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Water Heater Leaks

Common, Costly and Concerning
By Steven Fielding

THE GOVERNING BOARDS of condominium associations worry about many things. Reserves, rules enforcement, insurance costs, maintenance, pets, parking, and COVID are on a long list of things that keep trustees and association managers up at night. Water heaters probably are not, but they should be. Here are a few hard – or soggy – facts:

  • Water damage is one of the two leading property damage risks faced by homeowners, representing nearly one-third of all homeowner claims filed annually, exceeded only by wind and hail damage.
  • One in every 50 insured homeowners files a water damage claim every year; the average claim cost is about $7,000, adding up to more than $2.5 billion in insured losses annually, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
  • There are no statistics on how many of those claims are attributable to water heaters, but 75 percent of all water heaters will fail – usually without warning – within 12 years of their purchase. So it is probably safe to assume that a sizable percentage of those water damage claims result from water heaters that leak or fail entirely.

It is also safe to assume that if a water heater leaks in a condominium building with attached units, the damage won’t be confined to the unit in which the offending heater is located; the water and the damage will spread to adjacent units and common areas.

So multiply that average $7,000 claim by 10 or 20 units; add the potential damage to common areas; consider the risk of mold (a byproduct of water damage), the cost of remediating it, and the potential legal liability for the association if mold sickens some residents. Insurance industry analysts report that water damage claims in excess of $500,000 have doubled since 2015; claims exceeding $1million have tripled in that time period.

Also consider that associations dealing with common area damage will be paying a large deductible and may be filing an insurance claim, which could increase the association’s premium costs. And now, perhaps, you begin to understand why water heaters should be on that list of association concerns.


Why do water heaters fail? Age is the primary culprit. Water heaters have an average useful life of about 12 years. But the operative word here is "average." Some water heaters fail well before that 12-year mark; others perform like champs for much longer. The problem is – you can’t predict when any given water heater is going to fail. There is no equivalent of a car’s ‘check engine’ light to alert you to an issue you must address; you don’t usually know a water heater is failing until it has dumped 80 gallons of water in your basement, garage, or kitchen. As early warning systems go, this isn’t terribly effective. Fortunately, there are some alternatives.

  • Automatic shut-off valves. These units typically consist of a high-quality valve installed directly into the plumbing line, and moisture sensors that send a ‘shut-off’ signal to an electric control box.
  • Water leak alarms. These units also use sensors that sound an alarm when water is detected, but owners must remember to turn the alarm on (they don’t always) and someone has to be around to hear the alarm and able to act quickly, by turning off the water supply. A lot of water can leak and cause a lot of damage in a very short period of time.


Shut-off valves and alarms can prevent damage – or reduce it – if a water heater leaks. Maintaining the heaters can go a long way toward preventing those leaks. Plumbers suggest that owners have their water heaters inspected – and drained – annually. Drainage will eliminate sediment that can build up inside a heater, reducing its effectiveness and possibly making the interior of the tank rust.

Regular inspections can also assess the condition of the temperature and pressure valve and monitor the condition of the anode rods (some units have one, others have two) that protect the tank from hard water minerals. As these rods erode over time, the protection diminishes, reducing the water heater’s life and increasing the risk that it will fail prematurely. Replacing the rods when necessary can extend a water heater’s life.


Condominium boards should deal with hot water heaters the same way they deal with other risks affecting the health and safety of residents or the community’s property values and finances: by providing information that encourages responsible behavior by owners and adopting association policies that require it. A few specific suggestions:

Educate homeowners. Explain the damage leaking water heaters can cause to individual units and common areas.

Encourage owners to have their water heaters inspected at least annually by a qualified plumber.

Consider making annual inspections mandatory, for the same reason that many associations require annual inspections of fireplaces – because poor maintenance of the equipment poses a potential risk to other residents and the entire community.

Encourage – or require- owners to install automatic shut-off valves or water sensor alarms on their water heaters.

Require owners to replace water heaters older than 11 years, with an exception for those who install automatic shut-off valves. Units with these devices can operate safely until they fail.

Consider making the purchase and/or installation of shut-off valves an association expense. Leaks pose risks to other units and common areas – risks that owners have a shared interest in mitigating.

Consult your insurance agent. Some insurance companies require leak prevention devices on water heaters, or strongly encourage them. Ask if your association’s insurer is one of them. Installing shut-off valves community-wide may not reduce the association’s insurance premium, although it would give your agent a strong argument for requesting a discount. But proactive risk management policies like this will improve the association’s overall risk profile, which may help you secure a favorable premium rate. Preventing water heater leaks will also avoid the costly damage claims that can increase your premium and may make it more difficult to obtain the coverage the association needs.


Steven Fielding is president of AQUAGUARD, LLC, which manufactures the WAGS Valve – a product he discovered as a consumer and liked so much, he bought the company that produces it. He is now on his third water heater with a WAGS valve. When the previous two heaters (operated long past their estimated useful life) failed, the valves worked perfectly.



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