Troubleshooting And Preventing Overheating In Electric Water Heaters: A DIY Guide

Overheating in electric water heaters can pose serious risks, from scalding burns to potential damage to the unit. Understanding the causes behind this issue and knowing how to address it is essential for maintaining a safe and efficient water heating system.

In this guide, we will explore the common reasons why electric water heaters overheat and provide practical troubleshooting steps to help you identify and rectify the problem.

By following these DIY techniques, you can safeguard against overheating, prevent accidents, and ensure the longevity of your electric water heater.

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Things To Consider When Overheating In Electric Water Heaters Occur

Is The High Water Temperature A Concern?

In our modern lives, hot water is a necessity for various daily activities such as dishwashing, laundry, shaving, showers, baths, hot tubs, and cleaning.

Most standard water heaters used for domestic water heating are designed with temperature settings ranging from 100 to 140 F, although they are typically factory pre-set to 120 or 125 F.

Higher temperatures are preferred because they ensure proper sanitation and prevent bacteria growth inside the storage tank. However, exceeding the recommended temperature can lead to increased energy bills and pose a scalding burn risk.

Scalding hot water from a shower or faucet is a significant concern for households, especially those with young children and seniors. Experts state that scalding can occur within just 5 seconds at a temperature of 140 F.

If you own an electric water heater, you are likely familiar with its simple design. The heater consists of a bulky and heavy cylinder that is wired to your home’s electrical system and connected to the plumbing. It utilizes one or two heating elements and incorporates additional components for protection and safe operation.

As an owner, it becomes your responsibility to adjust and regularly maintain the temperature. This can be done by locating the thermostat hidden behind the access panel connected to the heating elements. Using a flat screwdriver, you can easily increase or decrease the temperature as desired.

By ensuring that the water temperature is set within safe and recommended limits, you can effectively mitigate concerns and maintain a hot water system that is both safe and efficient.

Identifying Signs Of Overheating

Identifying signs of overheating in an electric water heater is crucial for timely intervention and preventing potential damage. Here are some signs that can indicate overheating:

  • Extremely hot water: If the water coming out of your taps or shower is unusually hot, it may be a sign of overheating. Be cautious and check the temperature to ensure it is within a safe range.
  • Boiling or bubbling noises: The water inside the tank can reach boiling temperatures, resulting in boiling or bubbling noises. If you notice such sounds coming from your water heater, it may indicate an issue.
  • Frequent or continuous cycling: If the heating elements turn on and off frequently or remain constantly active, it can be a sign of overheating. This continuous cycling suggests that the thermostat is not effectively controlling the temperature.
  • Discolored or rusty water: Overheating can cause sediment or minerals to become agitated and mix with the hot water. As a result, you may notice discolored or rusty water coming from your taps.
  • Leaking or dripping from the pressure relief valve: The pressure relief valve is designed to release excess pressure from the tank. If it is continuously leaking or dripping, it could indicate that the water heater is overheating and the valve is opening to relieve pressure.

If you observe any of these signs, it is important to address the issue promptly.

Causes Of Overheating In Electric Water Heaters And Troubleshooting Tips

Over time, electric water heaters can develop various problems, such as leaks, noise, and unpleasant odors. Our troubleshooting guide provides explanations for most of these issues, with some being easier to fix than others.

However, when it comes to overheating in electric water heaters, it is often necessary to call in a professional. While electric water heaters are equipped with safety features to prevent overheating, this problem can still occur, resulting in scalding hot water. There are several potential reasons for overheating:

Important note: Before attempting any repairs, always turn off the power by switching off the breaker or removing the fuse. Electric water heaters are directly wired from the circuit breaker and operate on either 115 or 220 volts. With the power off, carefully inspect the wiring for proper connectivity and any signs of damage.

High-Temperature Settings

When troubleshooting an overheating electric water heater, the first step is to check the thermostat. It is possible that the thermostat has been inadvertently set to the highest temperature setting. To adjust it, use a flat screwdriver to rotate the temperature dial counterclockwise and lower the temperature. Keep in mind that the water inside the tank is extremely hot, so it may take a few hours before you notice a temperature difference.

It is generally recommended to set the hot water temperature to around 120 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal use.

Heating Elements Issues

One common reason for heating elements to overheat is the accumulation of limescale or sediments on their surfaces.

If you reside in an area with hard water, it is advisable to consider softening it to protect your electric water heater from damage and overheating.

