Back to Recent Articles July 18th, 2019

A Water Heater Explosion Forever Changes An Industry

On January 19, 1982, six children and one teacher never came home from Star Elementary School. A horrific water heater explosion took the lives of seven people and injured 42 more. For the town of Spencer, Oklahoma, and the family members of the victims, life would never be the same.

Since the tragic day, the city has tried to move forward and the families of the victims have helped change an industry for the better. With new water heater regulations, we hope to never see a tragedy like this again.

Read on to learn more about how one fateful day, forever changed life in an Oklahoma town and how we regulate these essential appliances.

A Water Heater Explosion Takes The Lives Of Children

On a day that started like any other, children, faculty, and staff went to Star Elementary School in a suburb of Oklahoma City. No one could have ever imagined the horror that would ensue from an everyday appliance found in almost every building and home in the United States.

A water heater explosion caused bricks and glass to fly into a cafeteria filled with students and staff. Seven people including six children and one teacher lost their life. At least 42 others were injured and all involved were forever changed.

Earlier that morning, cafeteria employees noted a problem with the hot water heater. A plumber came and replaced a faulty gas valve. Shortly after, more problems arose including steam coming from a dishwasher. The gauge indicated the temperature was over 40 degrees higher than normal. A custodian emitted steam to try and resolve the issue. Tragically, at 12:15 that day the explosion ensued.

In the hours and days that followed, crews worked to clean up the rubble and put the pieces back together. Families mourned their loved ones and a town came together to support one another. Amidst the tears came anger, blame, and questions.

The Aftermath

Naturally, questions arose as to how this could happen, could it have been prevented and how do we make sure this never happens again. Lawsuits and accusations came rolling in and people demanded answers.

With blame being cast and fingers pointed, it was clear that something needed to change. No one should ever be in danger of a water heater explosion happening again. If this could happen here, it could happen in any other school, commercial building, or home. New laws, regulations and much-needed change came to an industry in dire need of reform.

The water heater, located in the school’s cafeteria kitchen had been having problems. It was later revealed that for at least three years, the water heater had been in bad condition. The temperature probe showed signs of tampering and the pressure relief valve wasn’t installed correctly. Because the water heater at the school was a low-pressure vessel it was exempt from inspection regulations.

New Regulations

Sadly, the accident that unfolded that day could have been avoided. If water heater inspections and proper procedures had been in place, the explosion would have never happened. There was no regulation prior to this event to inspect these appliances. Without regular maintenance procedures, critical repairs weren’t addressed.

The findings not only sparked a community but a nation to enact change. If it could happen at a school in Oklahoma, it could and likely would happen again anywhere. The town, the victims and regulators nationwide banded together to enact much-needed changes.

The tragedy of Star Elementary School brought on a series of more stringent laws. Nine months after the accident the Oklahoma state legislature put forth stronger safety laws over water heaters and heating boilers. Most importantly, this tragedy provided a new law requiring, mandatory, annual inspections.

It was and continues to be the hope of all involved that a tragedy like this never happens again. With the current safety procedures, appliance standards, and inspections, we’re all in a lot safer place than we were in 1982.

How You Can Protect Yourself

You may be asking yourself if this could happen in your home. A water heater is likely one of those things in our homes that we pay little attention to. It has a crucial role in the running of our household yet we don’t tend to it like we do sweeping the floor or mowing the lawn.

The water heater often sits in a utility closet, basement or laundry room, completely out of sight and out of mind. This vital appliance, however, needs your attention to keep your house running smoothly and you and your family safe.

There are a few things you can do to keep your family safe and your home protected against a preventable accident. It’s important to keep up with regular maintenance, and have licensed technicians repair, install, and maintain your water heater.

When you move, it’s also crucial to get a proper home inspection. Make sure you follow up on the status of the water heater, ask questions about the longevity, and follow up on any repairs they suggest. An inspector may flag something on your water heater that needs repairing. It’s easy to forget it in the bustle of moving and not follow up with a technician. This may also be something you ask for a credit from the seller for.

It’s worth every penny to have a professional follow up after an inspection, remedy any issue, and replace the unit if necessary. That is also a great time to establish a routine maintenance schedule with the company to keep your unit running as it should. 

Aside from safety, when a water heater is running well, it will save you hundreds in energy costs. Replacing older units can give you an even bigger bang for your buck. You can often receive tax benefits for upgrading to energy efficient appliances as well.

Take Action

If you’re concerned about a water heater explosion or a problem with your unit,  call or go online to book a licensed professional. If nothing else, if you don’t know when the last time your water heater has been looked at was, it’s time to call. The health and safety of your family are too important to procrastinate.