Why water heaters should be raised in some situations

Originally published in The Daily Herald

by Barry Stone

Q: We are now buying our first home and are having a dispute between two inspectors. Our home inspector says the water heater is not properly installed because it sits on the floor of a laundry room that adjoins the garage. He says it should be installed on a raised platform, but the inspector at the local building department disagrees. The city inspector says the water heater complies with code because the garage and laundry room are separated by a self-closing door. So we have a stalemate.

We want the sellers to provide a platform, as advised by our home inspector, but they are unwilling to do so, preferring to believe the city inspector. Both inspectors seem to know what they’re talking about. So who should we believe, the home inspector or the city inspector?

A: Conflicts over water heater placement commonly occur in some municipal areas and are usually the result of a misinterpretation of the plumbing code.

According to code, a water heater in a garage must be installed on an elevated platform so that the pilot light is at least 18 inches above the floor. The purpose of this requirement is to prevent ignition of combustible vapors. Gasoline fumes, for example, are heavier than air. In the event of a spill or leak, these fumes could spread across the garage floor and be ignited by a water heater flame, triggering a fire or explosion.

The plumbing code specifies garages as the primary location where water heaters are to be elevated. Therefore, some inspectors assume the requirement does not apply to water heaters that are installed in adjoining rooms or closets. The bottom line to this controversy is found in the specific wording of the code. It is stated as follows:

“Where such water heaters installed within a garage are enclosed in a separate, approved compartment having access only from outside of the garage, such water heaters may be installed at floor level …”

The central consideration here is whether the room where the water heater is installed opens to the outside of the garage or directly into the garage. If the laundry room has direct access to the garage, the code plainly requires that the water heater be elevated, just as if it were installed in the garage itself.

To determine how this requirement pertains to your situation, consider this. Suppose a gasoline leak occurs in the garage. Gas fumes cover the floor but are unable to enter the laundry room because the door is closed. Suddenly, there you are with an armload of dirty sox, T-shirts and underwear. You open the laundry room door, gasoline fumes drift through the doorway toward the water heater pilot light, and BOOM! No more house, no more laundry and no more you!

The conclusion is obvious: The water heater in the laundry room should be installed on a raised platform, as intended when the pertinent plumbing code was written.