Efficient Electric Water Heater Troubleshooting: Your Step-by-Step Guide

Explore our electric water heater troubleshooting guide to understand why your tank-type unit isn't working properly.

This comprehensive resource explains common issues such as no hot water, slow recovery, water being too hot, and frequent tripping of the reset button or breaker.

It provides detailed insights into failures of heating elements, thermostats, and other key components, equipping you with the knowledge to diagnose and resolve these problems effectively.

Electric water heater troubleshooting: Key considerations

Electric water heaterElectric water heater

Crucial points to remember before repairing

This article focuses on problems and causes specific to electric water heaters. It also addresses common issues like corrosion, leaking, smelly water, and noise, which are typical in both electric and gas units.

Related: Troubleshooting gas water heaters

The guide presupposes that your unit is correctly sized and professionally installed according to codes and manufacturer instructions.

Note: If your water heater requires repair, service, replacement, or professional installation, always contact a licensed plumber.

Remember to shut off the power to the unit by turning off the corresponding breaker on the electric panel before checking, testing, repairing, or performing maintenance.

Tip: Use a non-contact voltage tester to confirm the unit is powered down before any work begins.

Frequent electric water heater issues

The most common issues encountered with electric water heaters include:

  • No hot water
  • Not enough hot water
  • Slow hot water recovery
  • Water is too hot 
  • High operating costs
  • Element failure
  • Breaker is tripping
  • Reset button is tripping

How to troubleshoot “no hot water” on the electric water heater

Experiencing no hot water from your electric water heater can be a major hassle, impacting your daily life and comfort.

To tackle this challenge effectively, here's what you need to do:

  • Check the upper heating element: If the element is burned out, it needs replacement. Unsure how to test if it's working? Follow a guide to accurately test this part.
  • Test the thermostat: Determine if the thermostat is broken or out of calibration. Replace it if necessary.
  • Inspect the fuse: Replace it if it's blown. Also, check the voltage of the heating elements and thermostats, and look for any short circuits, particularly after lighting strikes or power outages.
  • Reset the high limit switch (ECO): If it has tripped, reset the switch manually. If the reset button keeps tripping, investigate why and how to reset it effectively.
  • Address water leaks: If water is leaking around the heating element, tighten the element or replace its gasket.
  • Tighten loose wiring connections: Ensure all connections are secure.
  • Clean oxidized connections: Remove any buildup that has accumulated due to oxidation.

By following these steps, you can systematically address and resolve the common issues that lead to a lack of hot water in your electric water heater.

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Troubleshooting tips on "not enough hot water" and slow hot water recovery

Facing challenges with insufficient hot water or slow recovery from your water heater? Here's what you have to do to address these issues effectively:

  • Adjust the thermostat: If set too low, increase the temperature. Aim for 120°F to 125°F for general use, or 140°F for bathroom and kitchen needs. However, be cautious of scalding temperatures.
  • Replace faulty components: If the lower thermostat or a heating element is faulty, they should be replaced.
  • Clean heating elements: Check for limescale and sediment build-up on the heating elements. Cleaning these deposits can enhance performance and efficiency.
  • Secure loose wiring: Tighten any loose connections and ensure proper grounding.
  • Insulate exposed piping: If the piping line is long and exposed to cold weather, insulation is vital.
  • Replace a broken dip tube: A broken dip tube can cause premature mixing of hot and cold water, diluting the hot water too early.
  • Repair leaks: Address any leaks in hot water faucets, drains, or other connections.
  • Ensure thermostat contact: The thermostat should be flush with the heater's body for accurate temperature control.

For more comprehensive information on slow recovery, additional resources are available to guide you through more detailed solutions.

By implementing these steps, you can significantly improve your water heater's performance and recover the comfort of consistent hot water in your home.

What to do when water is too hot and the operating costs are high?

Implementing these steps in your electric water heater troubleshooting process can significantly reduce energy consumption and lower your energy bills:

  • Adjust the thermostat: If it's set too high, lower it to a safer 120°F (factory-set) to prevent scalding, or 140°F as needed.
  • Check thermostat calibration: Ensure the thermostat is accurately calibrated, flush, and in direct contact with the tank.
  • Insulate components: Cover thermostats and heating elements with proper insulation to enhance efficiency.
  • Inspect the TPR valve: Verify that the Temperature-Pressure Relief (TPR) valve is functional; install a new one if necessary.
  • Address grounded elements: A grounded element can lead to constant operation and overheat water or trigger the Emergency Cut Off (ECO) in the thermostat. Check for and fix any short circuits to the ground.

