Whether the water heater is gas or electric doesn’t matter, this can happen to both types. Not only can it happen, but it can be devastating. It can cause a large amount of damage to your home, and can also injure or kill anyone within range.

If you are worried about your water heater exploding, we will give you some warning signs to look for. We will discuss why this happens, and what you can do to prevent it. The good news is that with the proper maintenance, you can avoid this catastrophe.

Warning Signs Your Water Heater is About to Explode

To give you some peace of mind, it is helpful to know some warning signs that a water heater catastrophe might happen. Knowing these signs can allow you to look out for them and possibly prevent the explosion. Here they are:

Leaking or defective pressure relief valve:

The pressure relief or T and P valve is typically located on the side of the unit, near the top. Its function is to relieve pressure when the tank’s pressure gets too high. When the valve is triggered, it will release hot water and air, lowering the tank’s pressure.

So if this valve is leaking, it is signifying too much heat or pressure in the tank. This could be a dangerous situation. Additionally, this valve can fail if it has been worn out or replaced on multiple occasions. It can simply not do its job or remain open, causing pressure to build up in the tank.

Rotten egg/sulfur smell:

If you start to smell a sulfur smell around the unit, this could indicate a gas leak. This could ignite when the light is on. If you detect this smell, turn the gas off immediately and call a professional plumber to investigate the situation.

Popping noises:

Sediment can build up in your tank over time, and makes it harder for the burner to heat the water. This causes the burner to have to work harder to heat water. You will hear popping noises if the water is escaping from under the sediment layer.

Brown water:

If the water coming from your unit is brown, this indicates there is a sediment buildup in the tank and could signal an impending explosion. Brown water may also indicate the possibility of rust, which can also cause a malfunction.

Poor installation:

If your heater, heater controls, or gas connection has not been installed properly, this can cause an explosion. If it is an electric water heater, water corrosion can cause an electrical short to occur.

A water heater with a damaged heating element.

Lack of regular maintenance can damage the heating elements of water heaters.

Reasons For Water Heater Explosion

So what causes such a disaster to happen? Understanding how the water heater works and the reasons water heaters explode will help us to prevent it from happening. Some of them are:

  • Lack of routine maintenance
  • Gas leak
  • Temperature and pressure adjusted improperly
  • Improper controls or safety devices

The two most common causes of an exploding water heater are gas leaks and water pressure. Gas leaks can happen when a pilot tube is blocked or the pilot has gone out and the thermocouple isn’t working properly. This may cause the gas to leak around or in the water heater. Then when the ignition flame comes on or you try to relight the pilot, this can ignite the leaked gas, causing the time bomb to explode.

Tanks can also explode if the pressure in the tank builds up in the tank. Typically the water heater switches off or employs the pressure relief valve if this occurs. However, if these mechanisms fail, the tank’s increasing pressure will cause the tank to explode. Sounds scary, right? Luckily there are easy ways to prevent this catastrophe. Let’s explore.

A plumber using a wrench on a water heater.

Regular water heater maintenance can be tedious and complicated so it can be worth the cost to get a professional to do it.

Tips to Prevent an Exploding Water Heater

To prevent the ticking time bomb from going off, here are some things you can do to feel more at ease:

Schedule a tune-up:

If you suspect a problem or if your unit is overdue for a look-see, call a licensed plumber to ensure it is in good working condition. Trust a professional to do the necessary repairs if you think your water heater may have a problem rather than doing it yourself.

Pressure relief valve inspection:

The pressure relief valve, also called a T and P (temperature and pressure) valve, should be inspected regularly. Lift the valve about every two months to make sure it is opening properly. A small amount of water should release when it is flipped. Notice if the valve can’t close tightly or doesn’t open quickly. This could signal a replacement is needed. It is a good idea to have the valve replaced every few years anyway.

Set the temperature correctly:

We recommend keeping the set temperature between 100 degrees to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything higher than that could damage the unit, not to mention scald the skin.

Flush and drain the unit regularly:

We recommend flushing your water heater every 6 months to a year. You can do this yourself or on your annual service visit. This will help eliminate sediment buildup that causes the unit to overheat and make those popping noises.

Inspect or change anode rod:

The anode rod, the internal rust protection, can deteriorate over time and cause the unit to rust. You can prevent this from happening by inspecting the rod once a year, especially if the warranty is no longer effective. We recommend replacing it every 3 to 4 years. You may need to replace it even sooner if you have a water softener.

Attention and Maintenance Prevents Disaster

A modern home is filled with appliances that help make our daily lives easier. We use them from day-to-day and sometimes don’t think twice about them again once they are installed. This can be dangerous as appliances can develop serious issues over the years. Especially dangerous if left un-cared for are water heaters. Luckily, with a little extra attention and maintenance, you can prevent your water heater from blowing your house to smithereens.

Joshua Perkins

Joshua spent ten years as a water systems technician in California before settling down with his wife and two young children in Nashville in 2018. Through all of his experience, he learned the benefits and shortfalls of so many different types of water filtration systems, from pitchers to whole-house installations. He started Water Filter Authority in 2019 to empower other families to make the right decision for their long-term health and wellness.