Our electric water heater seems to have burned out, but the breaker didn't flip off. My husband smelled an acrid burning smell in the house and traced it to the water heater, which is in the bathroom. He turned off the breaker. There had been signs the heater was failing and we had a new one on order -- age, rust drips on the outside of the heater, having to turn the hot water up during a shower. He couldn't find anything that looked like it had burned and the smell still lingers in the bathroom. He put a new heater in yesterday and it works fine. We're wondering what would have caused the burning smell and should we still be looking for the cause? Any suggestions?

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    You're asking why a water heater that's no longer in your house used to stink? What signs did you notice that you haven't described?
    – isherwood
    Jan 12, 2018 at 17:44
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    I would just use the new heater and see if the odor dissipates. Is the new heater plugged into a receptacle or is it "hard wired"? If the odor does not dissipate, then I would start investigating in detail. Jan 12, 2018 at 18:20

1 Answer 1


Electric water heaters have 2 components that can fail and cause the burned smell. The thermostat is constantly opening and closing electrical contacts after years of operating the contacts get eroded and cause a higher resistance then they heat up and arc this is probably what happened the breaker won't trip in this case because it is not drawing any more amperage but the heat generated is at the contacts not in the rod and thus the smell. The other common failure is the fire rod itself they crack from heat cycling and short out this will normally trip the breaker but not always if they just open. The rod failure is usually in the tank so no smell is usually associated with this failure but the wiring and thermostat can smell warm due to the excess current if it shorted.

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    I've seen both scenarios and he's correct. I the element fails and arcs inside of the tank, you can't smell anything, but it usually (hopefully!) trips the breaker. But if it's the contacts on the thermostat that is mounted on the OUTSIDE of the heater that are burning, the current doesn't really increase enough to trip the breaker, but the plastic parts around the switch will smolder. The smell will dissipate in a while, or spray some Febreze in and around the compartment where it was. The smell gets absorbed by paint, wood, drywall etc., Febreze neutralizes it.
    – JRaef
    Jan 17, 2018 at 21:15

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