Young woman on phone with overflowing dishwasher

Troubleshooting: The Complete DIY Electric Water Repair Guide

When a person looks at a water heater, they typically won’t be able to tell whether it is fueled by gas or electricity. Both models feature a steel storage tank and insulation between the actual tank and the jacket. This insulation works to prevent the loss of heated water within the tank.

The key difference between the two types lies in the source used to heat the water. Electric water heaters increase the water’s temperature with the help of upper and lower heating elements. These elements extend into the tank to achieve this goal. In contrast, a gas heater comes with a gas burner below the tank. The burner heats the water.

Water Heater Issues

Water heater issues come in many forms. However, the most common problem plumbers encounter involves failed heating elements. Fortunately, it takes little time and effort to replace these inexpensive parts. Additional problems could result when the water pressure in the home is too high, from a failure to maintain the tank, or if the settings on the appliance are incorrect.

Most water heaters today come with a limited warranty. Homeowners must know what is and isn’t covered by this warranty. A person can view the rating plate on the device to learn when it was manufactured. With this information, the model number, and the serial number, they can determine whether the unit is still covered under warranty and obtain any parts they need to make repairs. The model and serial numbers are found on the rating plate as well.

If the appliance remains under warranty, contact the manufacturer with any problems. However, homeowners must recognize the warranty will not cover any labor costs associated with fixing the appliance. Before contacting the manufacturer, the homeowner may want to troubleshoot the problem and see if it is an easy fix. If the unit is no longer under the manufacturer’s warranty, however, and the owner purchased a separate home warranty, now is the time to call that provider for help.

Steps to Take Before Troubleshooting a Water Heater

Homeowners must understand what they are working on before troubleshooting the appliance. An electric water heater is a 240-volt appliance. Therefore, a person should never do anything with the device until the power source has been shut off. Visit the breaker box in the home and turn off the breaker controlling power to the water heater. Doing so prevents harm to the appliance, injuries to the homeowner, or worse. To ensure the power is off to the appliance,  check the wires in the unit with the help of a contactless voltage detector. Once it has been confirmed there is no power going to the appliance, the homeowner can begin the troubleshooting process.

Tripped Breaker

If the breaker had tripped and this was just discovered when the homeowner went to shut the power off, this may be the source of the problem. Switch the breaker off and back on again. See if that fixes the problem. In many cases, it will. Nevertheless, the homeowner needs to watch the unit and see if the breaker trips again. If it does, they will need to investigate further to determine why the unit isn’t working as intended.

No Hot Water

If the water heater isn’t producing hot water, it may be a power issue. However, a limit switch that has tripped or a failed heating element could lead to the same problem. If the homeowner cut the breaker off to the appliance, they have already determined the breaker didn’t trip. They would have noticed this when they went to cut power going to the appliance.

When the breaker doesn’t appear to be the issue, the high-temperature limit on the device should be reset. Make certain the breaker is off before taking this step to prevent potential problems. Remove the panel that allows access to the unit’s upper heating element. Once the panel is off, the insulation and plastic safety guard needs to be taken off. Don’t touch the electrical terminals or wires when removing these items.

With these items removed, the owner will see a red button known as the high-temperature cutoff reset button. This button sits above the upper thermostat. Simply push this button, replace the components that were removed. Return to the service panel and turn the circuit breaker for the water heater back on. If this doesn’t solve the issue, the heating elements need to be tested to determine whether they must be replaced.

Insufficient Hot Water

There are times when the water heater remains operational, but there isn’t a sufficient supply of hot water to provide for all who live in the household. The first thing to consider in this situation is whether there have been changes to the number of people residing in the home. If more people are using the water, the appliance may need an upgrade to keep up with the increased demand.

People often think a 40-gallon water heater produces 40 gallons of hot water. However, experts say the tank only has 75 percent of its capacity available for use. That means the 40-gallon tank provides 30 gallons of hot water.

There are ways to work around a tank that is undersized, but they may not work for all households. Limit how long each person spends in the shower or invest in a low-flow showerhead so their showers don’t need to be shortened, but there is still hot water for others to use. Do laundry and wash dishes at times throughout the day when hot water isn’t needed for showering or other purposes.

When the unit is properly sized for the residence and it’s still not producing enough hot water, one or both heating elements may need replacement. If the water remains lukewarm throughout a person’s shower, look at the upper heating element as the source of the problem. When hot water runs out rapidly while you are showering, it’s probably the lower heating element to blame.

Scalding Water

Having water that is too hot is as bad as running out of hot water mid-shower. Furthermore, this problem scares many parents, as they worry their children will be burned by the scalding water coming out of the faucet. If the water is hotter than it previously was, one or both thermostats in the appliance need adjustments or replacement. How do you check the thermostat settings?

Cut the power to the water heater by visiting the service panel and shutting off the breaker. Remove the necessary components to access each heating element. Avoid contact with the electrical terminals and wires when doing so, as mentioned above. With the help of a contactless voltage tester, confirm the power has been halted to the appliance.

Check each thermostat’s heat setting. They should be between 115 and 125 degrees and remain at the same temperature. Use a flathead screwdriver to change the setting on either or both thermostats, ensuring they are at the same temperature when the process is done. Replace the plastic safety guard and insulation before reinstalling the access panel. Turn the circuit breaker back on.

Water Leaks

Any water leak in or around a water heater needs investigation immediately. Water can do considerable damage in a residence within a matter of minutes, so any delay might lead to disaster. At times, bad valves or faulty plumbing connections are the cause of the leak, but it may also be due to a problem with the tank.

Numerous things can cause a tank to leak. Loose heating elements account for some problems of this kind, and a corroded tank could be the issue. Launch the investigation into the cause of the leak by inspecting the heating elements to ensure they are tight. If either or both elements are loose, use an element wrench to tighten them. A corroded tank that leaks must be replaced. Cut power to the unit and shut off the water supply before draining the tank.

Colored Water and Bad Odors

Water coming from fixtures in the home should be clear and odorless. When the water coming from a faucet has a tint to it, corrosion is to blame. The water may come in various shades, from brown and yellow to red. Homeowners will quickly see there is an issue, as the color won’t be what they are accustomed to. Now it’s a matter of determining whether the corrosion is in the water heater tank or the pipes in the home.

When the water has a rotten egg smell, bacteria may be present in the storage tank. In this situation, the anode rod likely needs replacement. If this doesn’t fix the issue, it’s time to call a plumber.

Unusual Noises

Water heaters often sit in a part of the home that isn’t frequently used. As a result, homeowners don’t know what noises coming from the unit are normal. Rumbling and popping noises aren’t normal, and the unit shouldn’t make a high-pitched whine. These noises could mean the water inside the tank is boiling. This happens when sediment builds up in the tank bottom and causes the bottom to overheat. The water then begins to boil due to the high temperatures. Drain the tank to remove any sediment. If this fails to fix the problem, a new water heater will probably be required.

If you don’t feel comfortable carrying out any of these tasks, call a plumber. They handle issues with water heaters daily and can determine what is wrong with yours and how to fix it. For those with a warranty company, contact the company first. This ensures any repairs will be covered under the program and you will have hot water once again.

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