How to Test a Water Heater Element
Go back 100 years and the thought of hot water instantaneously dispensed into your home was a luxury if not a outright fantasy. Yet, today — take it for granted though we may — when your water heater isn’t working right, you get it: A water heater really is one of the most essential fixtures in your home. Just imagine washing clothes and dishes–and even bathing … in cold water. It’s unpleasant to say the least.
That’s why, if your water heater is malfunctioning, you’ll want to do everything in your power to get it back up and running as quickly as possible. And learning a bit about how to properly diagnose water heater issues can save you time (and money) in the long run.
One of the most common issues with water heaters is faulty heating elements. But how do you know if yours is or isn't working? Well, with a little knowledge and a few tools, you’ll be able to test the heating element without having to hire a technician to do it for you.
Looking to diagnose a bad water heater? Read on to learn how to test your heating element:
● Phillips-head screwdriver
● Multimeter (digital or analog)
● Non-contact voltage tester
● Needle-nose pliers (optional)
Signs of a Faulty Water Heater Element
Before testing your water heater element, it’s always helpful to learn some of the more common signs that your water heater has gone bad. In most cases, a residential water heater will have two heating elements that serve slightly different purposes. That said, a smaller-sized water heater might only have one heating element. In any case, there are some tell-tale signs the heating element for your water heater isn’t working quite right. For example, if you don’t have any hot water, or the hot water doesn’t reach the temperature set by the thermostat, it may be worth testing your heating element. Similarly, small amounts of hot water, or hot water water that only seems to last for a short amount of time is also a common indication that your water heating element is malfunctioning. If you experience any of these scenarios, testing your water heating element will be your next logical step in diagnosing and fixing your issues.
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How to Test a Water Heater Heating Element
Step 1: Turn Off the Power
Before you test the heating element of your water heater, you’ll want to make sure you shut off power by turning off the circuit breaker connected to the water heater. Then, let the water in the tank cool completely. While this might take a couple of hours, it’s an important step as the heating elements in a water heater are controlled via thermostat, and any hot water left in the tank will affect electrical flow to the heating element.
Step 2: Remove the Metal Cover
Near the base of the water heater, you’ll notice a metal cover that protects the water heater’s thermostat. Using a Phillips head screwdriver, take out the screws attaching the cover to the water heater. If there is any insulation behind the cover, fold it outward and away from the heating element.
Step 3: Find the Heating Element
When the cover and insulation has been removed, you should be able to see the heating elements and thermostat. In most scenarios, the thermostat is the rectangular object with screw terminals on either side. The heating element (or at least the portion that we can see) should be located below the thermostat. It should be a roughly 1-inch square box also with terminal screws attached to it.
Step 4: Verify the Power Is Off
Before testing the heating element, you’ll want to make certain that the electricity powering the water heater is off. To do this, use a non-contact voltage detector. Hold the tip of the voltage tester near the wires leading to the thermostat. If the wire is live, the voltage tester will beep or emit a red light. After you’ve confirmed the power has been shut off, loosen the terminal screws that hold the wires and disconnect the wires on the heating element.
Step 5: Test the Heating Element
Notice that, on the side of the multimeter, there’s a dial that controls how many volts the tool will operate at. Start by setting your multimeter to the lowest setting for ohms of resistance. Then, if you're using an analog multimeter, calibrate it by holding the prongs together and moving the needle until it points to “0.”
When the multimeter has been properly calibrated, hold the multimeter prongs to the heating element screws to test it. Place the multimeter down near the base of the water heater. Place the end of one prong in the center of the water heater heating element’s screws. Then, do the same with the other prong.
Once the two prongs have been connected, check to see how many ohms of resistance the multimeter is reading. If the element is functioning correctly, the multimeter will read anywhere from 10 to 30 ohms of resistance. If nothing is displayed, or the needle doesn’t move, the heating element does not function and needs to be replaced. Also note here that most water heaters have two heating elements; it may be that one isn’t functioning, or neither is. Remember to always test both elements before completing this task. That way, you can ensure you have a working water heater after the repair.
Step 7: Reattach the Wires and Replace the Cover
Using needle-nose pliers, tighten the wires back over each screw. Then, press the insulation back over the thermostat. If there’s a plastic cover, snap it back into place over the thermostat and then place the metal cover back into position and replace the screws. After everything has been reattached, restore power to the water heater by turning on the circuit breaker.
And there you have it. If you discover that your heating element is faulty, you may want to consult a professional before replacing it. And, depending on the age of your water heater, you may opt to replace the unit altogether.
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