After a fire in my house, I wanted to share my do’s and don’ts for storing things near a water heater. That is, I wish someone had told me that a water heater has the potential to be a fire and safety hazard and that there are rules governing where it can be located and what can be placed by it.
In this article, I take you through the rules about storing items near water heaters that can be found in the International Residential Code (IRC), which is applicable in most states of America, as well as other locations.
As per the IRC, allowable clearances are dictated by the manufacturer. Do not install water heaters near to ignitable construction and do not store ignitable materials near water heaters. Fuel-fired water heaters cannot be installed in storage closets. Nothing must block the airflow.
Clearance Depends on Manufacturer Instructions
According to IRC Section G2408.5, any heat-producing appliances, such as water heaters, need to be installed with the required clearances between the appliance and any ignitable materials and construction. These clearances will be specified in the manufacturer’s instructions.
The required clearances can be minimized according to the IRC Section G2409 (I talk more about this in the next section), but it is important to always have easy access to the water heater.
This is because by easily viewing the water heater, you can observe any required maintenance such as a leak or corrosion. If there was a small clearance from another object to the water heater, you may miss these maintenance tasks until the damage was more severe.
The IRC often gives final clearance authority to manufacturers, such as is the case here. Clearances to objects such as a door swing, drawer pull, overhead projections, and/or shelving need to adhere to the clearances provided in the manufacturer’s instructions.
The aforementioned IRC section further states:
“Devices, such as door stops or limits and closers, shall not be used to provide the required clearances”.
This means that if something would swing into the water heater’s clearance area, i.e., the area that must be free of all obstructions and objects at all times, then using a rubber doorstop or the like to stop it from swinging into this space is not a viable solution.
How to Legally and Safely Reduce Clearance
According to section G2409 of IRC, the reduction of required clearances to combustible materials, such as a water heater and other combustible materials, can be safely done by protecting the combustible items as described in the Table G2409.2 of the IRC.
For example, you can reduce the required clearance by installing the following between the water heater and the combustible material:
- 3 ½” thick masonry wall with or without ventilated airspace.
- ½” insulation boards over 1″ glass fiber or mineral wool batts.
- 0.024″ sheet metal over 1″ glass fiber.
This functions as an extra layer of protection, provided that it is permitted according to the manufacturer’s instructions. However, the clearance to water heater appliances should never interfere with combustion air, draft hood clearance, and accessibility for service.
Fuel-Fired Water Heaters Can’t Be in Storage Closets
Certain types of water heaters, such as a fuel-fired water heater, cannot be located in storage closets. This information is found in section M2005.2 of IRC. But why is this prohibited?
Firstly, and most obviously, a fuel-fired water heater is a fire hazard, so to locate it in a closed and cramped unit with a bunch of combustible materials is just asking for trouble.
Secondly, if the water heater was in a storage closet it would likely be less visible and or less accessible. Visibility and accessibility are of great importance for appliances like water heaters. You have to be able to see if anything is amiss, and you need to be able to get to the heater quickly if there is something wrong.
Can You Install a Shelf Above a Water Heater?
You can install a shelf above a water heater, but only as long as there is enough space for the maintenance folks to service the water heater and the shelf does not pose a fire hazard.
By looking at the manufacturing instructions dictating the clearance distance from combustibles, you can determine if there is enough space to install a shelf above the water heater.
One more condition: you can only install a shelf above an electric water heater. A gas water heater or alternative fuel-fired water heater would be off-limits.
Don’t Store Combustible Materials Near Water Heater
You should never store combustible materials, such as paper, chemicals, wood, etc., near the water heater because this poses significant a fire hazard.
- Paper items are extremely combustible and should not be stored near a water heater. For example, books, magazines, important papers and documentation, medical records, taxes, birth certificates, and family photos are extremely flammable (not to mention that losing some of these would be devastating!).
- Chemical items are extremely flammable and even explosive and should not be stored near a water heater. So things like your household cleaners, solvents to create basic acids, and paints for the walls should be kept well away from the heater.
- Woods such as firewood or old wooden antique furniture should not be stored near the water heater because, similarly to paper items, wood is extremely combustible. Furthermore, untreated or poorly maintained woods can introduce pests such as termites or bring in insects from outside, which could damage your water heater.
Even with an electric water heater, there may be sparks that form and could cause a fire in the presence of these combustible materials.
Consider What Would Be Damaged by Water
Water damage is significant if not identified in the early stages. Water damage often is representing in the form of rotting wood, moldy walls, bacterial growth, extreme rust, and degradation of common household materials. You can think of your home being damaged by water internally and externally.
