How to Troubleshoot and Repair an Electric Water Heater

  • 01 of 08

    Electric Water Heater Basics

    Residential Water Heater
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    Electric water heaters look similar to their gas-fueled cousins. They both use an insulated storage tank jacket made of steel with insulation between the storage tank and the tank jacket to reduce heat loss of the heated water.

    The main difference between electric and gas water heaters is the heat source. In an electric water heater, the water is heated by electric upper and lower heating elements that extend into the water tank. Gas water heaters have a gas burner that heats the water below the tank. 

    Problems with little or no heat usually are caused by a failed heating element, an inexpensive part that is relatively easy to replace. Other problems may be due to improper settings, high home water pressure, or a lack of tank maintenance.

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  • 02 of 08

    Warning: Turn off the Power

    BreAkr bREakR
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    Electric water heaters are high-voltage (240-volt) appliances that are dangerous to work with when the power is on. Before checking any electrical parts of a water heater, shut off the power to the heater's circuit by turning off the appropriate breaker in your home's service panel (breaker box). 

    Also, test all wires in the water heater with a non-contact voltage tester to confirm the power is off before touching the wires.

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  • 03 of 08

    The Problem: No Hot Water

    how water dial
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    A water heater that produces no hot water may not be getting power, or it may have a tripped limit switch or one or more failed heating elements. First, check the water heater's circuit breaker in the service panel to make sure it hasn't tripped. If it has, switch it off, then switch it back on again. 

    If the heater's breaker did not trip (is on), turn off the breaker, remove the access panel for the upper element on the water heater. Remove the insulation and the plastic safety guard, being careful not to touch the wires or electrical terminals. Press the red button—the high-temperature cutoff reset button—located above the upper thermostat. Replace the safety guard, insulation, and access panel, then turn on the heater's circuit breaker. If that doesn't solve the problem, test each heating element and replace it, if necessary.  

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  • 04 of 08

    The Problem: Inadequate Hot Water

    Male Finger Turning Up Tankless Water Heater Temperature
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    If your water heater is producing hot water, but not enough of it, your unit could be too small to meet the household's hot water demands. Make sure the demand does not exceed the capacity of the water heater. The water heater should have 75 percent of its capacity as hot water. For example, a 40-gallon water heater is properly sized for a demand of 30 gallons. If the demand is too great for the heater capacity, try to limit the length of showers (and/or install a low-flow showerhead) and spread out dishwashing and laundry to different times of the day.  

    If your unit is not undersized, or it suddenly produces less hot water than it used to, one or both of its heating elements may have failed. A constant supply of lukewarm water during a shower is indicative of a defective upper heating element. Hot water that runs out quickly during a shower is indicative of a defective lower heating element.

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  • 05 of 08

    The Problem: Water Temperature Too Hot

    Hand Turning Down Water Heater Thermostat
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    Too much hot water can be almost as frustrating as not enough hot water. If you're experiencing this problem, it's possible that one or both of your water heater's thermostats is set too high. 

    To check the thermostat settings, turn off the power to the water heater, remove the access panel, insulation, and plastic safety guard from each heating element (without touching any wires or electrical terminals), and test the wires to confirm the power is off. Check the heat setting on both thermostats: they should be at the same temperature. The recommended setting is between 115 and 125 F. Adjust the temperature to the desired setting, using a flathead screwdriver. Adjust the other thermostat to the same setting. 

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  • 06 of 08

    The Problem: Water Leaks

    Close-up of drain pipe leaking water
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    Water leaks usually are caused by leaking valves and plumbing connections, but they can also be related to tank problems. Leaking water can cause significant damage to a home, so it is important to fix the leak as soon as possible. 

    Leaks from water heater tanks can be due to loose heating elements or to tank corrosion. Inspect the elements for looseness and, if necessary, tighten them with an element wrench. A corroded tank cannot be repaired and must be replaced. Turn off the power and water supply to the water heater, then drain the tank completely to stop the leaking

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  • 07 of 08

    The Problem: Rust Colored Water or Bad Odor

    water faucet with hands underneath
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    If your water comes out of the faucet with a brown, yellow, or red tint to it, there could be corrosion occurring inside your water heater tank or in the pipes in your home. If your water comes out smelling like rotten eggs, there could be bacteria in the hot water heater tank. You might need to replace the anode rod in the tank. 

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  • 08 of 08

    The Problem: Making Noises

    Plumber fixing Water Heater
    Julia Nichols / Getty Images

    Are there noises coming from your water heater? Does it sound like a low rumbling or popping noise? Or maybe it's a high pitched whine? The noise you're hearing may be the sound of boiling water. Excessive buildup of sediment in the bottom of the tank is causing the bottom of the tank to overheat, boiling the water. The first solution to try is draining the tank to get rid of the sediment. If that doesn't help, you may need to replace the tank.