Q: In my 1938 home, I have a square well or sub-basement about 10 feet by 7 feet by 4 feet deep (a box). I step down two steps into this small area. My problem is, my water heater is here, strapped and on a 2-foot-high platform. The furnace is right next to the heater.
There is no drain and putting one in is not practical, although I have not talked to a plumber or contractor about this. If my water heater, which is 6 years old, breaks down and I have a flood, I would lose my furnace. What suggestion could you give me to protect myself?
A: It’s true that on exceedingly rare occasions water heaters can fail catastrophically, causing a 30- to 60-gallon flood. However, a 6-year-old water heater should not do this. We’re certain the heater is equipped with a pressure-relief valve and is warranted for at least five years.
Kevin’s heater has a five-year warranty and is going on 13 years of service without showing any sign of giving up the ghost. When Bill changed from oil to forced-air gas heat a few years ago, he decided to upgrade the water heater, too. The one he replaced had been working faithfully since the house was built — in the late 1940s!
We don’t think you need to worry too much about a flood in the basement. That said, you’re wise to consider preventive measures before a big problem presents itself.
Placement of water heaters and furnaces in mini-basements was common and a good alternative in 1930s- and 1940s-vintage homes. If you think about it, with this configuration they are out of the way and they don’t take up valuable living space. This is especially important in smaller bungalows.
The disadvantage, of course, is when one of these appliances fails. In addition to any damage that may be done, a furnace or water heater can be a bear to get out of a basement.
Rather than a flood, it’s more likely that sometime in the future you’ll be plagued with a slow leak from a water heater tank that has rusted through.
We recently had a water heater failure in our mother’s home in Eagle, Idaho. Her gas water heater is in the laundry room next to the washer and dryer. We had just purchased the house and moved her washer and dryer from her previous home. After a few days she noticed that the vinyl tiles on the floor oozed water when she stepped on them.
Initially we thought it was the 15-year-old washing machine leaking. In fact, we did have it serviced, but the oozing continued. After having the Maytag Man out a second time, we discovered a pinhole leak in the bottom of the water heater. Fortunately the seller had provided us with a home warranty, so Mom got a new water heater for just the $45 service fee.
The highest risk of a water heater discharging large amounts of water is through pressure buildup in the tank and discharge through the pressure-relief valve. This is a brass valve on either the top or the side of the tank. It should be fitted with a discharge pipe that directs the water to a safe place. In a garage — and probably in your basement — the discharge pipe terminates at the base of the water heater, so water merely puddles on the floor. If the water heater is inside, the discharge pipe should be directed through the crawl space to the outside of the house.
We suggest you take a look at your water heater and determine where the pipe from the pressure relief valve terminates. If it’s on the floor of the well, redirect it to the outside of the house. This is not a big job, especially if you use copper pipe. Plastic pipe might be an option here, but check for code compliance before you go this route.
Another avenue you might consider is installing a sump pump in the well. You’ll need an electrical outlet close by (which you may have for the furnace). Installation may require busting a hole in the concrete floor to catch the water. The pump’s discharge should also be directed up out of the basement to the outside of the house.
These solutions should keep water out of your basement and your furnace high and dry.