The Danger of Poorly Maintained Water Heaters | Hot Water Repair OKC

If you’re like me and have lived in Oklahoma long enough, you’ve probably had to go without power, gas, or water at some point. Sometimes for days at a time. When you’re missing out on a hot shower or bath, it’s always a bad way to end the day. Whether it was in the grueling heat or the cold and muddy winter mush, I’m sure you were very anxious to get it back on. That’s why it’s so important to have someone on-call to help with your hot water repair in OKC. 

It’s tempting to save money and use an unlicensed service contractor, by doing that you leave yourself in jeopardy of being responsible for property damage or injury. In the past 25-plus years that I’ve been working as a plumber in Oklahoma City, I’ve seen a lot of plumbing repairs made by unqualified and untrained contractors, handymen, and homeowners. Many times, the practices and methods used are poorly applied, misapplied, incomplete, and in some cases, a danger to public health and safety. From my experience, there are two main reasons why people will hire someone unqualified, or maybe do it themselves. 

It’s either the price of the repair or not wanting to wait for the next available plumber. With the development of search engines and DIY videos, you can find a lot of information about doing repair work. If you’re confident with your skill, you may decide to take on a challenge and save yourself time and money. Maybe you hire your favorite handyman or someone online that gives you the price you want. If your contractor is not insured for that type of work and there is a failure, your homeowner’s insurance may deny a claim because the contractor was at fault. If they’re uninsured or underinsured, you very well may be out of luck.

One of the most egregious errors I’ve come across is repair work on Water Heaters, in particular tank-type water heaters. These units will either be electric, or gas-fired. Gas water heaters have venting and gas connections, both can cause serious property damage, injury, and death. Electric units have power supplied, but no venting is required. One very important thing that both share is that the last line of defense which is the relief valve. The proper term is temperature and pressure relief valve. It’s designed to keep the water heater from exploding when all the safety features have failed. If the water overheats and or over-pressurizes, it will automatically open and allow the hot water to go out and the cold water in. That will cool the tank, relieve the pressure, and stop the cycle.

Most repair plumbers will run across a water heater with one or more of the safety devices bypassed, and it seems that every single time it’s done is to get the water heater back online as fast and cheaply as possible. Maybe it’s a “temporary repair” that becomes long-term. Whatever the case is, any safety that is bypassed becomes a serious threat. The most disturbing repairs I’ve found are when a relief valve or T&P Valve has been capped, plugged, improperly installed, or damaged. Here are the reasons why:

That safety valve or T&P valve has been around since 1682. The inventor’s name is Denis Papi from France. There are definite differences between the new and the old valves, but the overall design has changed very little. In early America, they were used on steam locomotives, steamboats, and boilers. It was in the early 1900s when a rash of boiler explosions, about 1,700 of them with 1,300 injuries and deaths, prompted the widespread use of the valves, and they proved to be quite effective.

The forces that cause the explosions are relatively simple. They are the reaction of differing atmospheric pressures and temperatures. Water and our atmosphere both expand when they are heated, and water will turn into steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. That atmospheric pressure is 14.7 PSI. If you go higher in altitude, the pressure will drop, and the boiling point temperature will drop as well. Likewise, if you go to a lower atmosphere, the pressure will increase, and so will the boiling point. These same forces come into play in water heaters just like the ones in your home. They’re considered storage water heaters or hot water tanks.

A storage-type water heater is what is considered a pressure vessel. It basically it holds a volume of water at a variable temperature and pressure. Essentially, it’s an atmosphere. When the water is heated, it becomes potential energy when it’s in a pressurized vessel. On average, city-provided water pressure is about 65 PSI, but it can range from 25-150 PSI.  So, by applying the principles of temperature and pressure and by increasing the pressure at sea level (14.7 PSI) up to the average water pressure of 65 PSI, we increase the boiling point of the water. 

At 65 PSI the boiling point will be almost 300 degrees. However, as the water is heating, it is also expanding and increasing the pressure, which increases the boiling point. And so, if heat is continuously applied, it becomes a snowball effect, and at some point, the pressure will exceed the strength of the tank. If there is no way to relieve the pressure, the tank will rupture and decrease the boiling point of the water, and it will flash into steam.

A 50-gallon water heater will hold approximately 11,500 cubic inches of water, and that will expand to 18,400,000 cubic inches of steam. If that happens instantly, it will be a violent explosion that will cause tremendous destruction. Injuries from steam burns that happen are horribly painful. As long as T&P valves have been around, this really shouldn’t be anything we see as often as we do. I recently asked a group of plumbers on a Facebook group to send me any pictures they had of disabled T&P. I got 13 in a day. That’s just a small group of tradesmen. Many more of the guys had run into it but didn’t have a picture of it.  This leads me to an illustration I’m going to use to impress on the importance of safe practices when it comes to working on plumbing.

I want to be as respectful as I can be about this story because it’s tragic, and also, very preventable. It’s also a very important lesson that is no longer well-known. A lot of plumbers I talk to don’t know about it. Here is a link to an article about it in the Oklahoman:

On January 19th, 1982, there was a water heater explosion at Star Spencer Elementary, In Spencer, OK. It happened in the kitchen of the school cafeteria at lunchtime. The force of the explosion blew out the cinder block wall into a row of children sitting at a cafeteria table. Five children and one teacher were killed immediately, and another child died nine days later from her injuries. All the children were under the age of 10. More than 30 students and adults were injured. The official cause was determined to be Mechanical failure and human error. I can’t imagine what the aftermath would have been like.

Every time I see those types of errors, it stirs a visceral response because with all of the DIY videos and help from “pros” at the big box stores, I’ve never seen or heard anybody address it. It’s very important to maintain your water heater. I would recommend testing the T&P valve once a year and replacing it when any repair work is done. If you live with an older water heater or if you recently moved, you should have it inspected by a professional. Whether it’s us or another company, you really need to do it.

Some other risks associated with water heaters are carbon monoxide poisoning, oxygen depletion, fire, and of course, water.

Having a professional assessment would be beneficial for budgeting for a replacement in the future. We would love to provide these services for you. We also provide a Heat and Air Service, so call us to review your plumbing and mechanical equipment. If we find something that needs service or repair, it’s always cheaper to do it sooner rather than later. Either way, at least you’ll know about it. Reach out today for the best hot water repair in OKC.