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I suspect that something has gone awry with the electric water heater.

We do get water that is plenty hot, but it doesn't seem to last as long as it used to. My suspicions are further aroused because one day the water heater breakers had tripped.

Is this indicative of one of the elements failing, or would that just give us lukewarm water?

update

2 days after asking this question, the breaker tripped again, and this time a reset did not get hot water flowing again.

I did the whole testing procedure on the elements and thermostats. Both elements were definitely bad, so I drained the tank (it helped to use the pump from my rain barrels), then went to the hardware store and found a full kit with 2 elements and thermostats for $32 USD, so I went ahead and replaced everything. I also bought the special wrench tool to remove the screw-in elements, as it was easier than finding a 1 1/2" socket and cheaper than buying a wrench that would fit.

All-in-all, a relatively fast and inexpensive repair.

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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

It sure looks like you are on the right track with you assessment. Most electric water heaters have two thermostats, one that controls the main tank element, and one that controls the quick recovery element. There are several very helpful test procedures available online or in the This Old House website. The basics of the test are very simple if you have knowledge of using a volt/ohm meter.(VOM) Be absolutely sure the breaker and power to the heater is off before attempting any OHM measurements on the elements. You will check for proper operation of the therostats. This is usually done with the power on (220VAC) , which can be dangerous if one is not competent in testing live circuits with a volt meter. Basically, you will first verify the 220 volt input at each thermostat. As you draw down the hot water in the tank,replacing it with cold water, the output relays(just a double pole switch for testing purposes) in the thermostats will close, putting 220VAC on the output terminals to the elements. You can also simply turn up the temp on the thermostats and check the outputs as you are now asking for hotter water. Assuming you verify proper operation of the thermostats, the next step will be checking the resistance of the elements with the ohm meter. BE SURE POWER IS OFF. Disconnect the output wires from the thermostats and measure the ohms of each element. Knowing the factory spec is very helpful, however a very high reading or a "0" reading will indicate a bad element. I will try to find a good link and post it in the comments section for you, but a good procedure is easy to find as stated above. http://homerepair.about.com/od/plumbingrepair/ss/element_replace.htm

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Very nice, thanks. That link is great. –  Jay Jan 11 '11 at 1:45
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If one have the elements had failed it would mean that the water would take longer to warm up. Crudely you're putting half the energy into the water so it will take twice as long to get to the same temperature as before. (That's actually a gross simplification but probably suffices in this case).

However, the water in your tank isn't a uniform temperature. The hot water rises to the top from where its drawn when you use it due to convection (plus the fact that the heater is often towards the top of the tank).

This means that (again crudely) if before you could heat the entire tank in an hour you're now only heating the top half. This means that you'll run out of hot water more quickly than before - which is what you are seeing.

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