Internal water damage is often due to water leakage from the water heater accumulating inside the home and flooding the room. This may cause damage to any other appliances, such as short-circuiting washers, dryers, and vacuum cleaners, should they be stored near the water heater.
External water damage is often due to where the walls of your home become of the water heater having a leak. If the water heater is located on a non-ground level floor, the water can saturate the below floor ceilings. Furthermore, the sidewalls will become damaged due to the wood and insulation become wet.
Ensure Nothing Blocks the Air Flow
There must be nothing that blocks the airflow into the water heater storage closet. This is because, without adequate combustion air, there is a risk of carbon monoxide production.
A rise in levels of the flammable gas carbon monoxide increases the risk of ignition points causing a fire in your household. Furthermore, carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas to humans and pets, and may cause serious adverse health effects and even death!
Thus, having more free space around the water heater means that there is more free-flowing oxygen and carbon monoxide build-up is less likely.
Do not store items that can move around near the water heater. This includes items such as books, ironing boards, and cleaning supplies. This is because any of these items may fall without your knowledge and block the airflow vent of the water heater.
Can You Store a Refrigerator by a Water Heater?
It is best not to store a refrigerator by a water heater for several reasons.
Firstly, a water heater is a source of heat, whereas a refrigerator is a source of coldness. If a heat source is nearby all of the chilled food, the refrigerator will have to work twice as hard to keep all of the chilled food cold, increasing your electricity bills.
Secondly, the water heater may sometimes need to be switched off either due to leakage or maintenance. You do not want the refrigerator to be hooked onto the same outlet which may get switched off. Otherwise, all of your food will spoil.
Can You Store a Dryer by a Water Heater?
Do not store a dryer by a water heater No other fuel-burning appliance should be installed in the same confined area as a dryer (such as a closet) because it introduces the possibility of there not being adequate ventilation for both applications.
Furthermore, lint from the dryer may build up and, with the heat and fuel of the water heater, this can lead to fire and even explosions.
However, if this is not a small storage closet but rather a large basement with air ventilation, then a dryer can be stored within the vicinity of a water heater, provided there is still a reasonable clearance distance.
Regularly Check That Clearances Are Correct
You need to regularly check that clearance distances are correct if you are storing household items near a water heater. This is because these items may move closer over time due to minor earthquakes or house members unaware of regulations and moving items around.
A way to regularly check that clearances are correct is that the first time you are measuring the correct clearances from the water heater, you can place bright tape on the floor where the other items should be placed. Then, every month, you can check if these items are behind the colored tape.
How to Safely Enclose Your Water Heater
A water heater can be enclosed but it is important to know that there are specific conditions that must be achieved when placing a hot water heater within an enclosed space. This applies to both gas and electric water heaters.
There are more safety concerns when running a natural gas line into your home. For a gas water heater, you are at higher risk of having carbon monoxide gas leaks which may result in an explosion.
Proper maintenance must be applied to safely enclose this water heater so that there is proper ventilation within the enclosure and regular accessibility so that periodic checks on the gas line ensure proper use.
Electric water heaters do not have these risks, but instead, the risk of an electric fire.
- To safely enclose your water heater, you first need to plan the enclosure to fit any manufacturer’s instructions for clearances. This means that there should be a buffer zone of spacing so that you or a repair person can get easy access for maintenance.
- Then the walls should be solid and framed to make sure they can be long-lasting.
- Next, the doorway should be constructed so that there is proper ventilation and easy access.
- Lastly, the enclosure should be finished by painting with primer.
Go Tankless to Save Space
In order to save space, you can also go tankless when choosing your water heater. The benefits of a tankless water heater include low energy consumption, extended lifespan, lower utility bills due to less energy compared to traditional storage water heaters, and the possibility of a tax credit. More in-depth benefits can be found in my article on the 9 Benefits of a Tankless Water Heater.
The negatives of a tankless water heater are that there is the potential for overheating other household appliances, overloading the electrical circuit, and carbon monoxide poisoning. I have also written an entire article on the Dangers of Tankless Water Heaters.
Clearances still apply because tankless water heaters operate with electricity or gas, but the actual units are smaller, so they take up less space.
Here are some tankless water heaters that you can take a look at:
- Rinnai Indoor Tankless Hot Water Heater (amazon link) – The Rinnai water heater is energy and space efficient and only heats up when necessary for a 6.5 GPM hot water flow rate.
- Camplux Outdoor Digital Display Propane Gas Tankless Water Heater (amazon link) – The Camplux water heater is easy to install (5 minutes) and comes with all necessary accessories to ensure safety flame failure and anti-freezing protection.
- Furrion Tankless Gas Water Heater (amazon link) – The Furrion water heater is high power due to its 60K BTU heating power and a 2.4 GPM capacity.