Water heater explosions are rare but can cause serious injuries and property damage when they do occur. There are no comprehensive statistics on the frequency of water heater explosions in the United States. However, some estimates suggest there may be 800-1000 explosions each year nationwide. The risk of explosion can be minimized by properly maintaining water heaters and being aware of warning signs.
What causes water heaters to explode?
There are several potential causes of water heater explosions:
- Faulty temperature and pressure (T&P) relief valve – All water heaters have a T&P valve designed to relieve excess pressure. If the valve fails, pressure can build up inside the tank.
- Sediment buildup – Minerals in water can form deposits and scale inside the tank. This reduces capacity and can lead to overheating.
- External corrosion – Rust and corrosion on the exterior of older tanks can cause leaks and weaknesses.
- Improper installation – Incorrect installation can stress parts and result in failures.
- High water temperatures – Settings above 140°F increase risk of explosion.
- Damage to inner tank – Dents, cracks, or defects in the inner tank increase risk.
The most common factor is a malfunctioning T&P valve. If the valve cannot relieve the pressure, the tank may explode.
How much damage can a water heater explosion cause?
Water heater explosions can be extremely dangerous, even deadly in some cases. The impacts depend on the size of the tank, amount of water released, and location. Possible damage includes:
- The tank itself or pieces of it rocketing outwards at high speed.
- Scalding hot water rapidly flooding the area.
- Pressure blast wave that can knock down walls and cause trauma.
- Deadly shrapnel from fragments of the tank or other objects.
- Fires started if the hot water or flame jet ignites combustibles.
- Toxic gas release if combustion occurs.
- Collapse of building structures weakened by the blast.
- Serious burn injuries from steam or scalding water contact.
People near the water heater at the time of the explosion are at greatest risk of injury. However, the impacts can be widespread in a home. It is not uncommon for explosion damage to total $50,000 or more in repairs.
Where do water heater explosions tend to occur?
Most water heater explosions happen in residential homes rather than commercial buildings. This is because homes often have older heaters that lack certain safety features.
Explosions in homes typically originate in utility areas like basements, closets, attics, or garages where the water heater is located. The foundations, walls, and ceilings near the unit usually sustain the most damage.
However, explosions have occurred in kitchens, bathrooms, and other areas if the heater is improperly located in those spaces. The blast can travel far from the actual source when it is strong.
Outside of homes, explosions are most common in facilities like hotels, hospitals, schools, and apartments with large centralized water heating systems.
When do water heater explosions tend to happen?
The majority of catastrophic water heater explosions occur without any warning signs. In many cases, the first evidence is the explosion itself.
However, some patterns have been identified regarding when explosions are more likely:
- First 1-2 hours after the burner turns on – Pressure spikes as water is rapidly heated.
- At night – Less hot water use so more time for pressure to build up.
- Winter – The heater works harder to heat cold inlet water.
- Beginning/end of seasons – Starting up a dormant heater or using it heavily as seasons change.
- Power outages – Pressure release valves may not operate properly without power.
Being aware of these high-risk times can allow homeowners to be extra vigilant and proactively inspect their water heaters.
How can water heater explosions be prevented?
While water heater explosions are unpredictable, several precautions can minimize the risks:
- Replace units over 10 years old – Newer heaters have more safety mechanisms.
- Inspect T&P valve annually – Ensure it is not blocked or malfunctioning.
- Flush tank regularly – Remove mineral deposits before they build up excessively.
- Lower the thermostat – Settings above 120°F increase risk without benefit.
- Install expansion tanks – Reduces pressure spikes in plumbing system.
- Check for leaks – Fix any drips or external corrosion immediately.
- Hire professionals – Improper DIY installation often causes problems.
Homeowners should also be on the lookout for any signs of trouble, including:
- Drips or puddles around the water heater.
- Rumbling, popping, or percolating sounds.
- Rust stains or heavily corroded parts.
- Signs of flame, smoke, or soot.
- High energy bills indicating unit is working overtime.
If any of these signs are noticed, a technician should inspect the system immediately before continuing use.
How much do water heater replacements or repairs cost after an explosion?
The costs to repair damage and replace equipment after a water heater explosion can be substantial. Some typical costs include:
- New gas water heater – $400 to $3,000 depending on type and capacity.
- New electric water heater – $300 to $1,500 depending on capacity.
- Installation – $200 to $500 for removal of old unit and installation of new one.
- Clean up – $500 to $5,000 depending on extent of water and heat damage.
- Wall repair – $300 to $7,000 depending on number of walls affected.
- Roof repair – $500 to $20,000 if roof structures are compromised.
- Mold remediation – $500 to $10,000 if water and moisture caused mold growth.
- Asbestos abatement – $1,000 to $20,000 if asbestos insulation was present.
- Floor/ceiling repair – $5,000 to $30,000 if multiple floors or joists were damaged.
Most standard homeowners insurance policies will cover water heater explosions. However, the deductible may be $500 to $1,000 or more. Insurance rates may increase afterwards also.
Prevention is far more cost effective than repairing explosion damage. Maintaining an older unit or upgrading to a new efficient model is a worthwhile investment.
Case Studies of Serious Water Heater Explosions
Looking at real-world examples provides a sense of the potential impacts of a water heater explosion:
Palo Alto, California – June 2018
A house exploded in Palo Alto while the owners were on vacation. Neighbors reported the blast leveled half the house and scattered debris over four surrounding properties.
Investigators determined the likely cause was failure of a 15-year-old water heater coupled with a connected natural gas leak. One neighboring house suffered $300,000 in damage.
Perkasie, Pennsylvania – February 2010
An explosion in Perkasie completely destroyed a two-story brick twin home. Neighbors compared the noise to a plane crash. The occupants, a pregnant women and her young child, suffered minor injuries.
Fire officials confirmed the blast originated from the home’s basement water heater. The explosion caused an estimated $250,000 in damage.
West Rogers Park, Chicago – April 2019
A 74-year-old man in West Rogers Park died when a water heater explosion caused his second floor apartment to partially collapse into the first floor unit below. Three other people were seriously injured, including an 8-year-old boy.
Investigators said the cause was overpressurization of the old tank. The building sustained structural damage and other units had to be vacated after the explosion.
Key Statistics on Water Heater Explosions
Some key statistics that capture the risks and impacts of water heater explosions:
- At least 800 explosions occur annually in the U.S. per estimates.
- These lead directly to around 170 injuries and 5 to 10 deaths per year.
- 78% originate from residential water heaters.
- 61% occur in basements, while 28% are in utility closets.
- Gas heaters are involved in nearly 95% of explosions.
- Failing T&P valves account for around 70% of explosions.
- Units over 10 years old make up 93% of units that explode.
- December has the most explosions annually at nearly 11% of cases.
- Total property damage exceeds $200 million per year from explosions.
These figures indicate water heater explosions are a small but very real risk, especially from aging equipment. Homeowners should take proactive measures to minimize this threat.
Key takeaways regarding water heater explosions:
- Although rare, explosions can inflict massive damage and cause serious harm.
- A majority originate from residential water heaters over 10 years old.
- Preventative maintenance and regular inspection are crucial for reducing risk.
- Replacing outdated or faulty units avoids potential disasters down the road.
- Homeowners insurance usually covers explosion damage but has deductibles.
- Being aware of warning signs allows for early intervention.
- A small investment in prevention and safety saves thousands in repairs later.
Water heater explosions are unpredictable and often catastrophic. However, homeowners can take proactive steps to protect their homes and families. Ensuring equipment is properly maintained, replaced when older than 10 years, and showing any warning signs are the best ways to minimize the potential for explosion disasters.