Don't drink the brown water
March 19, 2010 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Without warning my hot water (and hot water only) has suddenly started running brown, and when I drain a tub of it silt like material is left in the bottom. I suspect it's rust. After running the water for a long time it does not seem to be going away. Am I right in thinking that this is probably my boiler and it should be replaced? The suddenness seems weird. Also: my family has been showing and bathing in this, could it be harmful in any way?
posted by Artw to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a rusty hot water heater. If you have a tank type hot water heater, has it been drained and flushed (ever) recently?
posted by strixus at 4:56 PM on March 19, 2010

Not within the last 3 years that I am aware of. I Am Not A Plumber, or particularly handy, so would this be something I should do myself? I'm assuming it goes beyond running the water for a real long time and I'd need to open a valve to a hose of some kind?
posted by Artw at 5:03 PM on March 19, 2010

Like this, in fact?
posted by Artw at 5:05 PM on March 19, 2010

This happened to me last year. When my dad (thanks Dad!) replaced my hot water heater he chewed my butt and told me the bottom was nearly rusted through. Life lesson: don't ignore the rusty water and try to pretend it will go away!
posted by CwgrlUp at 5:09 PM on March 19, 2010

Turn off the breaker to it, , turn off the water to it. Attach a hose to the little spout at the bottom and put it at a nearby drain. Maybe fill it and flush it a few times (not necessary to heat).

But you may want to buy a new tank.
posted by Napierzaza at 5:16 PM on March 19, 2010

There's usually a "sacrificial anode" in the tank which should oxidize before the tank itself. If it is never replaced, then the tank starts rusting. You *might* be able to replace the sacrificial anode and flush the tank and recover "normal" water. The suddenness may be due to the "sudden" depletion of the anode.

As far as toxicity goes, this is probably all iron oxide, which is probably not absorbed in any meaningful way through your skin, and which you would eat in 'iron fortified' foods like breakfast cereal. If you eat too much iron it can cause liver problems, but you gotta ingest quite a bit. It looks like young children may be more susceptible to iron toxicity, so if you've had younguns drinking the hot water from your tank, this may be cause for concern.
posted by u2604ab at 5:32 PM on March 19, 2010

Have the fire fighters been flushing hydrants around your neighborhood lately? That could cause clumps of dirt that are in the water line (happens alot) to become unstuck. Check your neighbors and see if they are having the problem too.
posted by Brent Parker at 6:14 PM on March 19, 2010

The suddenness does seem weird, as does the fact that you are getting a significant amount of silt in the tub-- that stuff is heavy, and the water is taken out of the heater at the very top; it would take a powerful jet of water from the fill pipe to keep enough silt suspended in the tank to put much silt in your tub.

This is the time of year a lot of water comes into the Seattle system from snowmelt in the watershed, and Seattle tries to make the most of it by topping up storage. Last I heard, most of the city is gravity fed, and many neighborhoods have water towers. When those babies are full, it really cranks up the pressure to your house.

About 5 or 6 years ago the city demanded I put a pressure limiter in my line, which I did, but out of laziness, I installed it where a previous owner had put in a water purification cartridge, and that covered all the faucets except for one on the outside of the house. Back in November I was out washing mud off my bike and the water was coming out of the nozzle with such force I said to my partner when I went back inside that 'the last thing we'll ever need to buy is a pressure washer!' I don't recall that they ever checked to verify I'd put in the limiter.

I'd check with Utilities whether your house ought to have a limiter, but regardless of what they may say, I think your water heater has had rust in the bottom for some time, and that what you are seeing is due to a large jump in your water pressure.
posted by jamjam at 7:18 PM on March 19, 2010

Draining right now.
posted by Artw at 8:00 PM on March 19, 2010

Jesus yes call a plumber. This happened to me many years ago, and the bottom of the tank rusted out completely, and the two bedroom apartment I was living received about 200 litres of hot water into it. Not fun.
posted by smoke at 8:40 PM on March 19, 2010

> This is the time of year a lot of water comes into the Seattle system from snowmelt in the watershed, and Seattle tries to make the most of it by topping up storage. Last I heard, most of the city is gravity fed, and many neighborhoods have water towers. When those babies are full, it really cranks up the pressure to your house.

I've had this specifically happen on capitol hill, along with a combination of the fire department draining / using the hydrants in my neighborhood, causing it to kick up the silk and sediment in my water heater. I knew it wasn't my heater rusting out in my unit, because I checked with the landlord and everyones water heater did it at the same time. I gave it a day and my hot water tap was running clear again.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:30 PM on March 19, 2010

Ok, so now it's much better but ever so lightly green?
posted by Artw at 9:38 PM on March 19, 2010

Your anode rod has become so covered with particles that it is giving up. At that point rusting can set on quickly. As stated above, sometimes you can replace it, but once rusting begins it might be too late.

Here's a tip taught to me by a solar water heater installer years ago:

When you get a new hot water heater, remove the anode rod before you ever use the tank, then wrap some teflon plumbing tape around the threads and put it back in. Figure out how long it took for your last one to go bad and replace the rod a year or so before that. Having put the tape on the original rod, it will be easy to replace even if there is some rusting around the threads.

Replacing a rod is a lot cheaper than replacing a tank.
posted by bigtex at 10:11 PM on March 19, 2010

Or, I should have said: your anode rod has probably gone bad. Others' points about unusual influx of sediment may also be true. If you're going to drain your tank anyway, take the old rod out and inspect it. It if isn't shiny, replace it. But if you shine a flashlight into the tank and see rust, replace the tank before it rusts out and leaks.
posted by bigtex at 10:15 PM on March 19, 2010

Oh boy. So I wasn't able to figure out the way to see into the tank or check the anode, but I noticed green corrosion on the hot water pipe leading out of it, just about every place there was a join. I'm thinking plumber time.

This could get expensive.
posted by Artw at 10:38 PM on March 19, 2010

Definitely check the anode, but check the thermostat as well. If the heater isn't getting the water above 60°C there might be Things growing inside the tank.
posted by flabdablet at 10:59 PM on March 19, 2010

Oh, it's plenty hot in their, don't worry about that. Actually i'm wondering now if it being set so hot might be part of the problem.
posted by Artw at 11:24 PM on March 19, 2010

The hotter the tank, the faster all the reactions inside it will go (and the more verdigris you'll see on the outlet pipes).

The purpose of an anode is to prevent minor flaws in the tank's glass lining from turning into nuclei for rusting. If your tank is now rusting at such a rate that suspended rust is coming out the delivery pipe before it can settle to the bottom, your anode probably failed a long time ago and the tank is now doooooooomed.

Once rust gets stuck into a tank, it will start to lift the internal glaze. When you drained it, did you find little bits of glaze in the brown sludge from the bottom? If so: new tank, stat.
posted by flabdablet at 1:30 AM on March 20, 2010

Y'all need a new tank brother.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:06 AM on March 20, 2010

« Older How can I avoid being homeless?   |   Where do I buy skates? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.