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I live in South Florida. Hurricanes happen, and knock the power out for weeks at a time when they do.

I don't need water that's steaming hot, but I really want to be able to take showers that are at LEAST "tolerably tepid" when running from generator power for days or weeks at a time (when connected, the water heater could be the generator's ONLY load if necessary).

The devil, of course, is in the details... specifically, I'm strugging to figure out how many amperes my water heater will draw when powered by 120 volts instead of 240 volts, so I can size the wire and plug appropriately.

Based on my understanding of Ohm's Law, when fed 120v (pin mapping below), the water heater will draw 9.375 amperes, and its heating coils will output 1,125 watts of heat. As far as I know, it's a straightforward pure resistive load, and only one heating element at a time is ever in use (top heats until water reaches set point, then bottom heats until either bottom reaches set point or top falls below set point). This seems to imply that when running, the water heater would draw slightly more power than a toaster (9A), but less power than my laser printer (11A when preheating the fuser or actively printing).

Is this correct? Would it REALLY draw only 1,125 watts (9.375 amperes) from the generator? Do I have the connections right, or are there additional things to consider with regard to neutral and ground?

Details:

I live alone, so I don't have to supply hot (or at least tepid) water to anyone besides myself.

My hot water heater (unlikely to be replaced anytime soon) is a standard 40-gallon electric water heater (US/Craftmaster Water Heater Company, model E1F40RD045V). It's 10+ years old, and has no "smart" features or electronics whatsoever.

The sticker on the side lists the following specs:

Phase           1      1
Volts AC       208    240
Upper Element 3380   4500
Lower Element 3380   4500
Total
Connected
Watts         3380   4500

The water heater has a standard NEMA 10-30 plug. The two hot leads from its power cord are connected to something inside the water heater, and the middle (neutral) lead from the power cord is connected to a screw on the water heater's chassis.

Wiring Plan:

Build a custom extension cord with receptacle suitable for the water heater at one end, and plug suitable for the generator at the other. When connected to the generator, the water heater would be its ONLY load.

  • 120v generator hot to water heater's "240v" hot #1
  • 120v generator neutral to water heater's "240v" hot #2
  • 120v generator ground to water heater's "240v" neutral (which is actually bolted to the water heater's chassis).
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Your math is on the money

You are indeed spot on that your heater will draw 9.375A when connected across a 120V supply.

And your 120V wiring is correct as well

You are indeed correct that the two water heater hots should be connected to hot and neutral of the 120V supply, and the supply ground should ground the water heater.

However, your 240V wiring is a miss

You have the wrong plug and socket configuration for your 240V wiring though. While it's not unsafe currently if it was wired directly back to the main panel as your appliance is 240V only and thus needs no neutral, the NEMA 10 was intended for 120/240V apps, not 240V-only apps like yours. The correct plug and socket is a NEMA 6-30, which is "hot-hot-ground" instead of the "hot-hot-neutral" of the NEMA 10 series.

I'd replace the NEMA 10 with a NEMA 6 and then either:

  1. use an adapter cord wired as you describe (with 14AWG wire) to plug the NEMA 6-30 into a 5-15 (regular) receptacle. Make sure to label the cord as "FOR WATER HEATER ONLY" so someone doesn't use it on an appliance that will pull 30A at 120V -- a 15A/250V fuse in the adapter assembly would be a wise thing to have, even, as protection against such oopses.

  2. change cords when making the generator connection, as your water heater has a terminal box on it that can be used -- a 14AWG power cord with screw leads at one end and a normal 5-15P at the other can be used, wired as you describe. Make sure to wire up the water heater end first, and not to leave the unused cord connected at either end!

How to hardwire this switcheroo (properly!)

If you want to configure this as a hard-wired sort of thing (for instance, if you already have a transfer switch or generator interlocked subpanel installed), it's not impossible (or particularly expensive), it just requires a bit of unconventional (but still Code insofar that putting a 240V water heater on a 120V supply can be considered Code to begin with) wiring.

You'll need for this:

  • A Reliance Panel/Link TRB0603D manual transfer switch
  • Some /2 with ground cable of the appropriate type and a gauge that matches the existing wiring from the generator inlet
  • An Eaton BRWH220 breaker -- you'll probably need to have your supply house order this in for you, but it shouldn't be terribly expensive
  • Wire nuts and THHN that match that existing generator cable for a bit of pigtailing
  • And inch-pound torque tools and bits for assembly

First off, make sure that existing breaker for the water heater is off, and that your water heater is a conventional electric tank heater with an electromechanical thermostat and no existing connection to the mains neutral (putting 120VAC on a heat pump or hybrid water heater will lead to severe compressor damage, while tankless electric heaters are simply too beastly for any reasonably sized residential generator to have a hope). You'll also need to torque all the lugs you're fitting wires to the manufacturer's specification -- this is a very good reliability measure in addition to being a new requirement (110.14(D)) in the 2017 NEC.

Pick a spot where you can cut the water heater branch circuit and run a cable conveniently to the existing transfer means, then cut into the water heater circuit and install the new transfer switch there. Land the existing hot wires from the breaker on the lugs of the new transfer switch's "utility" breaker, and land the hot wires going out to the water heater on the main lugs inside the transfer switch (they're the two large lugs attached directly to the busbars). Land the ground wires on the ground bar.

Now, run that new length of /2 cable from the existing transfer means to the new transfer switch. At the existing transfer means, splice into one hot leg with a THHN pigtail and a wirenut -- the pigtail routes to the terminal the hot leg in question once landed, and the black wire from the new cable goes into this splice as well. Do likewise with a matching pigtail and the generator's neutral wire, this time hooking the white wire from the new cable into the splice, and land the new ground on a ground bar. The result is a generator-only 120V feed to the new transfer switch.

