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Water Heater Making A Popping Noise? What You Can Do

water heater making popping noise

One of the last sounds you want to hear when you’re in the garage or laundry room is your water heater making a popping noise. While anything audible coming from your unit is a cause for concern, you should know that this sound often indicates a sediment buildup in your tank—something you’ll want to take care of sooner, rather than later. Once you troubleshoot what your issue is, you’ll be faced with a decision: whether to try to fix the problem on your own, or call in a professional.

Similar to when you take your car in for a suspicious sound and a mechanic asks you to describe it, you’ll discover as you do your homework that different noises can indicate different problems. Maybe you’ve noticed your water heater making a noise like running water, or you hear something coming from your water heater only when the hot water is turned on. Or perhaps, you might notice your water heater making a vibrating noise or an eerie gurgling noise. In this post, we’ll help you understand what these sounds mean and what to do about them.

Before we get into the specifics, let’s back up and explore what water heaters are, the role they play in your home and the different types of systems you might have.

Water heaters are used to heat the water coming into your home. This incoming water enters through a dip tube at the top of the tank before heading down to the bottom of the tank where the liquid reaches your desired temperature. This heat conduction is made possible thanks to your water heater’s burner that’s powered on until water reaches a certain temperature. Heat is controlled by the system’s thermostat, which should be set to between 120 and 125 degrees. Once the water is the correct temperature, it travels back the top of your water heater, where it stays warm until being released into the heat-out pipe.

There are four primary types of water heaters.

Storage Water Heaters

Think of these water heaters as your most traditional and standard form of water heaters. These systems are the cheapest and most accessible. These types of water heaters work by heating 20 to 80 gallons of water, holding this liquid in a reservoir and releasing the warmed water from the top of the tank through your pipes, where it then travels to where you need it, whether that’s a sink when you’re washing your hands, a washing machine when you’re cleaning your clothes or your shower or bathtub when you are bathing.

Storage water heaters always remain full, thanks to the cold water that regularly enters the bottom of the tank. These machines generally last somewhere between 8 and 10 years.

Tankless Water Heaters

Tankless water heaters are a newer, energy efficient solution that works—as you might guess—without a tank. These systems warm water as it flows through a heating coil. Since a tankless water heater supplies hot water on demand, without having to store it, the system only uses energy to heat your water as you need it. Tankless systems can last over 20 years.

Heat Pump Water Heaters

Heat pump water heaters are multi-functional systems that can heat or cool your house, as well as warm your water. Similar to storage water heaters, heat pumps can usually keep working for about 10 to 12 years. Unlike their traditional counterparts, heat pump water heaters don’t generate heat directly. Instead, electricity moves heat from one place to another, making these systems at least two to three times more energy efficient than conventional water heaters. To function, these water heaters operate opposite a refrigerator, pulling heat from the surrounding air and depositing it at a higher temperature into a tank to heat your water.

Water Heater Making Noise Like Water Running

Water Heater Making A Noise Like Water Running

The only places you should hear running water is by your sinks, showers and flushing toilets. If your water heater is making this type of sound, you certainly have every right to be concerned.

One reason your system could be making this noise is because of a leak somewhere in your water heater’s line or pipes, which is more common for PVP and CPVC plastic pipes that can break relatively easily. As a side note, if you’re looking to replace pipes in the future, stick with copper or PEX pipes, as these are known to be less vulnerable to expansion from sudden cold to hot weather changes or bending due to movement of your home or structure.

You can troubleshoot this issue by inspecting your temperature and pressure valve (commonly called the TP valve) located on the side of the heater. This valve has an overflow tube that goes to the bottom of your heater. If your overflow tube cuts through the wall, you’ll need to put your hand on the pipe to determine whether it feels warm. Keep in mind that a leaking TP valve will drain water out of the tank if it’s overheating, which is a common problem for older water heaters.

Hearing running water when no one is using the sink, running the dishwasher, taking a shower or drawing water for a bath may mean you have a water leak. While these originate in your pipes, you may notice them near your water heater. Water leaks can be traced back to broken pipes under your slab or from a running toilet. If you suspect you have a water leak, call in a professional plumber immediately, since damage can be significant if this problem is ignored.

Water Heater Makes Noise When Hot Water Is Turned On

Water Heater Makes A Noise When The Hot Water Is Turned On: What’s Going On?

Ready for another common, yet strange issue homeowners can have? You’ll probably be left scratching your head when you hear an unsettling noise only when your hot water is turned on.

The first thing you’ll want to do is to monitor how often your water heater is making the noise. Do you hear something every time you turn on your hot water, or only every once in a while? The second is to determine what type of sound you’re hearing. Is it a popping noise? A vibrating or hissing sound? All these sounds are common signs that a build-up of minerals has grown on the electric water heater elements and on the bottom area of gas heaters, causing water to become trapped.

