Every once in a while, we’ll get a phone call at the office from a new homeowner with a simple, yet terrifying question: “Can a hot water heater explode?”

Their fear is justified. It’s scary to think that one minute, you could be enjoying a nice evening on the couch, and the next, your water could shoot off like a rocket through the roof of your house and land in the next county.

Can a Hot Water Heater Really Explode?

Not all water heater explosions are that dramatic, however. Sometimes, an “explosion” happens when the tank bursts and floods your garage. Other times, you may notice your ceiling about to collapse. Regardless of how and why, a hot water heater explosion will almost always cause significant damage.

It doesn’t even matter whether or not it’s a gas or electric water heater. Some homeowners mistakenly assume that because there’s no gas, there’s no risk of explosion, but it’s not the source of the energy as much as it is the pressure inside the water tank. As the water heats up, it will expand. A release valve helps regulate the pressure; if it’s defective, the pressure inside the tank will continue to expand until it causes an explosion.

All the more reason to have your water heater checked regularly, especially if you notice any warning signs. You should also have your water heater serviced if you notice rust or corrosion on the outside of the tank, or if you have sediment buildup on the inside. And whatever you do, never place your hot water heater next to something that’s flammable. Overheating (and lack of ventilation) can hasten a water heater explosion.

Look for these Water Heater Explosion Signs

Here’s something that should put your mind at ease a little: most hot water heaters don’t explode out of nowhere. There are almost always signs and signals that tell the homeowner something is amiss; as soon as you see them, give our team a call and let us come and look at it.

  1. Steady Popping Noise – Water heaters usually make a small amount of noise anyways, but if your unit sounds like a popcorn machine working overtime on premiere night at a 12-screen theater, it may be time for a check-up. Sediment builds up on the bottom of the tank – where the burner is – which means the water heater has to work twice as hard to heat the water (the “popping” sounds are the bubbles escaping from underneath the sentiment). Over time, your tank will deteriorate and make it more susceptible to bursts.

  2. Gas Smell – If your home uses gas, you don’t need us to tell you about the potential dangers of a gas leak. If you smell gas anywhere in your home, but especially near your water heater, you should turn off the gas and call a licensed plumber immediately. Usually, what you’ll smell is an overwhelming odor of rotten eggs.

  3. Open Relief Valve – No one wants their water heater to turn into a five-foot missile, that’s why those units are equipped with a T&P valve that opens and releases water to lower the excess pressure. You shouldn’t worry if you see it once or twice, but if you notice your relief valve is constantly open, it means the pressure inside your tank is consistently too high and is at risk of bursting.

  4. Rusty-Looking Water – Rust is a water heater’s worst enemy. Fortunately, water heaters come equipped with an internal “sacrificial” anode rod that attracts the water molecules responsible for rust. Though it can last for several years, eventually it will rust, and then the rust will come after your tank. When that happens, tank failure and a burst is likely, so if your water looks rusty, it’s possible that your anode rod has deteriorated. More obviously, if you notice rust on the water heater itself, it’s time to have the unit serviced or replaced.

  5. Tank Leaks – Leaks are a pain, but they can also be a signal of something worse, usually indicating that one (or more) of your parts have a crack in them. It’s best to get the part fixed, not only to prevent more leaks and water damage, but also to safeguard against a possible explosion.

Of course, there’s always the chance that a new water heater could explode, but that’s almost always because it wasn’t installed correctly. If you notice something one of these signs your hot water heater is going to explode, and it’s still under warranty, have them come out and check it immediately. If they won’t look at it, we will!

As with everything home-related, proper maintenance is the key to making sure your hot water heater is working properly. Even though 75% of water heaters will fail inside of twelve years, taking care of it and watching for warning signs will help you push against those averages. And if you’re in the market for a new water heater, or would just like to have a more efficient hot water heater setup, ask us about tankless heaters! We install and service both units (tank and tankless), and would love to talk to you about your options!