How to tell if hot water heater Element is bad?

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How to tell if hot water heater element is bad

If you’re experiencing problems with your hot water, it’s essential to determine whether the issue is with the heater itself or another component related to your plumbing. One common problem that people experience is a bad water heater element.

There are obvious signs that point towards a bad hot water heating element. You may notice noises from the hot water tank and that your hot water doesn’t last very long. Temperature fluctuations in the shower can also become a regular occurrence if your heating element is on the way out.

This blog post will discuss all the warning signs of lousy water heater elements. We’ll also provide tips on preventing heating element failure and how to test it if necessary.

How to tell if hot water heater element is bad?

The most obvious sign that your hot water heater element is bad is when you no longer have hot water coming out of your taps. More symptoms include temperature fluctuations, rusty-looking water, and when your water heaters circuit breaker keeps tripping.

What is a water heater element?

The water heater element is a part of the appliance that heats the water. It is usually located near the bottom of the tank and consists of a coil of metal that gets hot when electricity flows through it.

Some water heaters have two heating elements that perform different jobs.

Upper Water Heater Element

The upper heating element sits near the top of the tank and is used mostly during periods of high demand, such as when you first turn on the shower in the morning. The upper element kicks in to heat the water quickly so that there’s always a supply of hot water.

Lower Water Heater Element

The lower element is used more frequently than the upper one and helps maintain a steady hot water supply. It’s important to note that both elements should be working correctly for your water heater to function optimally.

Signs of a Bad Water Heating Element

Bad heating elements can be frustrating for most homeowners who need hot water in a pinch.

Knowing when to replace heating elements before they fail will save you many hours of frustration and pain.

Here are some signs to look out for when dealing with faulty water heating elements. 

Age of Water Heater

The age of your water heater will also play a factor when things start breaking or shutting down. Older water heaters that have not been maintained will eventually begin to fail. 

Check the installation date and see if the device has been operational for eight to twelve years. This is a sure sign that your heating element is past its best before date.  

You Are Always Out Of Hot Water

This is a pronounced symptom of a failing heating element. When the heating element has failed, it can no longer heat the water in the tank, which means you will be left with cold water throughout the house.

Fluctuating Shower Temperatures

This could be a thermostat issue for the lucky, but it could also signify that your heating element is on the way out. Fluctuating water temperature could mean that your heating element cannot maintain a set temperature or fails to reach the tank’s desired temperature.

Faucets Spewing Rusty Water

Rusty-colored water is often a sign of corrosion or sediment build-up. Both corrosion in your pipes and sediment build-up in your water heater tank can affect the water heater element.

The element has to work harder than to heat the water in the tank and will ultimately cause it to fail sooner.

Water Heating Tank’s Circuit Breaker Trips

If your water heater’s circuit breaker trips frequently, this is a sign that the element is either damaged or is experiencing a short circuit by staying on continuously and overheating the water. 

It almost certainly means that the element needs to be replaced in either case.

What causes a Hot Water Heater Element to Fail?

It would be great if we could pinpoint the exact day our elements will fail, but it’s not that easy.

Elements slowly degrade over time and sometimes without any prior warning signs.

Only when they’ve entirely failed will you know there was ever a problem, to begin with.

However, some things will speed up the degradation of your heating elements.


One of the most common causes of element failure is corrosion. This occurs when the heating element is exposed to water for extended periods. The water will eventually corrode the metal and cause it to break down.

Sediment Build-up

Another common cause of element failure is sediment build-up. This happens when minerals from the water build-up on the element and prevent it from heating properly. Eventually, the sediment will become so thick that it will completely block the elements and prevent them from working.

Thermal Shock

Thermal shock is another common cause of element failure. Thermal shock happens when the element is exposed to sudden changes in temperature, such as when the water heater is turned on and off frequently. The sudden temperature change can cause the element to crack or break.

How to Prevent Hot Water Heater Element Failure

You can do a few things to prevent your heating elements from failing.

First, you should always keep the water heater clean and sediment-free. You can do this by regularly flushing the tank and/or installing a sediment filter.

Second, you should make sure the water heater is properly insulated, which will help prevent thermal shock.

Third, you should avoid using the water heater when it is not needed, which will help prevent corrosion.

If you do these things, you can help prolong the life of your heating element and avoid the need for expensive repairs or replacements.

How to test your hot water heater element

You need two tools to test the heating elements.

  • Screwdriver
  • Multimeter

Turn the water heater off

Find your house’s main circuit breaker box, usually a one-foot-by-two-foot metal box in the garage but can also be under stairways or in the basement next to the water heater. Find the labeled water heater breaker and flip the switch to the marked-off position.

Remove metal covers on the side of the heating tank

The metal covers on the side on your water heater tank house the thermostat and heater element. The manufacturer usually fastens these two components with Phillips head screws. Remove with your screwdriver.

Carefully remove insulation and plastic covers

Your heating will likely have a layer of insulation and a thin plastic cover. This keeps the metal cover and heating element separate. Use your hand or a utility knife to pry or cut the insulation but try to remove it in one piece if possible.

Find the heating element

You should now see a rectangular thermostat with electrical wires. It should be above the heating element. The actual element is inside and what you see is the 1-inch square base with two wires running into them.

Use your multimeter on the heating element

Connect the red side of the multimeter to the exposed heating element box. You are using the resistance functionality at its lowest dial setting. The heating element works if the reading is between 10 and 30 ohms.

Repeat steps for the second element

The heating element is bad if the reading is before the required reading, 0 or 1 ohm. 

Reassemble all the components

Once you have checked the heating element (and replaced it if needed), it’s time to put everything back the way you found it. Replace the plastic cover, insulation, and metal cover, and then flip the water heater circuit breaker back on.

If you had to replace the element, you could expect to wait a few hours for the water to be heated, and you can discern whether you replaced it correctly.


Finding out that your water heating element has failed isn’t ideal. But, knowing what to look for sure helps identify when to replace the element before it completely fails.

No hot water, the age of the water heater, fluctuating water temperatures, and quick depleting reserves are the most obvious signs of water heater element failure.

You can also test the element with a multimeter and replace it if necessary. Be sure to follow all safety precautions when working with electricity and hot water.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know if my Hot Water Heater Element is bad?

The most obvious sign that your water heater element is bad is if there is no hot water. Other symptoms include the age of the water heater, fluctuating water temperatures, and quick depleting reserves.

How do you check to see if a water heater element is bad?

The easiest way to check to see if a water heater element is bad is with a multimeter. You can also check for signs of corrosion or damage.

How do I know if my Electric water heater element is bad?

ad. You can check the element with a multimeter to see if it reads 0 or 1 ohm. If so, then the element needs to be replaced.

Will a bad water heater element trip a breaker?

A bad water heater element can trip a breaker. If you notice that the breaker for your water heater is constantly being tripped, it could be because the element is bad and needs to be replaced.

The H2Home Lab team is dedicated to helping you find the best solutions to your specific water needs, as well as provide troubleshooting tips and guides for water filtration, heating, softening and plumbing. We hope you will find the info you need on our site from any one of our buying guides or subject matter articles.

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