How to Test Water Heater Elements – Is It Broken or Just Installed Wrong?

Struggling to keep your water hot? Are your breakers constantly getting tripped? These are both sure signs that your hot water heater is on the fritz, specifically the element. Here’s a handy little blog on how to test water heater elements to determine what’s wrong, and what needs to be done to get your showers back on schedule!

How to Test Water Heater Elements

First things first, what even is an ‘element.’ No we aren’t talking about Fire, Wind, Water, or Heart Planeteer (you guys remember Captain Planet?)  we’re talking about is a metal component usually in the shape of a coil that converts electricity into heat using Joule heating. In water heaters they are located inside the tank itself.

Now, to test the element you are first going to need to get access to them in the first place. That means taking the necessary safety precautions and have the right tools.

Tools You’ll Need

  • Phillips head Screwdriver
  • Non-contact voltage detector
  • Multimeter

First, Turn Off the Breakers

Go to your breakers and flip off all the circuits that go to your hot water heater. You absolutely don’t want the heater to have any power when you are looking to test the elements.

Access the Water Heater’s Thermostat and Elements

The water heater’s thermostat is hidden behind a metal plate, usually near the base of the tank. Use a Phillips head screwdriver and remove the metal plate. As always, keep these screws and plate somewhere safe and sturdy where you won’t lose the pieces. Lots of hot water heaters have a layer of insulation under the metal cover so go ahead and remove that. Some also have a plastic cover that sits between the components and the insulation. Remove as necessary

Test the Power

Before you start touching anything willy nilly, make sure that the electricity is turned off to the room and that the water heater is not receiving any voltage. Use a non-contact voltage detector and touch the tip to the wires heading into the thermostat. If the detector lights up you need to go check your breakers! If no electricity is detected then you are good to go!

Locate the Elements and Undo the Wire

The element itself won’t be visible in the panel as they extend into the tank, but you should be able to see the ends of it. You should see the base of the metal element, usually about 1 inch across with a plastic plate screwed into it.

Test the Water Heater Element

Now is time to get to testing! Take your multimeter, set it for the lowest setting for ohm resistance and calibrate it. Now place the multimeter prongs to the two screws of the element. If everything is working as it should, the multimeter should so somewhere between 10-30 ohms of resistance. If nothing changes and the multimeter sits at 0, something in the element is not working correctly. Even if the number is very low, it is evidence that the heating element isn’t generating heat as necessary.

How Do Water Heater Elements Fail?

The heating element can fail for several reasons, none of them great!


We’ve talked about this in relation to water heaters before. Water has more in it than you might think, including minerals. As these combine and deposit in the tank they can damage the element. The minerals coat the elements surface, creating another layer that it has to heat through for the water to reach the desired temp. This means the element overworks itself and burns out.

Wire Troubles

The element might not be to blame at all! It’s possible the wiring is loose or otherwise incorrect and not delivering the electricity needed to the element.


The thermostat itself might be the problem. It might be on the fritz, need resetting or replacement itself. If your thermostat isn’t working, the heating element won’t be sent the right signals to heat the water.

Power Surges

Heating elements have a voltage rating, what they are designed to withstand. In the case of power surges, that voltage could cause a sudden increase that surpasses what the element is rated for and harming it.


The heating element in hot water heaters are designed to work when they are completely submerged in water, if your tank ever has air pockets or a lack of water and it still heats up the element won’t have anything to transfer its heat to. This can cause the element to burn out its core, resulting in failure.

Whatever the reason, if your water heater heating element isn’t working, you got to get it looked at! If you’re unsure and all of this seemed like a lot of work, no worries. Economy Plumbing Services is trained to handle it all! Give us a call and one of our trucks will be out in no time to help you get your water warmed up like it should!


If Water Goes Through It Or To It, We Do It!

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