One of the most dreaded landlord moments is when a tenant calls about a water issue. In this case, my tenant texted me about water leaking into his garage. I know enough about my own buildings, that if water is leaking into a garage, and it is sub-freezing outside, it is not good. It could be a water heater leak, a drain pipe in the ceiling dripping, a supply pipe leaking, a water meter leaking, a bath tub over flow leaking, or a floor drain over flowing.
So, I had it narrowed down right away based on the text. It could be anything. I had to spring into action. Here is what I did.
Diagnosing the water heater leak
It was about 8 PM. I was getting ready to go out to a restaurant. I had just gotten back from a long trip, and was not really excited about fixing a water leak at this hour. If you are an efficient landlord and do your own management and maintenance, you do what you have to do.
I immediately put in my property manager hat. I could be anywhere in the world, as long as I had cell phone coverage, and do this. If I was not in the area, I could have called a local plumbing company, a person on Craig’s, or people I know in the area that said they would help if I needed it. Since I was in the area, I immediately called the tenant so I could get a handle on how bad the water was leaking.
He told me that it was not too bad, and he originally thought that it was the ice melting off his car. That put me slightly at ease. It was not a catastrophic water line burst. Nor was it sewage coming up from a floor drain. From what I could tell, it was a small leak of clean water.
Making A Decision to Wait
I decided it could wait until after I returned from the restaurant. It bugged me a bit while I was eating, but I figured that it would be OK, as it probably had been leaking for several days anyway. Another hour would not hurt. It was on a cement floor.
On the way home, I routed the trip past the rental property. The advantage of living close to the rentals is that you can make unscheduled stops easily. The property was not on a direct line to my home, but it was closer than going home first and making a special trip.
Determining the Real Issue
Once I got to the rental, I immediately looked in the water heater closet. That is where the water heaters are, and the water ‘guts’ of the plumbing are located. There are five water heaters in the building. I looked at all the water heaters and saw that the entire floor was a bit wet. I looked at the pressure relief valves, and the input supply lines. When I got to the last one, I saw the water heater leak at the drain valve.
A water heater leak at the drain valve is not a big deal. They can be replaced easily. You do not even have to drain the water heater to replace them. You can simply tighten them if somehow the water heating and cooling made the valve loose and now you have a water heater leak. Sometimes the lime in the tank and the age of the seal necessitates that you just simply turn the valve tighter.
Never Make A Problem Worse
I did the obvious. I tightened the valve. The valve turned about a half-turn, which is significant, and I thought “that should fix the issue”. Nope. The leak got worse. Now, it was leaking in a steady stream, not a fast drip.
That is another simple thing. Lime often gets behind the seal, you need to clean out the drain area and try again. I got a small bucket, and opened the drain valve and let some water out. The valve opened, but felt a bit weird. It looked as though the valve was cross threaded in the water heater. I tightened it again, and the valve broke off in my hand. I did not torque on it hardly at all. It must have been cracked and the twisting I did was enough to break it loose.
Yikes. Now I had a problem. I had no tools and the water heater was going to run out on the floor if I did not do anything. I turned the water supply line off to the water heater. That meant the tenants had no hot water, and no notice it was coming. They did have cold water. I texted them as soon as I could, and said it would be out until the morning.
The Risk Mitigation
I had to immediately drain the water heater. While it was not leaking too bad now as there was plenty of vacuum in the tank, that vacuum only last for a while. Left alone, it would have drained all 40 gallons on the floor over the course of a few hours. It would be slow at first, then once the vacuum was lost, the rest of the water would come pouring out.
Looking back, I may have been able to plug the hold with a rag until the morning, but that would not have helped the tenant much. And it would have been a risky approach from a “water on the floor” perspective.
I drained the water heater. It took about 30 minutes. Luckily, I had a couple of buckets at the property that I could swap back and forth as they became full. Leaning a 5-gallon pail over so you can drain a water heater only fills about 2 gallons. It takes a bit of time and multiple trips to get the entire 40-gallons drained out.
I could have purchased a simple drain valve. If I did, it would be a brass drain valve, not the cheap plastic valve that broke off. I know that replacing the drain valve would be the cheapest method, but the threads on the water heater had a broke off valve in them. I would have to remove the broken valve threads first. That may be easy, or not.
The water heater was a 6-year water heater and it was 10 years old. It may have had another five years left, or not. After thinking about it for 30-seconds, I opted for a new water heater.
I went to Home Depot and bought a water heater in the AM. The water heater was installed it fairly quickly, as the old one was already drained. I have a hand truck, which is another indispensable tool a landlord needs. Without a hand truck, I likely would have needed two people for this job.
This is the kind of water heater I purchased. A Rheem 40-gallon, 6-year warranty natural gas water heater. I do not see any need to spend more for a 9-year heater, as I may not have the warranty paperwork when it may go out anyway. And is a 9-year heater actually built better, or are you just paying for insurance so the company can send you a new one?
Install Options to make the next one faster
I always install a water heater and put a shutoff valve on both sides of the water heater. When you change one out, shut off both sides and you never have to worry about cold water coming through the faucet and getting you all wet when you change the water heater.
I also use a flexible corrugated stainless steel water heater hookups. Avoid the braided flexible stainless steel mesh hoses. I have had a high failure rate with those. Like 3 out of 10 have failed for me after about five years. I could also hard plumb the water heater, which is actually plumbing code, and that is what a professional would do, but it takes a lot more time.
I had a water heater leak. I changed the water heater to fix it. Easy peasy. I saved at least $300 for about two hours’ work.
What have you done with a water heater leak? How long would you tolerate being without hot water if you are a renter? What have you spent on a water heater replacement?