Water Heater Problems and Troubleshooting

By Lyle Weischwill | Oct. 14, 2023 1:25 pm PST

Updated on October 14, 2023. Learn about common water heater problems and how to solve them — because a cold shower isn’t exactly the wake-up call you want.

Your water heater tends to go underappreciated — until the warm water runs out mid-shower or it springs a leak, that is. Knowing some of the basics about how your water heater works — and whether it’s time to call a technician — will help you get it back in working order for the least amount of time, money…and cold showers.

Most of our DIY troubleshooting in this article pertains to electric water heaters because gas water heater problems often need to be diagnosed and repaired by a service technician.

Here are the most common electric water heater problems and DIY troubleshooting tips to help you repair the problems yourself.

No Hot Water

Check the house circuit breakers for the water heater. Reset the circuit breakers by shutting them off and then flipping them back on.

If the water heater doesn’t begin to heat after resetting the circuit breakers, shut the breakers off and press the reset button for the high-temperature limit switch on the upper thermostat of the water heater. If the water heater works for a while and then trips the high-temperature limit switch again, you may need to replace a failed thermostat that’s causing the element to heat constantly.

If the water heater doesn’t heat after pressing the high-temperature limit switch reset button, follow the steps shown in this DIY troubleshooting video to diagnose and fix the heating failure.

Our No hot water: electric water heater troubleshooting article provides the written version of that video.

If you’re unable to fix your water heater using the information in the video and article, then you’ll likely need to have a service technician diagnose and repair your water heater.

Not Enough Hot Water

A failed heating element or defective thermostat could result in not having enough hot water. Follow these troubleshooting steps to fix the problem.

  1. Examine your thermostats and elements as shown in the above video and replace any defective components.
  2. A buildup of sediment in the bottom of the tank can also result in not having enough hot water. Shut off the electricity and water supply to the water heater and then drain the tank to flush out tank sediment. Refill the tank before restoring electrical power to an electric water heater to avoid damaging the heating elements. Our How to drain the tank on an electric water heater video explains in detail how to drain and refill the water heater tank.
  3. Check the size of your water heater. Consider replacing your water heater with a larger capacity model if your current model doesn’t supply enough hot water to meet your needs. A 40-gallon water heater typically supplies enough hot water for a family of four with normal water use. Sometimes, you’ll use up the hot water in the tank and you’ll need to wait for the tank to recover before hot water is again available.

Water Not Hot Enough

Follow this expert advice to help you resolve the problem when water isn’t getting hot enough.

  • Carefully adjust the water heater’s thermostat setting if it’s set below 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjust the temperature setting in small increments to avoid producing scalding hot water. You shouldn’t need to adjust the temperature above 130 degrees. Setting the thermostat above 130 degrees can produce water that’s too hot.
  • Sometimes, you’ll use up the hot water in the tank and you’ll need to wait for the tank to recover before the water is fully heated. Consider replacing your water heater with a larger capacity model if your current model doesn’t supply enough hot water to meet your needs.
  • A failed heating element or bad thermostat can cause heating problems in an electric water heater. Follow the tips in the troubleshooting video for no hot water provided above to find and fix a problem with a bad heating element or failed thermostat.
  • Excessive tank sediment also inhibits water heating. Shut off the electricity and water supply to the water heater and drain the tank to flush out sediment. Refill the tank before restoring electrical power the water heater to avoid damaging the heating elements. The video provided in the above section provides details on draining and refilling the tank to flush out sediment.

Overheating the Water

First, adjust the thermostat setting to lower the water temperature if the water heater thermostat is set above 130 degrees. The 120-degree setting is standard. If 120-degree water is too hot for you to use, try setting the thermostat at 110 degrees. Next, check the thermostats. The upper and lower thermostats in an electric water heater must fit snug against the tank to properly transfer heat in order for thermostats to detect the water temperature correctly. To check the thermostats, turn off the power to the water heater and remove the thermostat access covers. Check the thermostats’ positions and adjust the thermostat brackets if necessary to press the thermostats against the side of the tank.

A thermostat that’s stuck in the ‘on’ position will cause the heating element to stay on constantly, overheating the water in the tank. Or, if the element breaks, it can make contact with metal inside the water heater, creating a short circuit. In that case, electric current flows through the element to the metal, causing the element to heat constantly. Examine the elements and replace an element if damaged.

This DIY YouTube video shows details on diagnosing and fixing an overheating problem in the water heater.

Water Heater is Leaking

When water leaks from the bottom of the water heater, the water tank is likely cracked. You’ll almost certainly need to replace the water heater in this situation. Cracked tanks in water heaters typically can’t be repaired.

Whether you need to fix your water heater on your own, have it repaired or buy a new water heater, Sears is always here to help you resolve the issue. Trust our expertise and resources to help you manage and enjoy your home.

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