Bulging Water Heater and Leaking Problem: Can it be Fixed?

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Check out why a bulging water heater is a big problem and dangerous, and how it can affect you and your home.

The article explains how to check if your heater is leaking due to increased pressure of hot water inside the tank and what to do to solve the problem. Explore the symptoms and causes of bulging and how to prevent it.

What causes a bulging water heater and is it dangerous?

A bulging water heater is dangerous. It occurs when there is excessive pressure inside the tank, which results in leaking, dislocated flue pipe and pipe fittings, even permanent deformation.

Common symptoms seen on the heater exposed to excessive pressure are cockeyed nipples of the top of the heater and bulged or reversed bottom of the head.

Tank-type heaters are designed and tested on maximum internal pressures of 300 psi, without any distortion. If there is a deformation of the tank, like the bulged bottom, your heater was subjected to pressures above 300 psi. The maximum working pressure for which the heater is designed is 150 psi.

When the water inside the heater's tank is cold, there is only a static pressure of water, which is the result of its weight. When you turn the heater ON, and the heating process starts, the temperature increases, the volume increases along with the pressure. When water that occupies the whole volume of the tank is heated, it may require more space than what is available in the tank.

Water is a non-compressible liquid and expands when heated. For each 10°F increase in temperature, water expands 0.2%. As the temperature increases, the maximum designed pressure can be exceeded and cause a water heater to deform and bulge.

Use this technical bulleting from the AO Smith manufacturer to learn more about bulging heaters and how to fix them.

How to avoid excessive pressure increase and prevent a bulging water heater

If your heating system is an open system, and if there are no obstructions to reverse the flow, the pressure in the tank will always be closed to the cold water supply. The hot water will expand back into the cold water supply, and there will be no damage to the plumbing system. In this case, the chances for a bulging water heater are minimal.

If there are obstructions, such as installing the checking valves, pressure reducing valves, shut-off valves in the cold water line, or water softeners, the system becomes a closed system. This will result in the rapid pressure increase of the heated water until something fails or ruptures. 

This is why the expansion tank must be installed to accept additional water and pressure.

If the expansion tank is not installed, the pressure may become extremely high, resulting in the water heater bulging, even tank rupture. This is why a good quality and reliable product should be selected, such as this model from Rheem.

The correct size of the expansion tank should be used on every new installation so it can maintain a consistent and safe working pressure. Keep in mind that the warranty will be voided, so whatever happens to the unit, it will be at your expense.

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How to test hot water pressure inside a heater

One of the reasons why your heater leaks might be the pressure buildup or significant drop inside the heater's tank. This is a simple DIY project where the only tool you need is the pressure gauge. When a water heater leaks, it creates a puddle of water on the floor, as there is a crack or hole in the tank or dislocated plumbing connections or unions. Follow the guide below to check and test hot water pressure:

  • In order to get the pressure reading inside the heater's tank, install a pressure gauge on the drain valve outlet and open it.
  • Close the main shut-off valve that is supplying the unit.
  • Make sure that all hot water taps are turned off. When the heater is working, and hot taps are closed, the pressure will build up in the tank.
  • Run the heater by turning the thermostat up until the main burner or heating element comes on. Make sure to constantly check the pressure gauge as the pressure in the tank will increase rapidly.
  • When hot water pressure starts to rise, shut the heater off by turning the thermostat down. Watch the pressure gauge to see if it holds pressure or drops off significantly.
  • If there are no leaks around fittings when the pressure drops, then the tank is leaking.
  • If the pressure inside the heater cannot rise, either the hot water faucet is open in the system, or there is a hole or crack in the tank, which doesn't let the pressure buildup.
  • If the pressure holds for an extended period (10 – 15 min.), the tank is not leaking.

The typical design of the tank is the convex top heads and concave bottoms. Due to the excessive pressure inside the tank, the concave bottom might flatten or change to a convex or bulged shape. This is especially dangerous on gas models, where the movement of the bottom results in deformation of the head of the tank as it connects to the rigid flue. This can further cause the restriction of the products of combustion from venting through the flue passage and chimney.

By simply looking into the combustion chamber, you can check for any distortion of the tank's bottom. Bulging water heater tanks must be replaced with the cause of the problem identified and corrected. The heaters with the bulging condition are not covered by warranty due to the improper installation.

Many experts already said that if the water tank is bulging, call the plumber and replace it immediately. As he said, the problem is not that the tank is bulging, but why it bulged. As the safety relief valve could not release the pressure for many reasons, the tank will eventually fail, even blow up, destroying the house.

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