Mineral deposits can interfere with the regular operation of your water heater. Over time, sediments build up on the bottom of the water tank, including the heating elements. This sediment layer acts as an insulator, causing the water heater to work harder to reach the desired temperature.

Due to the increased thermal stress, the heating elements can overheat, and the water absorbs this excessive heat. As a result, one or both heating elements can fail shortly after overheating.

To address this issue, it is recommended to regularly flush your water heater to prevent sediment buildup. Additionally, installing a water softener can help prevent mineral deposits. If sediments have already caused an issue, such as improper or non-functional heating elements, it is necessary to replace them. Cleaning the heating elements from sediments is also an option.

When replacing a heating element, normal water heating will be restored, but the overall lifespan of the water heater may be compromised due to the sediment buildup. Therefore, regular maintenance is crucial.

You can also test the heating elements to determine their condition.

Ensure the power is off and disconnect the wires from the heating element screws. Set your multimeter to the ohms setting and test one element at a time. Touch both probes to the screws of the element. If the reading is close to zero, the heating element is functioning properly. Repeat the same procedure for the other element.

Note that a shorted heating element can also cause overheating.

Testing heating elements for a short circuit to ground is relatively simple. With the power turned off, remove an access panel and insulation to access the heating element terminals.

Disconnect the wires from the heating elements and set the multimeter to “ohms.”

Touch one probe to the terminal (screw) of a heating element and the other probe to the element flange. There should be no reading on the multimeter. If you observe any reading, it indicates that the element is grounded and must be replaced.

Thermostat Issues

If the thermostat in your electric water heater is out of calibration or broken, it can result in improper heating and excessively high water temperatures.

The thermostat’s primary function is to regulate the heating cycle of the heating elements. It turns the element ON or OFF based on the set temperature and the actual water temperature. To accurately measure the temperature, the thermostat must be in direct contact with the water heater tank, without any interference from insulation.

A thermostat typically includes a red reset button, also known as the Emergency Cut-Off (ECO) button. When activated, it interrupts the power supply to the heating elements.

If the thermostat or reset button fails to function properly, the heating elements may continue to draw power without any control, leading to water being heated to extreme temperatures.

Inspect the wiring and thermostat for any visible signs of melting or burnt areas.

Replacing a thermostat is a straightforward task that does not require draining the tank. However, replacing heating elements does necessitate draining the tank.

While it is possible to test thermostats for proper functioning, it is recommended to seek professional assistance as the tests need to be conducted with the power on. Calling in a professional ensures safety and accuracy in diagnosing and resolving thermostat issues.

Sediment Buildup

Sediment buildup in a water heater is detrimental for several reasons. It inhibits proper heat transfer, causing inefficiency in heating the water. Additionally, it often leads to an annoying rumbling sound as the sediment is agitated by the heating elements.

Moreover, sediment can clog valves and cover various components, further affecting the performance and longevity of the water heater. Therefore, it is essential to address sediment buildup to maintain optimal performance and extend the lifespan of your water heater.

T&P Valve Issues

Temperature and pressure relief valves (T&P valves) are crucial safety components designed to alleviate excessive pressure from the water heater tank. When the temperature and pressure levels surpass the permitted limits, the valve automatically opens to release the pressure. The T&P valve is equipped with a handle that allows for manual water release, making it convenient during the draining or flushing of the water heater.

It is highly recommended to check the T&P valve at least once a year to ensure it hasn’t become encrusted with limescale or debris. Testing the valve involves lifting the lever multiple times and observing if water is discharged. It is essential to ensure that the valve seats properly and does not exhibit any signs of leakage.

Defective or stuck T&P valves pose serious risks as steam and pressure cannot escape from the tank, leading to overheating, deformation of heating elements, and potentially causing harm to occupants if scalding steam or hot water is released. The increased pressure within the tank can even result in tank deformations or, in extreme cases, an explosion.

If you encounter any issues with a malfunctioning water heater or a defective temperature and pressure relief valve, it is recommended to contact a qualified plumber for professional assistance.


Overheating is dangerous. High pressure and temperature could lead to scalding injuries, damage to your water heater, or even an explosion.

Keeping your electric water heater safe and efficient is essential for the smooth functioning of your household. By following the preventive measures mentioned above and being proactive in monitoring and maintaining your water heater, you can minimize the risk of overheating and other potential issues.

Regularly checking the temperature settings, flushing the tank to remove sediments, insulating the heater, ensuring proper ventilation, and scheduling professional inspections are all important steps to take to prevent overheating in electric water heaters.

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