Troubleshooting heating element and thermostat failures

  • Correct wiring issues: If you discover incorrect wiring connections at the heater's terminal, realign them as per the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Inspect for voltage and damage: Check the fuse, thermostat, and heating elements for correct voltage. Be aware that they are susceptible to damage during extreme weather, lightning strikes, or power outages.
  • Secure loose wiring and fix short circuits: Loose wiring or short circuits can lead to significant issues. It's important to correct these promptly to prevent further damage.
  • Prevent dry firing: A common cause of heating element failure is dry firing. Ensure that the elements are always fully submerged in water to avoid this problem.
  • Address sediment build-Up and air pockets: Sediment accumulation around the heating element can produce a sizzling noise, while air pockets may result in dry firing of the element. Regular maintenance can prevent these issues, enhancing the longevity and efficiency of your heater.

Things to do when your electric water heater breaker is tripping

Breaker tripping in electric water heaters is often caused by the following common issues:

  • Burnt out heating element: Often a primary cause of tripping.
  • Short circuit: This can occur due to a split in the heating element, a loose wire in the panel, leaks, or other related issues.
  • Thermostat failure: A malfunctioning thermostat can lead to excessive heating and tripping.
  • Wiring problems: Incorrect or faulty wiring is a significant contributor to tripping breakers.
  • Undersized or weak breaker: A breaker that is not appropriately sized for the water heater's load will frequently trip.

Reasons for the reset button tripping and solutions

One of the primary reasons for the reset button tripping is excessively hot water in the tank. When the thermostat malfunctions and gets stuck in the ON position, it causes the heating elements to continuously heat the water, raising the temperature and triggering the reset button.

Additionally, a shorted heating element can continue heating even after the thermostat has shut off the power, leading to the switch tripping. Loose wires can also pose a problem, regardless of the water temperature, as can a faulty reset button.

In most cases, resolving these issues involves replacing the malfunctioning heating element or tightening loose wires.

Note: If the reset button and circuit breaker continue to trip persistently, it may indicate a more serious problem that requires professional assistance.

How to access heating elements and thermostats for the repair or replacement

The screw-in heating element, characterized by its two wire terminals, is designed to be screwed into the tank. Unfortunately, this type of element often experiences failure, leading to noticeable blackened or burnt spots.

To gain access to the heating elements and thermostats for repair or replacement, you'll need to perform a few steps. Begin by removing the access cover, carefully folding back the insulation, and taking off the protective plastic cover. Once these preparatory steps are completed, employ a heating element wrench to safely remove the malfunctioning component.

For detailed instructions on testing and removing a heating element, refer to this article.

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How does the electric water heater work?

It is essential for easier understanding and successful repair to know how an electric water heater works and its main components.

A conventional tank-type electric water heater with a storage tank utilizes one or two electric heating elements, typically immersion-type, achieving an efficiency rate of up to 99%.

Cold water stored inside the tank enters through the dip tube. When the power is turned on, the upper heating element heats the water at the top of the tank.

Once the water reaches the temperature set on the thermostat, power switches to the lower heating element, maintaining the desired temperature in the lower part of the tank.

Hot water is drawn from the top and directed through the outlet hot water extension to taps, showers, or other applications.

Simultaneously, the dip tube delivers cold water to the tank's bottom, mixing with the hot water to lower its temperature. If the water cools down and falls below the set temperature, the bottom heating element reactivates (the upper one can do so as well).

If the upper heating element burns out, the heater won't operate correctly as its thermostat will never be satisfied, preventing the lower element from engaging.

In case the inside water temperature exceeds 170°F, the red reset button, located on the upper thermostat, will trip, and you can reset it by pressing it.

Every metal tank features a lining to protect it from corrosion, including the anode rod, serving the same purpose.

Each heating element is equipped with a thermostat, allowing electrical current to reach the element and generate heat. Various types of elements are available, with different wattages.

At the tank's bottom, you'll find a drain valve for draining and flushing the tank, while at the top, the Temperature-Pressure Relief (TPR) valve acts as a safety element, safeguarding the unit from extreme pressure and temperature.

Maintenance and prevention

Proper maintenance plays a crucial role in the reliable performance of your electric water heater.

Regular inspections and maintenance routines are essential to keep your system in optimal condition. This includes checking for sediment buildup, testing the thermostat and heating elements, and examining electrical connections.

When components start showing signs of wear or failure, it's crucial to promptly replace them with genuine parts that match the heater's specifications.

Additionally, implementing efficiency-enhancing practices, such as insulating the tank and setting the thermostat to an energy-efficient temperature, can significantly extend the lifespan of your electric water heater while keeping energy costs in check.

By following these maintenance and prevention guidelines, you can enjoy a continuous supply of hot water and reduce the risk of unexpected heater failures.

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