How to Troubleshoot Your Electric Water Heater

How to Troubleshoot Your Electric Water Heater
April 19, 2012 Lorelie

Many people take for granted their electric water heaters at home.  When these handy water heaters get broken or something minor goes wrong with them, people do not know how to troubleshoot or fix it.  Honestly, electric water heaters are very easy to troubleshoot when you understand the heating process and when you know the plumbing as well as the appliances.  What you should know before doing any repairs is how an electric water heater works and most especially know what its main components are.

Note:  This is a guide written most especially for those who need to know about troubleshooting electric water heaters with 30, 40, 50-gallon capacity and also larger ones, meant for residential use.

The Electric Water Heater – Its Elements and How They Work

When you get to know the basic elements of an electric water heater and how they work, it would be much easier for you to perform electric water heater troubleshooting.  Assuming that the electric water heater was properly installed and was functioning correctly prior to any occurrence of problems, below are some of the typical electric water heater elements you need to become familiar with:

  • The cold water from house plumbing goes into the heater tank, through the dip tube and then fills the tank from the bottom up.
  • The upper thermostat with the pre-set temperature calls for heating and then turns on the upper heating element in order to heat the water.
  • Water gets warmer and by the time it reaches the set temperature, the top thermostat switches the power on to the bottom thermostat and then it applies power on the bottom heating element until it reaches the set temperature.
  • Once you open the tap when doing dishes or going for a shower, the hot water is drawn from the topmost part of the unit, through plumbing to the opened faucet.
  • If the hot water at the top of the water heater tank is too high, the red button will actually trip and then cut the power to both heating elements.
  • There is a sacrificial anode rod inside the heater tank which prevents corrosion due to the heating process.  It is actually replaceable.
  • The temperature relief valve or TPR valve prevents extreme pressure from occurring inside the tank, helping the excessive water or air to come out.
  • For tank flushing or draining, there is a drain valve present at the bottom part of the tank.

Keep in mind that the problems and troubleshooting tips mentioned above are exclusively for electric water heaters that are tank type.  Also, in order to safely troubleshoot an electric water heater, you should have basic electrical knowledge.

How to Troubleshoot Your Electric Water Heater – Troubleshooting Tips

Electric Water Heater Troubleshooting:  Problem #1 – No Hot Water

In order to solve this problem of having no hot water, first of all, check if there is power present.  The main switch might be turned off.  If suddenly you have no hot water, then maybe your water usage have exceeded the tank capacity.  If that is what happened, simply wait for the heater to recover.

Another sound solution might be to press the red reset button located on the upper thermostat.  If 10 minutes has passed and you still do not have hot water, then check if there is electricity being delivered to the appliance.  Check the heater’s pair of circuit breaker in the breaker panel.  If the breakers are on, verify if there is a voltage by using the voltage tester, at the input terminals of the upper heating element.  If you find out that there is no voltage, the thermostat has to be replaced.  If there is voltage present, then the heating elements need to be replaced.

Other probable culprits of having no hot water in your electric water heater might be as follows:

  • Shorted wiring – just do some rewiring
  • Circuit overload – reduce the load or provide adequate circuitry
  • Improper wiring – rewire as per the wiring diagram found in the user manual
  • Heat buildup because of loose wiring – just tighten the wire connections
  • Grounded thermostat or element – just do some rewiring
  • Defective high-limit switch – just replace

Electric Water Heater Troubleshooting:  Problem #2 – Higher-pitched Whining

When the electrical heating elements of an electric water heater are used many times for months to years, and the water condition in your home and area plumbing is hard water, it will then cause a major buildup of lime or scale deposits and even other mineral sediments on the electrical heating elements.

A very good solution to this problem is to perform some preventive maintenance and make it a habit to flush your electric water heater regularly.  To do this, remove and clean the heating elements from the scale buildup.  If there is no improvement to your water heater’s performance, then you may need to replace them.

Another good solution is to install some low-watt density heating elements that have a bigger contact surface in order for them to transfer heat to the water more efficiently.

Electric Water Heater Troubleshooting:  Problem #3 – Slow Recovery Time, It Takes Too Long for the Water Heater to Reheat the Water

In case your electric water heater was running for quite a long time, chances are that there is insufficient hot water available for your shower.  If you notice that this is happening very often, then you might have an undersized electric water heater.  Depending on its recovery rate, you have no choice but to wait for a moment for your water to be reheated.

Another probable cause of this might be that the thermostat is set too low, especially in the wintertime and in a cold room, wherein the most obvious solution would be to simply increase the temperature, but not too high because extremely hot water can lead to burns and scalding.

Also, your lower thermostat or lower heating element might be becoming faulty or defective, so you need to replace them.

Improper and loose wiring or the thermostat may not be installed the proper way.

If there is scale formed on the heating elements due to the hard water action, what would most likely happen is that the contact surface between the fully immersed elements and water will decrease and therefore, it needs to be cleaned.

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