Hot Topics: Electric Water Heater Won't Turn On

Here on we enjoy providing a place where home improvement novices and experts can come together to share ideas and advice. Inside our Forums, users can browse threads to see what exchanges are taking place on a topic of interest or start their own dialogue by posting something for the community to take part in. With over 250,000 members and counting, this resource is quite active so each week we highlight one of the conversations that may just help you with that next DIY project.

Original Post: Electric water heater won't power on

bluesbreaker Member

I have a Whirlpool 50-gallon electric water heater. It's exactly two years old. (Model no. E50R6-45 100.)

A couple nights ago, the hot water went out. The next morning, the hot water came back. I decided to power off the water heater and flush the tank as part of the annual maintenance. We have hard water in Arizona. I also installed new elements since these are relatively inexpensive.

I talked to an engineer at the thermostat manufacturer. He said on this model, you can't tell from the red button position if it tripped. He says if it clicks when you press the button, then it tripped. So in my case, he says the upper thermostat ECO button did not trip.

I made sure the tank was filled with cold water, then I tried switching the water heater circuit breaker on and off a few times. The water heater won't even turn on. The thermostats and wiring connections look OK and correct.

Could I have a bad water heater circuit breaker or bad lower thermostat? The breaker switch did not move position.

I have toggle switch circuit breakers. What happens when it trips? Does that stiff switch actually move to the off position? It would seem to take a lot of energy to move that stiff spring in the switch. I don't have a multimeter.

pattenp Member

You need to get a multimeter to troubleshoot the problem.

bluesbreaker Member

I wouldn't even know what to buy in a multimeter. Then, I have learn how to use it.

PJmax Group Moderator

You can buy an inexpensive analog meter from the home improvement stores.

bluesbreaker Member

I was just removing the upper thermostat to replace it. I was wondering why the tank is still warm with the circuit breaker turned off for about 24 hours and a tank full of cold water.

Hot water is still coming out of the tap. So, it sounds like the circuit breaker is malfunctioning even though I moved the water heater toggle switch to the off position. Late last night, indoor lights flickered and this morning the garage door opened really slowly, like when you get a power interruption.

PJmax Group Moderator

The water can stay hot for a long time and it will be at the top of the tank. It's so hard to troubleshoot anything electrical without a meter.

You may have an issue with the 240v power in your home. Is there anything else that operates on 240v and is it working OK?

bluesbreaker Member

I did turn the circuit off and on today a couple times for maybe 30 minutes at a time. I don't know what else runs on 240 volts but I'll check.

PJmax Group Moderator

Clothes dryer, A/C, range (if electric).

pattenp Member

You really need someone to check the voltage coming into your panel to see that you have 120V across each leg. Since you mention the issue with the garage door opener and lights, I'm wondering if you have a feeder problem to the house.

bluesbreaker Member

The clothes dryer, HVAC, kitchen range, microwave, refrigerator, desktop PC power supply, and the garage door opener are all OK.

Either way, I have to install a new upper water heater thermostat anyway. So to be on the safe side, I undid the wire nut connections on the water heater junction box. I'll have to do the 'cold water express' again tonight for showering.

The thermostat access cubby holes weren't warm earlier today, so I don't see how turning on the water heater briefly could warm it up that much. It just seems that the circuit breaker is turning on and off by itself.

What if I just replace the water heater circuit switches? It's not that complicated, is it? It might help to know that I hear none of the typical water heater tank sounds that start shortly after turning on power.

pattenp Member

I believe you are chasing your tail. A meter is needed to check the voltage and the thermostats and heater elements.

PJmax Group Moderator

It's very rare for anything to go bad in the water heater in two years. It's much more likely to be a 240v supply problem.

CasualJoe Member

How long did you leave the circuit breaker on? How do you know the water heater never turned on? From a cold start this time of year, it could take almost an hour to start getting hot water from an electric heater. Did you give it a full hour to heat?

bluesbreaker Member

I think you're right, Patten. For awhile there, I was chasing my tail. But I think I'm on the right track now. And I'm not afraid to admit that a couple of my earlier observations were probably wrong. I no longer believe my water heater circuit breaker malfunctioned. And I must have turned the power on long enough while testing to heat the water. (And now I learned how to safely change a circuit breaker if I ever need to.)

I have a flushed-out tank and new elements. So maybe that helps the water heat a little faster?

I'm reading about multimeters now. I won't use one until I learn more about it. I'd rather buy a moderately priced model and not a cheap one.

The water heater tank is up and running now. I had a lightly used upper thermostat with ECO button from before, so I swapped that out on the current tank. Let me run it a for a few days, and I'll report back

Tolyn Ironhand Group Moderator

A cheap analog one will do everything you need. While a moderately priced model will look cooler and may have a few bells and whistles, it will not perform any better. If you want to drop some money on a good "pro" meter, I would recommend these which are not affected by phantom voltage and have built-in protection:

True RMS digital multimeter for any toolbox | Fluke 113

Ideal Industries - 660 Amp Clamp Meters

bluesbreaker Member

The water heater has been running fine since I brought it back into operation on Saturday. I don't know what caused the hot water failure and electrical anomalies last week. There's been no recurrence since. I might already have a compatible multimeter. I included photos below.

This is a Pro AM multimeter originally issued to me as part of a desktop computer repair class in the early 2000s. The product literature says it can also be used for industrial and home appliances. I believe I learned enough to do very basic troubleshooting of the circuit electrical panel.

I assume the function dial should be set on ACV 750 for circuit breaker/electrical panel troubleshooting? Can I use this model for circuit breaker/electrical panel troubleshooting?

A multimeter.

A multimeter.

PJmax Group Moderator

The AC and DC scales are pretty self-explanatory. Always set the meter to the next scale over what you intend to read. Start at the highest setting and work down. The red section is DC amps. It would be rare for you to need to use that. The meter should never be set in the red area or the 10A probe port used as the probes are basically dead shorted internally for current measurement. The ohms scale starts at 200 ohms for locating shorts. As you go up in scale towards 2000k, the meter becomes very sensitive. A high setting would be used to determine leakage if you had a GFI circuit tripping. You don't want the meter in ohms when you are reading voltages.

For testing water heater elements...200 ohm (with no power on).
For testing 240v...750vac scale.

bluesbreaker Member

Thanks very much for the additional explanation. If I have any other questions, I'll either figure out for myself or post a question on the forum.

To read the rest of the thread, look here: