Sunday, December 11, 2011

Not-hot water heater

Shit's breaking again so I'm resurrecting this blog!

Saturday I had a lovely hot shower, then rode my horse. I came home sweaty and smelling horsey, so I took another shower - but it was on the cold side of lukewarm. When I got out, I flipped the breaker off and back on then left it alone for the night.

Sunday, no hot water. I called a plumber and left a message to maybe get it fixed Monday, but my friends on Facebook heckled me into working on it myself.

Electric water heaters are actually pretty simple machines. There are two (copper) water pipes on top: cold water goes in, hot water comes out. There's a flex conduit line (silvery) for the wiring. Inside the water heater, one or two elements and thermostats make the water hot. I think two-element heaters are more common. Down at the bottom, there's a drain, and somewhere there's a little lever to release pressure. That's pretty much it.

Here's a fabulous video:

This is the main site I used. It helped me immensely.

I went and bought a digital multimeter for $25, then came home and tested stuff. I turned off the power at the breaker and checked it at the tank, like the video shows.

Here's my first problem: the multimeter I bought isn't labeled exactly like the one in the link. He says something like "set your multimeter on RX1 to test resistance" but mine doesn't say RH1 anywhere on it! Mine has the cryptic Greek symbols. So I had to look up what they mean - was really helpful. Eventually I figured out that the horseshoe symbol measures resistance in Ohms, so I was ready to check the parts.

I checked both the heating elements, and they were good (normal is 11-14 Ohms, apparently, and mine were both at 11.) Then my main reference site said I could check the thermostats with the power off or on, so I went to flip the power back on. The breaker wouldn't stay flipped, which is always a Bad Sign.

I gave up in despair for the night. My friends on Facebook convinced me that drunk rednecks change out breakers all the time and rarely die and bombarded me with more helpful professional youtube videos.

This morning, I boiled two stock pots full of water to fill my little camping solar shower. I felt a lot better when I was clean, but the whole experience made me even more determined to fix the damn water heater already.

I took a picture of the breaker and headed back to my local hardware store. We all stared at it and compared it to the breakers on sale (there are several similar looking types) and picked out the one that looked right. I went home, read up on what I was doing one more time, and took the breaker box apart. Once I triple checked that the only power left in the box was the wires to the main breaker, I unscrewed the bad breaker, held my breath, and yanked it out of the box. It was narrower than the replacement.

Back to the hardware store, where I swapped the part out. Back home and I reassembled the breaker and turned the power back on. The water heater still wasn't hot, so I went back to the main site and tested the thermostats. The top one was fine, but the bottom one was bad (A 1 on my multimeter - I think that means infinite resistance.) I pulled it out and inspected it - it was kinda melty looking and one of the screws was charred.

Back to the hardware store. They were out of bottom thermostats, so I went 10 miles further to Home Depot and got a replacement thermostat and a new piece of wire. When I got back home, I wired the new thermostat in, reassembled everything, and turned the power back on and I was immediately rewarded with that water-getting-hot sound.

I rule!


  1. Yes! Yes you do, and your friends are pretty cool too.

  2. Wow. You have more courage than I. I am scared shitless to touch anything electrical, even to change a ceiling light fixture. I must get over that fear one of these days. I'm not so much afraid of being electrocuted as I am of creating a situation that causes a fire in the middle of the night.
    Must. Get. Over. It.

  3. Jean, I know exactly what you mean. But if you didn't buy your house brand-new from a high-quality custom builder, it's more likely to burn down cause of what the idiot owner before you did.

    Electrical work on the level I'm comfortable with - replace a switch, replace a burned-out part - is really easy. Make sure the power's off, unscrew some wires, screw the new part back in exactly like the old part. Give the wires a tug to see if they're in tight, hold your breath and turn the power back on, and you're good. If you take it apart and you don't think it's safe to put back together - the wires in the box are melty looking - you can screw caps on the bare ends, turn your house power back on, and call a pro.

    I've known a lot of professional electricians. Some of them were pretty dumb and pretty careless. If they can do this every day for a living, I can certainly read the directions three times and triple-check my work and do it too!

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  5. You d Girl! i have such kind of experience too. Kind of electrical failure on my water heater. So amazing i was able to brace myself like a man. But it turned out a learning curve, to be more proactive and skilled. This makes my life ease and becoming practical. I am now confident working plumbing problems with my own skills and experience. Better.. it saves more money on my part.

    Water Heater