Now, install the BRWH220 into the new transfer switch, preferably on the same side as the generator breaker. This breaker is special in that it has a pair of isolated line lugs instead of taking its line-in from the busbar stabs, thus allowing it to be hooked to a circuit of different characteristics than what the loadcenter it is in is connected to (say one on a separate meter, which is the originally intended application for this oddity of a breaker). Take one of the outside lugs (either one works, they're both line lugs) and land the black wire from the new cable on it. The white wire from the new cable goes to one lug on the "generator" breaker already installed into the new transfer switch, and the new cable's ground wire goes into the new transfer switch's grounding bar. Last but not least, use another piece of that THHN from earlier to connect the inside lug on the same side of the BRWH220 that you already wired to (that's the matching load lug) to the remaining lug on the "generator" breaker in the new transfer switch.

Button everything back up, turn the water heater's breaker back on, and make sure the water heater runs both off mains and off the generator, with correct voltage (240V for utility power, 120V for generator power) at the terminals of the water heater. Now, when the power goes out, you'll be able to transfer the water heater to generator power and have it run at half-voltage (quarter power) without fussing with cords or the likes.

  • I agree and would want only 1 way to power the waterheater (don't use 2 separate cords use the adapter so there is only 1 way to connect it) I have seen a DIY similar where the owner had 2 separate plugs connected not realizing the one for his generator was live when the power was restored. He did turn the breaker off so he was not back feeding the panel. He ended up making a jumper similar to your plan. – Ed Beal Sep 17 '17 at 20:37
  • @EdBeal -- the cord-changing plan involves not having two cords hooked up at once :) – ThreePhaseEel Sep 17 '17 at 20:53
  • For what it's worth, I decided (for now, at least) to leave the water heater's outlet "as-is" (the house beyond the master bedroom is uninhabitably hot & humid right now, and I don't work well when I'm hot, miserable, and have sweat dripping onto everything I touch). I went to Home Depot & bought a NEMA 10-30R outlet (3860CC6) and a plastic single-gang old-work electrical box. At home, I cut the plug end from an old AWG14 outdoor extension cord, threaded it into the new box, screwed it into the outlet, and screwed the outlet into the box. It worked flawlessly. Hot water in ~10 min, ~850 watts. – Bitbang3r Sep 18 '17 at 0:46
  • @Bitbang3r -- yeah, consider changing the receptacle a project for when all the immediate problems from the storm are taken care of and FPL's gotten the lights back on – ThreePhaseEel Sep 18 '17 at 1:05
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Yes, your math is correct and your water heater will draw half its nameplate amps and 1/4 its watts on half the voltage. It will get normal temp, and use the same amount of energy (watt-hours), but take 4x as long to recover.

The bigger problem is that butt ugly waiting-to-kill-your-family NEMA 10 connector. It can't need neutral, so NEMA 10 (or the modern NEMA 14) is wrong.

That connector should be a NEMA 6-30 which serves hot, hot and ground (no neutral). If you change it, make sure to move the ground wire to the ground bus in the panel, though they may be the same bus in a main panel.

Wiring methods

Wiring methods matter. I would not hork something together in fashion of a cheater cord. To be blunt, it's too much work, along with being illegal and expensive. These big appliances have little junction boxes onboard where you can easily change the cord. I would simply obtain a 3-prong 120V appliance cord 14AWG** or larger, or extension cord snip the socket off... And change the water heater's cord to that. Remember to put a proper strain relief on the cord.

As you've said...

  • a hot to hot
  • the other hot to neutral
  • ground to ground

Any common (12 AWG) extension cord to the generator. And yer done.

Properly done permanent wiring methods for a temporary solution. Nothing wrong with that.


** you could use #16, but that's pushing cord limits of 10A for #16. It won't harm a #16 cord to run 8.3 amps any distance, but it will get warm, and you want to heat the water, not the cord.

  • Is the NEMA 10-30 receptacle literally WRONG, or is it merely DEPRECATED and now regarded as sub-optimal? As far as I know, it's the original receptacle put in by the builder when the house was constructed around 1980. Then again... that same builder used Zinsco circuit breakers in a new house built several YEARS after Sylvania quit selling them (apparently, instead of destroying them, Sylvania sold them cheaply & Florida builders eagerly bought them by the truckload... when I bought my house, the bank DEMANDED the circuit breaker panel's replacement prior to closing). – Bitbang3r Sep 17 '17 at 22:11
  • @Bitbang3r -- it's both -- hot-hot-ground is NEMA 6, and NEMA 10 is deprecated because it's not a grounded outlet (for apps that need 120/240V like dryers and stoves, NEMA 14 is the modern replacement) – ThreePhaseEel Sep 18 '17 at 1:04
  • The only saving grace here is that a NEMA 10 would be behaving equivalently to a NEMA 6 in this application provided there wasn't a subpanel in the way (the exception that allows NEMA 10 to be grandfathered in may or may not apply if the receptacle's fed from a subpanel, anyhow) – ThreePhaseEel Sep 18 '17 at 1:08
  • It's literally wrong. Water heaters don't need neutral, but do need ground. That defines the diffence between NEMA 6 (H H G) and NEMA 10 (H H N). Unfortunately a lot of people get mesmerized by the fact that neutral and ground are tied in the main panel and often clumped onto the same bus. they are different, they are just bonded there only. – Harper Sep 18 '17 at 1:36

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