Once this water becomes trapped, you might hear popping noises as water becomes hot within the electric elements or in the gas burners under the tank. You can fix this problem by draining and flushing your tank. Neglecting to flush the tank will only make water heater less efficient, which can ultimately cause the water heater tank to deteriorate. In addition, not attending to this kind of issue will increase your possibility of developing a leak.

If you’d like to attempt to repair this problem on your own before calling in a pro, try the following:

  • Make sure your water heater has been turned off.
  • Keep your cold water supply lever at a 90 degree angle to prevent more water from entering the water heater.
  • Connect your garden hose to the drain valve, then place the opposite end of the hose in an area where you can drain hot water, which for many homeowners is outside.
  • Locate and open your pressure relief valve and hot water spigot in the house to allow water to come out of the hose.
  • Open your drain valve. In most cases, dirty water should start pouring out of the hose. Be careful, as this water will be hot.
  • After the water has been drained, it’s time to flush the tank. Before turning the cold water on, make sure you close the pressure relief valve. Next, open and close the cold water supply lever a few times, which should flush out any remaining sediment in the bottom of the tank. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when you start seeing clear water.
  • Close your drain valve and disconnect the hose from the valve.
  • Switch the cold water supply lever back in line with the cold water inlet pipe. Wait about 10 minutes for the water heater to fill up once more, then turn on a hot water faucet to purge any air out of the tank. Once you start getting clear water instead of a cloudy air-water mixture, you can turn the hot water tap off.
  • Finally, turn the water heater back on to start heating your water again with no unusual noises.

If this sounds like a lot of work, you may consider enlisting an experienced plumber to flush your hot water heater for you. You won’t have to worry about the mess, any potential damage you may accidentally do to your appliance and the time doing this taskt takes away from your weekend.

To prevent sediment from building up again, you might consider installing a no-salt water conditioner at your home’s water main. No-salt water conditioners leave the minerals you need in the water while preventing them from scale buildup in the water heater or your pipes.

What if it’s a vibrating noise you are hearing emanating from your water heater? If this describes what’s going on in your home, keep reading to learn more about what this means and whether you can handle this problem on your own.

Water Heater Making Vibrating Noise

Another Alarming Situation: Water Heater Making A Vibrating Noise

Next up on our list of bizarre sounds is a water heater making a vibrating noise.

Vibrating noises usually happen near the upper heating elements found within your water heater. This problem can occur when cold water flows into the tank. While this scenario can be rough on the ears, the good news is that neither your heating element nor your water heater is probably on the verge of a catastrophe.

Thankfully, the best way to handle this problem is relatively simple: use an element wrench to tighten your heating element. This quick fix will more than likely silence your water heater.

Water Heater Making Gurgling Noise

Is A Water Heater Making A Gurgling Noise A Big Problem?

Similar to a popping sound, your water heater making gurgling noise is more than likely due to mineral buildup in the bottom of the tank. This could mean you have excess calcium, magnesium and other trace amounts of other materials which have settled at the bottom of your water heater.

Remember, hot water rises to the top of your hot water heater’s tank. It’s here that the hot water is replaced by cold water,  which then migrates to the bottom of the tank to be heated. Your water heater knows when to heat water thanks to a signal sent by the system’s thermostat, calling for the burner to be switched on. Typically, this all happens silently. The exception to this rule is when too much sediment has accumulated on the bottom of the tank, causing a gurgling or bubbling as water moves through these materials. While your water heater will still operate, your appliance will have to work harder to move water through your system, making it less efficient. If you let this problem go on too long, eventually you could be faced with a breach in your tank, which will result in a much larger headache.

You can eliminate the gurgling in the same way as you would if you hear popping sounds coming from your unit. Either flush your water heater to remove the sediment or call in an experienced plumber to perform this task for you.

ABC Can Solve Your Water Heater Problems

We have so many different types of appliances in our homes, and it’s virtually impossible for the average homeowner to be an expert in how each one operates. While you can research how to turn up a water heater or what to do if you are faced with a water heater burst, without experience, it’s easy to misdiagnose an issue. Worse still, taking on a problem yourself can mean you make one of the more common plumbing mistakes that you’ll later need to bring in an experienced plumber to resolve. The skilled plumbers at ABC Home & Commercial Services have the expertise to efficiently troubleshoot and find solutions to whatever plumbing issues you may be experiencing. With ABC’s help, you can have your water heater regularly serviced, repaired and installed by a company with a proven track record and friendly, reliable service.

Tom Riggs

Tom Riggs is the Division Manager for Mechanical Services, overseeing sales and operations for HVAC, Plumbing, Electrical, Appliance Repair and Water Quality for all ABC Austin branches. He joined ABC in 2014. Before ABC, he was an HVAC Service Technician, HVAC Comfort Advisor/Sales and Operations Manager. Tom attended Universal Technical Institute. He's an avid outdoorsman and enjoys country living with his wife and two sons.

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