Photo by GE Appliances

How to fix your water heater

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A conked-out electric water heater is a silent problem that can lead to noisy shrieks when your family’s shower water suddenly goes cold. A tradesperson could resolve it on Monday, but on Friday night with a cottage full of people, the only solution is to roll up your sleeves and fix it.

First, check for blown fuses or tripped breakers. If that’s not the problem, kill the power to the hot-water tank before doing anything else. On rare occasions, a thermo­stat is not working properly or the high-limit switch needs to be reset (press the red button on the top thermostat). Most of the time, however, the tank has a faulty heating element. This can occur on its own, but it usually happens after the tank is emptied and the power is left on. To test the element, all you need is an electrical multi-meter tester, screwdrivers, and a socket set.

Checking the heating element

1. First test the meter by switching it to the audible continuity test setting and touching the two leads together. If the meter beeps, it’s working. If not, check the meter setting and its batteries.

2. Make sure you have switched off the circuit breaker to cut power to the heater. Then, to isolate each element, disconnect it from its thermostat by unhooking the two wires that run to it. (But don’t remove the element just yet.) Next, with the multi-meter set on audible continuity test, place one lead on each of the two terminal screws on the element (a). A beep signals continuity: The element is likely fine. Silence means no continuity: The circuit is broken and the
element needs replacing. Test both elements.

3. If your elements passed, next check to see if either one is grounding out—i.e., part of the element is broken and touching the side of the metal tank. (A faulty element that is grounding out might still have continuity.) To find out, put one tester lead on the element mounting bracket and touch the other lead to each terminal screw in turn. If either one causes a beep, it tells you the element is grounding out and needs replacing.


Replacing the element

Drain the tank at the draincock and remove the element (b), which usually means removing the bolts attaching it to the tank. Take it with you to the store to get a replacement that’s rated for the same wattage and voltage, and is the same shape. At $20–$40, it’s worth picking up a spare. On a Friday night, when you only have to go downstairs instead of to town, you’ll be glad of your foresight.

To protect your elements, turn off the power to the hot water tank whenever you leave the cottage to go back to the city and when you work on the water system.

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