Diagnosed and fixed the electric hot water heater for under $40

The hot water heater stopped working over the Memorial Day weekend. I found out when I showered and the water went from lukewarm to cold on Sunday. My husband looked over the user manual of the water heater and reset the “High Temperature Limit Switch”. The water was hot again when he took a shower. We thought problem solved. Then on Monday, the same problem happened to me in the shower again. Even my hairdryer was dying, blowing lukewarm air so I was pretty cold for several hours.

I went online and found a troubleshooting guide which gave me clues that either the thermostats or the elements need to be replaced. My initial guess was the thermostat. I went to Home Depot and bought an Upper Thermostat ($12.96), a Lower Thermostat ($6.99) and a Water Heater Continuity Tester ($7.49). I wasn’t too sure about picking up the Continuity Tester at first but I thought it is probably a diagnostic tool and it doesn’t cost much. Along the way, I stopped by another store to pick up a new hairdryer.

Electric hot water heater - upper thermostatBefore we pulled out the thermostats, we took pictures of the wiring. Once the upper thermostat was taken out, we used the Continuity Tester on it. The light on the tester came on for some of the poles. It wasn’t clear in the instructions what that means. We installed the new upper thermostat anyway. We then used the tester on the elements. The upper element passed the test but the lower one didn’t. By that point, we were pretty sure what we needed was a new element. It was getting late. We decided to call it the night. Before we went to bed, we started draining the water heater. The water was dark brown at first and then it was clear. Since the water heater is in our basement, we set the hose to send water out through the floor drain.

While I looked online for details about how to select the right element, I learned that we need a screw-in element wrench. Based on the wattage and voltage listed on our water heater, the element we need was high watt density and probably a straight one, not a foldback. My husband bought one of each from Home Depot (element – $8.97, wrench – $4.96). When he loosened up the lower element, water started to sip out from around the element which meant the heater wasn’t drain completely overnight. I guess leaving one faucet opened wasn’t doing enough to push all the water out. We opened all the hot water faucets in the whole house and waited a long while (an hour?). The old element came out looking super rusty. We put in the new element and filled the heater back up.

If we didn’t put in the upper thermostat, we would have used parts totaled less than $22. The thermostat came in a shrink-wrap package so I don’t know if Home Depot would take it back and I thought why bother to detach the wiring all over again any way. All in all, we spent under $35 once I return the lower thermostat back to the store.

After all this work, I thought we were back in business. When I turned on the kitchen faucet to relieve the air in the pipes, the water pressure was getting weaker and weaker. I removed the dual spray swivel aerator and found a lot of sediments trapped inside. During the same weekend, the dishwasher also started to act up. Its timer wouldn’t advance at certain locations of the dial. After reading several online discussions, I learned that the problem could be at the timer or the thermostat. I turned off all the hi-temp settings and it went through the whole cycle just fine. The issue has to be around the thermostat but this ain’t as easy as the water heater. The floor drain wasn’t working quite right either when we drained the water heater.  I found a bunch of toys stuck in there.  Before we moved in, the drain didn’t have a cover, just a hole in the concrete floor.  I put a cover on it but I’ve never looked any closer.  I put my hand in as far as I could and pulled out several pieces of plastic and a bouncy ball but it was still draining rather slow.  Oh boy, home repair never ends!

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