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Troubleshooting Electrical Hot Water Heater Issues

Water heaters can often be counted among the unsung heroes of your household appliances. As long as your water is hot when you want it to be, it is easy to forget that the heat is all thanks to your water heater. Fortunately, most water heaters are durable. Electric water heaters, in particular, often experience even less problems because they do not have moving pieces like their gas counterparts. However, issues will inevitably arise and this simpler design makes it easier to fix electrical hot water heater problems when you do encounter them. So, if something is wrong with your electric water heater, you may be able to solve the problem yourself without needing to call in the cavalry. Or, even if the fix does require a professional, you may be able to save time and money by determining the problem before you make contact.

Understanding the basic design of an electric water heater

Unlike gas water heaters, electric water heaters have an upper heating element and a lower heating element. Both elements are equipped with their own thermostat. The cold water supply enters the heater through the top (usually marked in blue), and the hot water exits the tank through the top (usually marked in red). A pressure relief valve is positioned on the side of the heater near the top, while a drain valve is located on the side of the tank near the bottom.

Common electrical hot water heater problems

The following issues are among the most common for electric water heaters:

  • The temperature of the water is too hot.
  • You are not getting any hot water.
  • You are not getting enough hot water.
  • The water coming out is rust colored.
  • The water heater is leaking.
  • The water heater or hot water has a rotten egg odor.
  • The water heater is emitting weird sounds (high-pitched whining, popping noises, or low rumbling).

Electrical water heater troubleshooting tips

Before you start troubleshooting any issues always turn off the circuit breaker powering the electric water heater (though you should first check if it has been tripped off – if so, this could be the reason you are experiencing hot water troubles). Also, ensure that your work area is well lit and clear of unnecessary items that might be a hazard—remember, you are potentially working with hot water. It is also helpful to have any tools you may need close to hand. A multimeter or multi-tester is a particularly useful tool for electrical water heater troubleshooting. You will also sometimes need a screwdriver, an adjustable wrench, and a garden hose.

Water is too hot

The normal temperature setting on an electric water heater is between 110 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Check the temperature gauges or thermostats on your water heater and adjust them accordingly.

No hot water

If you are not getting any hot water, the issue could simply be a tripped circuit breaker or a blown fuse affecting the water heater circuit. If so, simply reset the breaker or replace the fuse. However, other potential causes are a faulty electric thermostat or a nonfunctioning upper electric heating element. If the thermostat appears to be working, then you need to test the heating element by following these steps:

  • Turn off the circuit breaker or fuse powering the water heater at the main power panel.
  • Wait for the water heater to cool down, because the heat will affect the electrical flow. You can test that it has cooled down enough by turning on a hot water faucet and letting the water run until it is cool.
  • Remove the access panel and fold any insulation out, so it is away from the heating element.
  • Loosen the screws that hold the wires to the two terminal screws and remove the wires.
  • Use a multimeter or multi-tester to check whether the heating element is properly functioning. You will need to set the tester to ohms, then separately connect the red and black leads to the different terminals on the heating element. If the reading is 0 ohms on a digital tester or if the needle does not move on an analog dial, no electricity is flowing through the element and it will need to be replaced. However, if you get an ohm value, the heating element is working and the problem may either be the lower heating element or one of the two thermostats.

Not enough hot water

If you are not getting enough hot water, then consider the following causes and fixes:

  • Your water heater may be too small. If the hot water demand exceeds 75% of the water heater’s capacity, you will likely have issues. You can either figure out how to lower your demand or get a larger water heater.
  • If the plumbing installation was not done correctly, the cold and hot water connections could be crossed. To check, turn off the water supply to the water heater. Then, turn on a hot water faucet. If the water is flowing, that means a connection is crossed somewhere.
  • Similar to the “no hot water” problem, the issue may be due to faulty heating elements or thermostats. Follow the steps previously described in that section to determine whether the upper or lower heating elements are working. Any faulty heating elements or thermostats need to be replaced.

Water is rust colored

If rust colored water is pouring out of your faucet, it is likely due to corrosion of the heating elements or a dissolved anode. If the former, you may be able to simply replace the problematic heating element. If the latter, you may be able to replace the sacrificial anode rod with a magnesium anode rod.

Water heater is leaking

If you are dealing with leaks, water could be escaping from connections, valves, or the tank itself. Troubleshoot the following, as needed:

  • Your temperature and pressure relief valve could be faulty due to overheating or excess pressure. If the problem is overheating, simply reduce the thermostat setting. Otherwise, you will need to clear the valve itself. Set an empty bucket under the overflow pipe, then open and flush the relief valve to clear it of any debris. If the valve still leaks, replace it.
  • A plumbing connection, such as a water inlet or outlet, could be leaking. Using an adjustable wrench, tighten the loose connection until it is snug and the leak has stopped. Be careful not to overtighten.
  • Loose heating element bolts or a bad gasket could be causing the leak. If so, first turn off the water and the power to the water heater. Then, tighten the mounting bolts for the heating element(s). Ensure they are snug but not overtightened.
  • If your water tank has corrosion, the tank itself could be leaking. Replace the entire unit.

Bad odor

If your water smells bad, first check whether it is the hot or cold water that has a foul odor. If your cold water smells bad, it could be a problem with your source water, which may require a filter or water softener to fix the issue. If only your hot water smells rotten, or the smell is coming from the water heater itself, the problem could be due to bacteria in the tank sediment. To solve this issue, you will need to flush your electrical water heater by following these steps:

  • Turn off the circuit breaker or fuse to the water heater at the main breaker panel.
  • Connect a garden hose to the drain valve, which is located near the bottom of the water tank. Be careful to place the end of the hose over a drain and ensure the water coming out will not come into contact with any people or animals because it may be scalding hot.
  • Close the shutoff valve to the cold inlet at the top of the water heater.
  • Slowly open the relief valve at the top of the water tank and leave it open.
  • Again, ensure no children or pets are around. Then, open the drain valve so the tank water can exit through the garden hose into the drain.
  • If the water is not flowing well, sediment may be clogging the drain valve. Try closing the relief valve and briefly turning the cold inlet valve back on to help flush the sediment out. If this method does not work, the sediment may have formed into chunks. To address this issue, you will need to wait until the tank cools down. Then, remove the garden hose (and even the drain valve, if necessary), and use a long screw driver (or similar tool) to break up the clog. You can then reattach the valve and hose, and proceed as usual.
  • When the garden hose runs clear, your water heater is flushed. Close the drain valve and remove the hose. Close the relief valve. Turn the cold inlet valve back on. Turn a hot water faucet on and let it run until the air bubbles are gone. Then, turn the heater back on.

Strange sounds

If your electrical water heater is emitting strange sounds, you may need to flush it following the previously described steps mentioned in the bad odor section. If you hear a low rumbling or popping noise similar to the sound of boiling water, there may be a buildup of sediment on the bottom of the tank, which will require you to flush the water heater. A higher pitched whining noise usually means there is a buildup of material on the electrical heating elements, which may require you to both flush the heater and clean the corrosion from the elements.


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