Do you feel like the water from your heater is not as hot as before, giving you a less satisfying shower time? Do you think the heating element is near its twilight? There is only one way to find out, and it requires learning how to test a water heater element.
Testing a water heater element helps you decide whether your water heater requires a replacement heating element or not. The good news is the process is less complicated than it sounds. Start by turning off the water heater’s power supply, then accessing the element and measuring the electrical resistance. These are some of the important steps.
Read on; I will describe to you how to do each step in more detail.
Table of Contents
Things You Need for This Tutorial
Testing your water heater’s heating element does not require complex tools, although you must have a working knowledge of how water heaters work. For this guide, you need the following.
Some people underestimate the value of an owner’s manual, believing it is an unnecessary piece of document that goes with the package. However, your manual contains crucial information about the water heater, including its heating element.
You might even find the answer to the nagging question, can a water heater element test good but be bad? Manufacturers know their products’ strengths and limitations, informing you what the water heater can and cannot do.
More importantly, the owner’s manual describes the water heating element’s location, including the fasteners securing it. You can choose the correct hand tool with this information.
The manual also describes the water heater’s electrical characteristics, such as wattage, amperes, and Ohms. You need this data in testing the water heating element.
Digital multimeters are an essential tool for any DIYer, giving you information about the water heater’s voltage, current, and resistance values. For this activity, you will measure the heating element’s electrical resistance in Ohms.
I recommend buying a good-quality multitester because you can use it on any electrical device. Using it on your water heater should build your confidence in testing other electronic devices, equipment, and appliances.
You need a screwdriver for this tutorial. The screwdriver type you use depends on the screws fastening the metal cover and the heating element endpoint. Most water heaters have Phillips screws, requiring a screwdriver with a similar tip.
Steps for Testing a Water Heater Element
Step 1. Disconnect the water heater from the electrical circuit breaker panel.
For your safety and that of your family, I advise you to cut off the electricity to your water heater. Locate your electrical circuit breaker panel and check the breaker that connects to the water heater.
Most households have labels for each breaker, allowing people to disconnect only the appliance they want to fix. Look for the breaker with a ‘water heater’ label and switch it off.
If your breaker panel does not have labels, it would be best to switch off all breakers.
Step 2. Open the water heater’s access panel.
You must access the water heater’s internal components to test the water heater thermostat and heating elements.
Look at your water heater and locate a rectangular metal cover on the side. Check if screws are fastening the cover and remove them using the correct screwdriver. If you do not see any screws, you might have to pry open the metal cover from one side.
Pro Tip: Use a magnetic screwdriver to avoid losing the tiny screws when you unfasten them.
Step 3. Remove the insulating layer.
The thermostat and heating elements have a thick insulating layer, mainly fiberglass or cellulose. Remove as many insulation materials as possible and place them in a container for reapplication upon task completion.
Check if the thermostat also has a protective cover, often plastic. Remove the plastic cover, if any.
Pro Tip: Wear protective goggles and safety gloves when removing the insulating material.
Step 4. Double-check there is no electricity running through the water heater.
Even though you are confident the circuit breaker to the water heater is already off, it would still be best to double-check before proceeding.
For this step, I recommend using a non-contact voltage detector to check if electricity still runs through your water heater. As the name suggests, a non-contact voltage detector uses super-sensitive sensors to discover minute electrical charges in any system.
Using the device is as straightforward as holding the tester’s tip near (no touch) the thermostat and heating element. Depending on the model, the voltage detector will flash or emit a sound if it detects electricity in the water heater.
If the detector comes back positive, you might want to power off the entire circuit breaker panel and retest the water heater.
Fluke Corporation has an informative video about the ease of using a non-contact voltage detector.
Step 5. Locate the water heater heating elements’ endpoints.
You cannot test the water heater element with a multimeter directly because this component is inside the water heater tank. However, the heater element often has an endpoint protruding outside the tank.
Most water heaters have two elements. Hence, you must locate two endpoints.
Step 6. Check your water heater’s electrical ratings.
Before you test a heating element with a digital multimeter, it would be best to check your water heater’s electrical ratings. Many water heaters have this information inscribed on a plate on the tank’s surface. Check the water heater’s resistance (in Ohms) and wattage values.
To test the heating element with an Ohm meter, you must set it to the lowest possible Ohm value relative to your water heater’s resistance rating. As a rule, you must set the digital multimeter to the Ohm setting, mimicking the water heater’s rated Ohms.
Here is a video from GalcoTV showing how to measure electrical resistance using a multimeter.
Step 7. Measure the heating elements’ electrical parameters.
Get your digital multimeter and plug the probes into their corresponding ports. Turn on the device and set it to Ohms.
Touch the probes to the screw securing the heating element’s endpoint and check your multimeter’s readings. You should see values nearly identical to the water heater’s Ohm rating. If the device does not return any value or the reading is 1-Ohm or less, you likely have a busted water heater element.
You can also test the water heater element without a multimeter using a test light. Unfortunately, it only tests for electrical continuity and does not provide you with reference values.
If you are unsure about using a multimeter, I recommend watching this video from SparkFun Electronics.
Step 8. Reassemble the water heater.
You can replace everything you removed upon completing the testing. However, if you decide to replace the water heater heating element, you might want to cover the panel until you have the replacement unit at hand.
Always check the manufacturer’s instructions on replacing the water heater’s heating element. Ensure you do not void any warranties if you put another heating element into the water heater yourself.
Reconnect any wires you removed from the heating element’s endpoint. Replace the thermostat plastic cover, if any. Reapply the insulating material (cellulose or fiberglass), ensuring proper coverage. Place the metal cover over the panel and secure it with the screws.
Step 9. Test your water heater.
Turn on the water heater’s breaker switch at the breaker panel and power on your water heater. It would take some time before you notice any improvement in your hot water.
Learning how to test a water heater element is as straightforward as turning off the water heater’s power supply, accessing the element, and measuring the electrical resistance. You can then decide whether to replace your heating element or get an expert to do it for you.
I hope you found this guide advantageous in checking your water heater’s optimum functionality. If you do, I would appreciate it if you could also share this tutorial with your social network. I will also welcome any questions, feedback, or comments you may have.
My work as a freelance copywriter allows me to work with Stephen later join Usawaterquality as a content producer. Our team works together to produce high-quality contents that cater to the needs of large companies and households.