With the water heater element testing guide below you will need an inexpensive multimeter and a screwdriver.
Testing an elements is a simple and safe procedure. Just follow the steps and safety guidelines below.
Turn the water heater breaker (power) off. If you are not sure
which breaker controls the power, shut off all double breakers.
You could have a damaged/burned wire behind the access
panel on the water heater that could be touched accidentally,
so, be sure that the power is off.
Remove the access panels, the insulation and the plastic safety cover. The safety cover snaps on and off, just give it a tug, it should pop off.
Be careful not to touch any wires.
This is a picture of the upper
element, thermostat and limit
The two wires at the very top
(above the red reset button) are
each 120 volt lines coming
from the breaker.
Water heaters operate on 240 volts. You will need to set your multimeter on 240 volts ac. or greater so as not to damage your meter.
Check the meter on an outlet in your house that you know is working.
Place one probe of the meter on one of the lines above the reset
button (see pic).
Place the tip of the other probe on the water heater tank. Scratch
the tank with the end of the probe to be sure you are making good
contact. (this will give you a ground).
You should not get a reading (the needle should not move).
Check the other line the same way, one probe on the line, the other probe on the tank.
If you get a reading on either line the wrong breaker has been turned off. Find the right breaker and be sure the power is off before going to the next step.
Set the dial on the multimeter
to RX1K (see pic).
Touch the two meter probes
The needle should sweep all the
way across the face of the meter.
This tells you that the meter is
When you are testing water heater elements, or any electrical system always be sure your meter is working.
Remove one of the wires
from the water heater element.
It does not matter which wire
Place the meter probes on
each element screw (see pic).
If the needle on the meter does not move, the water heater
element is bad and should be replaced.
If the needle moves all the way across the face, the element should be good. This test is ninety nine percent accurate.
The one time this test is wrong, is when the element has shorted
out and fused or welded itself together (a grounded element).
If your water is getting
extremely hot and/or the reset
button is popping out you may
have a grounded element.
To check for a grounded
element, set your multimeter
dial to RX1K.
Be sure the water heater power is off.
Place one meter probe on one of the element screws. Place the
other probe on the water heater tank or the element base (see pic).
The meter needle should not move.
Check both element screws for ground. If you get a reading
(needle moves) on either one, replace the element.
water heater element replacement
if you need help replacing
If you are not sure what element to buy for your water heater or for general water heater element information please visit the water heater elements page.