What do you do when you spot a puddle on the floor near your water heater? After determining it's not close enough to a window for rainwater to seep in and it's not dripping from an overhead pipe, there's one other option to consider – the water heater.

A leaking water heater is not something you can pretend you didn't notice and hope it goes away. Leaks tend not to fix themselves no matter what we're talking about. Just as a leaking swimming pool can harm your backyard, a water heater can cause all sorts of damage when left alone. Toxic mold and mildew would flourish as building materials making up the surrounding walls, floors, and subfloors deteriorate and rot.

Confirm It's Not Condensation

Gas-powered water heaters are known to produce condensation toward the top of the unit, especially when they are new. Look for water stains and signs of rust along the sides of the tank. A rusted tank needs to be replaced.

Condensation can form on the cold water pipes above the heater in humid weather, eventually creating puddles on the floor. Dry the floor and lay paper towel around the area in question, including the base of the tank. After a few hours have passed, you will see evidence collected on the paper towels telling you if condensation is the cause. By the same token, the wet paper towels will show you which side a heater leak is coming from.

Use Your Hands

Dry your hands thoroughly and feel around any connection points and valves along the water pipes above the heater. Sometimes a gate valve will leak from just beneath the handle. Tighten the packing nut below the handle to create a tighter seal. Check the fittings where the water inlet and outlet pipes enter the tank; sometimes water can seep out of these connections if not well sealed.

Next, feel around the temperature and pressure (T&P) relief valve located near the top of the tank, which should connect to a pipe leading to a drain. If you find a leak here, the T&P valve may need replacing.

Inspect the Electric Heating Element

First, shut off the circuit breaker for the water heater. Coming into contact with electricity and standing water is lethal.

Remove the access panels and plastic safety shield and look for visible water stains. If you don't seen anything, feel around the insulation for moisture. If you find wetness around the element, you can try tightening it or you may need to replace the rubber gasket that seals the element.

Check the Drain Valve

The drain valve is found on the side, near the bottom of the tank. Feel the inside of the spigot for moisture. If it's wet, the valve may be faulty and need replacement. For a temporary fix, you can screw on a garden hose cap or sprayer nozzle to seal the leak.

Leaks start small and they aren't always easy to find. However, you want to find the source early before a leak becomes an expensive problem. Once you have located the leak, contact your service professional to make the repair, knowing you've completed half the work.