Few things can dampen the start of a cold morning like turning on the shower faucet to find lukewarm water temperatures. When your electric water heater leaves your plumbing in the cold, several components could be to blame, but chances are that the element has failed. Here's a look at how to test the element to find out.
Turn Off the Power
The first step is to turn off the power supply to the water heater. Start by turning off the unit itself by turning the power switch to "OFF." Then, if your water heater plugs into a wall outlet, unplug it. For hard-wired water heaters, you'll need to turn off the breaker in your home's main breaker box or electric panel. Flip the hot water heater breaker to "OFF" to terminate the power feed to the hot water heater.
Test the Element
Locate the two wires connected to the main element of the water heater. Move them to the side so that you can access the mounting hardware. Remove the screws holding the hardware in place, move the element and slide the wires out of the way.
Set your multimeter to the ohms setting. The ohms setting is normally labeled in green with a Ω sign on the display. If you don't have a multimeter, you can find one at most home improvement and hardware stores.
Testing Both Element Wires
Touch one of the multimeter's probes to each of the element's screws. Look at the meter to see what the reading is. If there's no reading at all or the multimeter maxes out, that's a sign that the element has failed. The reading should be within the standard wattage range printed on the side of the element block if the element is working properly.
Testing the Element and Heater Circuit
Leave one probe on an element screw and move the other one onto a bare metal spot on the water heater. If the multimeter responds with any reading at all, that's a sign that the element has shorted out. Do this test with both screws on the element.
Testing the Element Frame
Leave one probe in contact with an element screw and touch the other one to the element's metal frame. There should be no fluctuation in the needle on the multimeter at all. Do this with both screws on the element. If the needle moves, the element has shorted out.
If the element has shorted out, you can replace it with a new one by disconnecting the element screws. If you are uncomfortable with doing the work yourself, talk with a contractor like Jolly Plumbing & Heating about doing the repairs for you.