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What is this clunking noise in my water pipe?

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clunking noise in water pipe

Earlier today, I noticed a strange, repetitive clunking noise from the vicinity of my water heater. After some investigation, it seems to come from the cold water supply to the water heater.

Here's what I've found:

  • turning on a faucet quiets the noise temporarily. After shutting off the faucet, it stays quiet for a bit, then the noise comes back.
  • turning off the cold water supply to the heater stops the noise (and the water)
  • the noise occurs while no water is being used in the house.
  • the noise repeatedly clunks about once a second.

Any ideas what this might be? Is it something that needs fixing, or can it be safely ignored?