This is not a common place for a water heater leak.
The most common places for water heaters to leak would be the pipe connections on the top of the unit or the TPR valve on the side. But leaks in other places happen too.
Electric water heaters have two elements that penetrate from the sides of the unit into the water.
These each have a thermostat and are what heats the water inside.
As each element literally passes through the side of unit, they must screw in. And over time they can get loose, or deteriorate, and leak.
Leaks here are not as common, but they happen.
This leak has been going on for some time. This heater is tucked away into the corner of a walk-in cellar, and not in an area where people would regularly pass by.
So if any leaks happen they would be less likely to be seen.
Of course, someone could look at this and not recognize the stains as indicative of a leak. But you can bet that an unusual stain on the side of anything with water in it would be a tell-tale sign of a problem!
Did I take the cover off to examine it? NO!
The screw actually looked like it had been tightened down, perhaps to seal up the plate better so leaking water could not get out!
Some plumbers might see this and pronounce it to be the worst they have ever seen; this is very dangerous; this is common; this must be dealt with right away; why there just happens to be brand new water heater right on the truck and they can take care of it now ... well, you know the drill. But still, you have to call!
My recommendation: it's a good idea to pass by and look at your appliances from time to time! You never know what you might find! In this case we found evidence of a problem. It needs investigation. You never know, the fix might be simpler, and cheaper, than imagined! If one element is to be replaced, AND if the canister is still in good shape and can last a while longer, it is best to replace the other at the same time. With good connections elsewhere doing that might extend the life span of the water heater for a long time! That's, of course, if you get an honest assessment. Which you might just get!
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC
Based in Bristow, serving all of Northern Virginia.
Office (703) 330-6388 Cell (703) 585-7560