People think they don't need flood insurance. They never think about their hot water heater.
How water heaters use to be cheap - you could buy one for a couple-hundred bucks at Lowe's or Home Depot. They aren't too hard to install, although you have to know how to work with gas lines if you have a gas heater, or 220V electricity if you have an electric one. Not for amateurs.
Like most home appliances, they have a design life of about 15 years. After that point, one of two things (or both things) happen. First, one or both heating elements may burn out, or corrode through and burn out, and replacing them is sort of like fixing an older washing machine - you'll spend half as much as you would buying a new one, and you'll end up buying the new one in a year or two, anyway.
The second thing is leaking. And by leaking, I mean flooding. We had an older gas hot water heater in our house in Virginia, and a friend noticed it was dripping water from the bottom. "Better replace that, soon!" he said. You see, what can happen is the bottom blows out of the tank (which is under pressure) as it slowly corrodes over time. Most tanks are steel, and they rust. We had one which was "glass lined" and maybe those last longer, I don't know.
We were fortunate in that the hot water heater was in the basement and if it blew out, it would just drain into the basement floor drain (but if that clogged....). People go away on vacation, leave the main water valve on, and come back to a $1500 water bill and a flooded basement (and a flooded washer, dryer, and furnace as well!). Homeowners insurance companies are wise to this and often require that you replace sketchy hot water heaters or make other plumbing repairs.
A neighbor just got a new homeowner's policy with a new company, as his old company doubled their rates. They sent over a home inspector and they required that he replace the hot water heater and also one of the feed lines to a toilet that looked like it was going to burst. Pretty smart move on their part.
But this got me to thinking - always a dangerous pastime - about our own hot water heater, which I believe to be at least 15 years old. Maybe it is time to replace that. We have a pretty basic electric hot water heater and so far, it isn't dripping, but I will keep an eye on it. Home repairs, to many people, appear to be unpredictable random events. But if you understand the life-cycle of products and components, you can figure out about when something will go South on you.
If you had a new roof put on 15 years ago and they used 15-year shingles, well, waddya expect? If you see them curling up, or let moss or small plants grow out of them, the service life may be even less. The Weibull curve will not be denied. Sure, sometimes components seem to last forever - if you are lucky. Other times, less so. Planning on these repairs allows you to do them at a time and place of your choosing, not the plumber's.
Of course, like so much else, hot water heaters have gotten more complex with time. They have heat-pump hot water heaters for example, which was like a small air conditioning system in reverse. They have "instant" or "tankless" heaters which require either 100Amps of 220V service to run, or a huge propane tank. These can be mounted outdoors, which helps alleviate the problem of hot water heaters flooding your house.
Speaking of which, our hot water heater is in the garage, so if it floods, it will not flood the house (which is 8" higher than the garage floor). We painted our garage floor as part of our garage and laundry room makeover. There was a huge rusty stain on the floor which I thought was due to Gradma's Chrysler blowing out its radiator. I realized later it was likely a hot water heater meltdown - which explains the 10" tall molding along the floor all the way around the garage. Someone cut out the rotted sheetrock and insulation and then covered it all up with this wide molding.
We do have three 6-gallon sink heaters at each bathroom sink, as it takes several minutes (and many gallons of water) to get hot water at the sinks, which are on the other end of the house from the hot water heater. Hmmm.... maybe a tankless job isn't such a bad idea after all! And we could mount it right outside the bathroom wall, too. I'll have to think about that. I would have to install a propane tank as well. Maybe too much hassle.
We also mounted our heater in an enclosure, so I could put the hot water heater in the corner without stuff falling down behind it all the time (like socks from the washing machine). The enclosure I bought was meant for hot water heaters in California for outdoor use. Apparently out there, they mount them outside, under the eaves, so that if an earthquake occurs, the tank won't fall over and rip out the gas line and set fire to the house. The same catalog that had the enclosure had tie-down straps for the tank and an automatic disconnect for the gas line as well. Pretty slick stuff. In a way it makes sense to put those outdoors, particularly in a mild climate like LA.
And like anything else, prices have crept up. The cheapest hot water heater, rated at '"6 years" (!!!) is over $500. And they now have "smart" hot water heaters with built-in leak detection, to shut off if a leak is detected! (Why not make them of stainless steel or some other rustproof material?). You can spend thousands, of course, if you want to. My neighbor spent about $1000 including installation and removal of the old water heater which seems kind of high to me, until I checked prices of hot water heaters online. The days of the $200 heater are long gone.
The last heater I installed was in New York. The hydronic heating system was plumbed into a hot water tank, so the "boiler" (which never actually boiled) heated water that in turn heated the hot water. In the summer months, this meant we went through a lot of propane and also the basement was quite hot and stuffy. I put in a regular hot water heater with bypass valves, so we could run off electric in the summer and keep the house cooler. As I recall, that heater was about $200 or so - maybe a little more.
But those days are gone - along with cheap washers and dryers. Don't get me wrong, I like our front-loaders ($1800 the pair, with pedestals) and LED lights are cool to the touch and save electricity, even if they cost more money. As technology gets more complex, it gets more expensive.
Then again, flooding your house is pretty pricey, too!
UPDATE: I learn a lot writing this blog. They say one way to find the right answer on the Internet is to post the totally wrong answer and someone will correct you. For some reason, it never occurred to me (or most homeowners) to replace the anode rod in the water heater. I did this for all my RVs, as well as hot water heaters on my boats. I replaced the "zincs" on the outdrives of our boats as well. But anodes in the hot water heater? Never thought about it! A reader provided me with this informative link on hot water heater maintenance and failure rates.
After 17 years it may be "too late" to replace the anode on my existing heater, but you can bet I will do it on my new one. It was one of those "Duh!" moments for me. After all, I knew about this for the RV, why not for the house?
A sacrificial anode will dissolve slowly and thus prevent the tank itself from rusting. The are not hard to replace, but often require a 1-1/8" socket (or so) and a breaker bar to get the stuck anode out. If you put teflon tape on the threads it **may** be easier next time.
I noted some heaters today are "smart" and will shut off if they detect a leak. A reader notes that such valves can be installed on the aftermarket.
And of course, you can install a drip pan to drain any water leaking from the heater, although a drip pan might not handle a full-blown blowout.
Find your water shut-off and know how to use it. Consult a plumber if necessary. If they are never used, if you try to turn them, they may just snap off in your hand and flood the house. If used regularly, though, they should turn easily. We shut off our water when going away - the last thing we need is to come home to a house that has been flooded for a month or more.....and it isn't just the water bill!