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Causes of Water Heater Element Problems

This blog explains the causes of water heater element problems

Differing Water Heater Voltage

  • If you connect higher voltage from your electrical panel to your water heater than what the water heater is rated for, the excessive electrical current, known as amps, will burn out the elements. This creates an open circuit which can be easily understood by the example of unplugging a lamp from a receptacle. When the lamp is plugged in and turned on you have a closed circuit and the light bulb lights. When you remove the lamp’s plug from the receptacle, you now have an open circuit. That means the power available at your receptacle is not able to power your lamp due to the lack of connection, the current cannot “jump the gap” to close the circuit. Hence, an open circuit.
  • If you connect a lower voltage from your electrical panel to a water heater rated at a higher voltage, you will experience decreased efficiency. An example, if you connect 208 volts from your breaker panel to a 240 volt rated water heater, it will still heat the water but at approximately 25% less efficiency.

Dry-firing Your Water Heater

Dry-firing your water heater is a major cause of water heater element problems. To dry-fire your water heater means to turn the electrical power onto your water heater before it is full of water. Another cause of dry-firing is not bleeding air in the water heater tank when filling with water, thereby creating pockets of air. Water heater elements are designed to be submerged in water when they are operating. When exposed to air, the element cannot dissipate the heat fast enough and will burn up.

Many locations have high mineral content in their water. Over time, this sediment “clings to” the element. Cinging sediment is called scale. This scale acts as insulation around your element which causes excessive heat buildup and will shorten its life. If you have high mineral content in your water, you may want to carefully remove the scale with a brush.

  • ALWAYS to turn the power off to your water heater.
  • Drain the water from your water heater.
  • With a screwdriver remove the power leads from the element.
  • Then remove the element with a water heater element socket wrench which is available at Wallingford Sales or Water Heater Store product #47972.
  • After you have finished clearing the scale build up from the water heater elements, reinstall the elements.
  • Then fill your water heater with water, making sure to bleed the air from the tank.
  • Once your water heater is full of water you may turn the power back on.

A Defective Thermostat

Thermostats regulate at what temperature current will be fed to a water heater element and at what temperature the current ceases. If a thermostat is defective it could allow excessive current or continual electrical current to the element which would burn it out.

Finally, if you are unsure, always consult with a knowledgeable, licensed plumber who can safely and accurately solve any of these issues.

To order the correct elements or other parts for your water heater, please obtain the model and serial number of your water heater. Then forward that information to doug@wallingfordsales.com and we will let you know the product number you need, cost and availability. For water heaters older than 15 years old, we may need to contact the factory to obtain the correct part numbers and availability.

I wish you much success!

“Keeping you in hot water…so you stay out of hot water!”

Doug Wallingford
Wallingford Sales
Water Heater Store