how to tell if hot water heater element is bad

Do you know how to tell if hot water heater element is bad?

Are there ways that you can do and perform to check even if you have little-to-no experience when it comes to this?

Don’t worry, because, at first, I thought the same way, too. In fact, I just realized it when I was doing my own checking!

Getting “no reading” or “maximum reading” when you touch the probe to the element means that it’s going bad. Symptoms include no hot water, incorrect temperature, and supply of hot water getting depleted faster than usual.

Things You’ll Need to Test Your Water Heater Element

test water heater

Right before I go and teach you how to tell if water heater element is bad (or determine which is bad), it’s important to have a full understanding of the things you need to be able to do it.

Screwdriver

Akin to any other HVAC machine, most heating elements are located inside a shell so that it’s protected.

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And to be able to access that, you will need a screwdriver.

NOTE: Prepare a set of screwdrivers if you’re unsure of the size. The most common sizes would be #2 and #1.

Non-Contact Voltage Tester

voltage tester

Non-contact voltage testers are devices used to detect if a voltage is present in a given structure or not.

This information will be extremely useful when troubleshooting areas and locations that aren’t reached by regular testers.

They’re devices that look like thick pens that have probes at the tip.

NOTE: Non-contact voltage testers are optional tools or items. It’s not really required, but it would definitely help.

Digital Multimeter

Last, and most definitely not least – in fact, it might even be the most important, is a multimeter.

Multimeters are imperative devices because they test everything from the electric current, voltage, and even resistance over several tools and technologies. 

Symptoms of a Bad Hot Water Heater Element

symptoms of bad element

Growing up without any background when it comes to Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC), I always thought of the worst.

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Actually, it kind of assisted me in understanding certain things – like how to determine whether a heater element is a culprit or not.

Among the many symptoms you can find, the following signs and symptoms are the ones that paint the picture of your hot water heater element already crumbling:

  • There is no hot water
  • The temperature doesn’t reach what it says on the thermostat
  • The supply of hot water runs out faster than normal

How to Tell if Hot Water Heater Element is Bad?

how to tell if bad

This all sums up to one word – testing. You need to test if the element of your hot water heater is bad, or to determine which of the elements is.

So, regardless of whether you’re using a gas hot water heater or an electric water heater, here is how you test for the heating element.

Step #1: Turn the Power Off

First things first, turn the power or the electricity off.

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Sometimes, hot water heaters are plugged into electrical outlets, you just need to unplug them.

However, if yours is plugged directly into a wall socket, you need to locate the breaker that runs it, and then turn it off.

For gas hot water heaters, all you need to do is to turn the gas supply of your house off.

After that, turn the gas valve of your water heater to be sure that it won’t turn on or activate.

Step #2: Take the Metal Plates Off

take metals off

Once done, the next step is for you to take the metal plates or covers off.

I don’t know about your water heater, but mine is located on the side (right part) of the water heater.

These covers look more like a flap than a cover.

What this does is cover the entirety of the components responsible for giving you hot water – the heater element and the thermostat.

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Step #3: Remove the Plastic Covers and Insulation

No, no, you don’t stop there. Most of the newer versions of hot water heaters would have another layer of protection or insulation.

The plastic covers would be the ones coating the insulation, and the insulation would either be flexible glass (flexiglass) or rigid foam.

Once you remove this, the heating elements should now be visible – they’re simply 2 screws, one for the thermostat, and the other for the heating element.

NOTE: Don’t be confused, this screw is just an extension of the heating element. The actual heating element is located inside the tank, not outside.

OPTIONAL STEP: Double-Check Power

double check the power

Yes, you read that right. This step is optional. This is because non-contact voltage testers aren’t really required for this process.

Before continuing, you can check if there really is no power going to the hot water heater, using your non-contact voltage testers.

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You just have to turn the tester on, and then point it to the screws. If it sounds, then there’s still power, and the machine wasn’t turned off correctly.

Redo the unplugging and make sure there’s no power. Otherwise, you’re good to go.

Step #4: Set Your Multimeter

Then, the next thing you want to do is set your multimeter properly. You want it to be on resistance or ohms.

This is usually written and identified with an omega sign on the tester – and it’s typically green in color.

Set it to the lowest readings ONLY. Avoid using anything that is higher than normal.

NOTE: Usually, the lowest readings would either be RX1 or RX1K.

Step #5: Find the Heating Elements

find the heating element

After that, locate the heating elements. You should see two screws, one at the upper part, and one at the lower part.

They’re two screws simply because most residential hot water heaters have two elements – both of which are controlled by a separate thermostat.

TIP: They’re not your typical screws. You will easily distinguish them because they do not look like your standard screws.

Step #6: Test the Heating Elements

Then, for the judgment part, test your heating elements.

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If it’s your first time doing it, don’t worry, here’s a quick and easy guide on what you need to see to determine what’s happening.

Using one probe of the multimeter, touch each screw.

By default, elements should have resistance – at least 10 to 16 ohms. 3,500 watts is for higher ohm readings and about 5,500 watts for lower ones.

To test if an element shorted, touch one probe to a screw, and use the other probe to point and touch raw metal.

When you see even the slightest of reading, it means that the element shorted out.

NOTE: If you see maximum reading or no reading at all, it means that the element has gone bad.

Step #7: Reassemble the Water Heater

reassemble water heater

When you get the answers you’ve been looking for, the last and final step is, of course, to reassemble your water heater.

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Now, this shouldn’t be a difficult job, especially if you were aware of what you’ve done!

TIP: Whenever I do something I am not familiar with, I record a video with my phone while doing it. That way, I can go back and look at the video in case I forget a specific step.

That’s just about it! That is the way you can tell whether your hot water heater’s element is already bad.

It’s also an impeccable way of determining which of the elements is not functioning properly!

Replacing a Hot Water Heater Element

replace water heater element

So, you just finished the procedure and you figure out that your hot water heater element is already bad – what do you do?

You can replace it on your own, but only if you have had prior experience or if you are confident in doing so.

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Otherwise, contact the nearest HVAC professional or expert in the area and ask for their assistance.

The Bottom Line

Learn how to tell if hot water heater element is bad and never make random guesses on where the problem is ever again!

Not being able to use hot water for showers can be extremely annoying.

But, do you know what’s the reason behind that menace of a situation?

Kristina D
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