How To Tell if Your Water Heater Element is Bad and What to Do?

If your electric water heater is not producing enough hot water or not producing any hot water at all, you might have a broken heating element. Unit failure is a major inconvenience as there will be no hot water for washing clothes, dishes, and taking showers.

Before you call a plumber, you might want to read this article and learn how to diagnose if your water heater element is bad and also how to test and replace it yourself.

heating element
photo: amazon.com

What Is a Water Heating Element, and How Does It Work?

A water heating element is a crucial component of an electric water heater that heats the water inside the tank. It is typically a long, coiled-up piece of wire made of a conductive metal such as nickel, copper, or stainless steel.

When an electric current flows through the wire, it encounters resistance and begins to heat up due to the resistance. This heat is then transferred to the water in the tank via conduction, thereby raising the temperature of the water.

Most residential electric water heaters are equipped with one or two immersion-type elements and designated thermostats to control each element and hot water temperature.

The heating element is controlled by a thermostat that senses the water temperature and turns the heating element on and off to maintain the desired temperature. When the temperature of the water drops below the set point, the thermostat signals the heating element to turn on and heat the water until it reaches the desired temperature.

In addition, there is a high limit switch, a safety device that regulates the electrical current flowing through the heating elements, protecting the unit from high temperatures and potential damages.

Over time, the heating element may become damaged or worn out, resulting in inadequate or no hot water production. In such cases, the heating element needs to be replaced to ensure proper functioning of the water heater.

Tip: If you need any electrical work done on your heater, including thermostats and heating elements, it is recommended to contact a licensed electrician, because dealing with high voltage is dangerous.

If you want to replace the elements yourself, make sure to shut down the power on the circuit breaker box and use a multimeter or voltage tester to double-check that the power is off.

Signs Of A Bad Water Heater Element And How To Diagnose A Problem

The common causes of trouble with electric water heaters are when one or both heating elements are burned out, as well as tripped circuits and blown fuses. These issues can result in problems such as no hot water, slow water heating, or running out of hot water quickly.

But, don’t worry.

Testing and replacing heating elements is an easy DIY project that doesn’t cost much (approximately $20 for the element). You just need a few tools such as a screwdriver, pliers, and voltage tester.

How To Test A Water Heater Element Without A Multimeter

To determine which heating element is faulty, simply turn on the hot water tap at the sink and check the temperature.

For this test, you won’t need a multimeter.

If the water is hot but only for a short period of time and then becomes cold, it means that your bottom heating element is broken.

When only the upper element is heating, a small portion of water at the top becomes hot, but runs out quickly, leaving the rest of the water cold because the bottom element is not working.

If both elements are defective, there will be no hot water anywhere in the tank.

In water heaters with dual heating elements, the thermostat connected to the upper element controls the power to the lower one. Therefore, if the upper element is faulty, the lower one will not work either, regardless of its condition.

How To Diagnose A Problem With A Multimeter In A Few Simple Steps

You can also use a multimeter to test both heating elements and confirm which one is good and which is bad. Here is how:

  • Remove the metal covers and insulation that covers the heating elements.
  • Disconnect the wires.
  • Check the elements for continuity/resistance. Touch each screw with the multimeter probes, and if the continuity is broken or the resistance (in ohms) is zero or extremely high, the heating element is bad and needs to be replaced. If you use a continuity tester, the light on the tester will light up or buzz (if available) if the element is good.
  • Check also if the element is shorted. If you use a tester, put one probe on the screw and touch the other on a metal part of the water heater (a tank, for example). Do the same thing with the other screw. If the light comes on, there is a short, and you need to replace an element.
  • If your electric unit is equipped with the 4500-watt heating element, the multimeter should show around 12-13 ohms when set to resistance mode.

Note that even with the elements burned out, you will still have some hot or lukewarm water available, depending on when the heating last occurred.

What To Do if Your Water Heater Trips A Breaker

Your water heater might trip due to the following reasons:

  • Faulty thermostat(s)
  • Broken heating elements
  • Loose or faulty connections

If your water heater keeps tripping the breaker, check both heating elements, thermostats, and electrical wiring.

Also, try resetting the heater. Turn off the unit at the breaker and locate the red reset button above the upper thermostat. Press the reset button and see what happens. The reset button is also known as the high-temperature cutoff switch.

If it trips and won’t reset, one of the thermostats might be broken.

If it solves the problem but happens again and again, check your heating elements.

What Else Can Cause Bad Or Low Performing Heating Elements?

Dry-Fired Elements

After servicing your electric water heater and resuming power, it’s crucial to ensure that the storage tank is full of water. If the tank is not full, the heating elements may be exposed to air, which can cause dry firing and lead to serious damage.

To avoid this, open a hot water faucet and let the water flow until it is steady and uninterrupted. This will indicate that the tank is full, and it’s safe to turn the power back on. Taking this precaution can help extend the lifespan of your water heater and prevent costly repairs.

Limescale Build-Up

Over time, the sediment build-up can become a significant problem for electric water heaters, as it reduces the heating efficiency and increases the energy consumption required to heat water to the desired temperature. It can also cause the tank to overheat and eventually lead to the premature failure of the heating element or even the entire water heater system.

Voltage Spikes, Water Exposure, And Mechanical Stress

Heating elements can also break during a voltage surge caused by weather, such as lightning or a power surge, which can cause damage to the delicate filaments.

Furthermore, when water leaks into the electrical components of the water heater, including the heating elements, it can lead to corrosion and failure.

It is also important to note that vibration and mechanical stress can cause damage to the heating elements.

Therefore, it is essential to regularly inspect the heating elements for any signs of deformation or breakage in the filament. If there is any damage, it can be tested for continuity, and if none is detected, it should be replaced to prevent any future issues.

Conclusion

Don’t let bad heating elements ruin your hot water supply and shower experience.

By knowing the common causes of issues and how to test and replace faulty elements, you can easily and affordably restore your water heater’s efficiency and performance.

Keep an eye on your heating elements, stay on top of maintenance, and enjoy the benefits of a reliable and efficient water heater.

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