Hot Water Not Working – 7-Step Electric Water Heater Element Testing Guide [Video]

By Mengning Heil

September 2, 2022

Water Heater Tips

Reading Time: 5 minutes

There you are. You’ve turned on the hot water, and you wait for a few seconds, and nothing happens. What can you do? While hot water not working is a pain, diagnosing the issue and even fixing it does not necessarily require a plumber (though we are here for you if you need us). Read on or click the video to learn how professional plumbers think through this type of issue and how water heater element testing may be an important next step to point you in the right direction.

Hot Water Not Working – Diagnosing Electric Water Heater Woes

What could lead to your hot water not working properly? Consider the following possible reasons:

  1. Did someone accidentally change the thermostat on your water heater? It’s always worth a quick check.
  2. Has the breaker associated with your water heater been tripped by a power surge or a thunderstorm? Check the circuit breaker box/panel. If you can flip the breaker back on without the breaker tripping again, this may be all you need to get your hot water working again (once the tank has time to heat the water).
  3. Is there a visible leak or an obvious issue when you look at the water heater itself? Contact your local plumber.
  4. If the circuit breaker has not been tripped and if the water heater does not appear to be leaking, have you tried resetting your tank using the electric water heater reset button?

Why Perform Water Heater Element Testing?

If the above diagnostic questions and accompanying solutions don’t reveal the reason for the hot water not working properly, the issue is most likely a broken thermostat or a broken heating element (or elements).

At this point, it is a process of elimination.

If your water heater’s thermostat keeps tripping, about 90% of the time the thermostat simply needs to be replaced. The main problem in relying solely on this data point, however, is that you may spend time replacing the thermostat only to discover that the heating elements were the problem all along.

In other words, instead of simply assuming that your thermostat is the issue, your best bet is water heater element testing. If your heating elements prove to be in working order, you can replace your thermostat or thermostats with greater confidence that you have identified the probable problem. Conversely, if your water heater element testing reveals that your heating elements are not functioning, you haven’t wasted time addressing your thermostats.

So, what is a water heater element? How does a water heater element work? And, how do you go about water heater element testing?

What is a Water Heater Element?

Water heater elements are cylindrical rods that extend about a foot into your electric water heater and heat the water in your tank. Typically, electric water heaters have one or two heating elements (which can be disconnected and replaced if need be). Water heaters with two heating elements use one element to heat the water at the top of the tank and one for the bottom of the tank.

How Does a Water Heater Element Work?

A water heater element works in conjunction with a water heater thermostat. A thermostat ensures that the water heater keeps the water within the tank at a certain temperature by signaling its associated element to turn on if the water temperature drops below the thermostat setting (usually 120°-140° Fahrenheit).
Water heater elements will remain on until the water reaches the temperature specified on the thermostat. Once the water has come up to temperature, the thermostat triggers the elements to turn off until the water needs to be warmed again.

Dual-element water heaters typically do not run both elements simultaneously, but rather rely on the upper thermostat to trigger the upper heating element to heat the top half of the tank before sending a signal to the lower thermostat to assess and warm the water at the bottom of the tank.

How to Test a Water Heater Element – Step by Step

What tools do I need for water heater element testing?

  1. Screwdriver
  2. Voltage test pen
  3. Fluke electrical tester

Water heater element testing is a simple 7-step process.

1. Turn off the power to the water heater at your breaker box.

2. Use a screwdriver to remove the outer thermostat cover. (If you have two heating elements, you will want to remove both thermostat covers).

3. After removing the outer thermostat cover, you may need to remove either insulation and/or a plastic inner cover to actually expose the thermostat and heating element.

4. Use a voltage test pen to ensure that the power is actually off before testing the element.

5. Disconnect the wires attached to the heating element and push them to the side momentarily.

6. Use an electric tester to test the heating element. We typically suggest running an Ohm test (though you can run an Amp test). So, set the meter to the “Continuity/Ohm” setting. (This setting may have a little horseshoe icon). Take the two leads from your tester and touch the two screws on the heating element from which you disconnected the wires. If your reading is around 14 then you will know your element is functioning properly.*** (Repeat steps 2-6 to test the lower element as well if you have a dual-element water heater.)

7. Put everything back: Reattach the wires to the heating element(s). Reattach the thermostat cover plate(s). And, turn the power back on at the breaker box.

***If the readings from your heating elements are showing that the elements are working correctly, then you know to replace the thermostat (or thermostats). However, if you do not get an Ohm reading (or if you are running a “Continuity” test and the tester is not beeping) then you know that the heating element is probably the issue and needs to be replaced. (Note: every so often the actual issue may not be a thermostat or a heating element, but a wiring issue. If you think this is the case, contact a plumber.)

Still Want Help?

While the process of elimination used above may identify your hot water problem, we are here for you if you need water heater repair in Rockville, MD or the surrounding areas.

Contact us at Heil Plumbing DMV if you are looking for a reliable plumber in Rockville, MD. We also offer DIY plumbing help virtually.

Heil Plumbing is a family-run company owned by a third-generation master plumber. We can help you with a full range of plumbing services, including toilet installation and repair, leak detection and pipe repair, water heater repair and installation, faucet repair and installation, drain cleaning, water treatment services, and more.