66 to 50 Gallon Electric Water Heater Problem

Discussion in 'Electrical Forum discussion & Blog' started by Dunbar Plumbing, Dec 30, 2011.

  1. This is a very 'involved' situation so I'll describe it the best way I can.


    Customer called, having issues with a 10 year old water heater with new elements, new upper/lower thermostats, heater still isn't heating water.

    I explain like I would all 10 year heaters and state that a "new" water heater is the best investment. Embeds the warranty of product/guarantee of product reliability because the cost is no different to rebuild or replace.

    When you factor the time for a plumber to fetch OEM parts for the heater, not anything retrofit in regards to upper/lower thermostats, replacement elements.

    I learned from my mistakes years ago and the parts that come out are the parts that go in, no exception on water heaters.


    Was very thorough upon arriving, found non related issues that brings me to posting this topic. A defective thermal expansion tank and high water pressure doesn't cause 'no hot water' calls. But I found it, addressed part of that equation and installed a new water heater as their best financial interest in this matter, no matter what the current situation is as we speak.

    The efficiency of water heaters dwindle the longer they are in operation, including sediment buildup, new government regs that require heavier insulation.


    Onto the problem,

    I installed this new water heater, it has:


    30 amp breaker - Couldn't figure out the name on this breaker panel.
    10-2 wire leading from the panel to the heater.
    Structure is 10 years old, old as the water heater, old as the wiring.


    5 days prior to my arrival, the homeowner attempted to diy this existing 10 year old heater. If I would of spoke with him before this work commenced, I would of swayed the point of interest to replace before repair, always.

    Heater sits on the 2nd floor of this structure, the water heater has been subjected to high water pressure for a period of time that causes metal fatigue. If this heater was in a basement unfinished, I STILL would represent the customer's best interest and tell them to replace, get that warranty as part of the plumber's task at hand. I personally will not guarantee a full rework of an electric water heater from leaking/malfunction/parts because the quality of repair parts, electrical included seem to have went down in the past two decades.

    When the customer couldn't get the heater to perform after the repair parts were installed, an electrician was called out to determine if the circuit breaker was bad/defective. Indeed it was, and a new 30amp double breaker was installed mentioning on the ticket that the wires were loose in the lugs connecting to the existing breaker.

    The new breaker did not solve any problems.


    This is where I the plumber gets involved, not even wanting to work with the old heater because it didn't have OEM parts and it was 10 years old.

    I installed a new water heater, to code. Wired it back like it would be installed, black to black, white to red, bare to ground.

    Before I left, it was noticeable that it wasn't heating up in the 30 minutes after it was turned on like it should. It tempered the water but wasn't significant.

    So, I took my simple tester, went back to that water heater, removed the cover on the junction box at top and did a test, confirmed I had 240 volts at the pigtails.

    Knowing I'm dealing with a cold tank, and that the upper element fires first until temp setting is satisfied (120degrees) that top thermostat acts as a brain to the lower thermostat, sending juice to the lower element once and only after the top half of the water heater has ready to use hot water. That is a cold tank scenario only, and once it completes its first cycle the lower element is the element that is used for the majority of water heating, the top only for maintenance from thereon.

    Took my tester, tested the two wires leading to the upper element, once again I get 240volts.

    At this point with a brand new water heater, I've confirmed that my connections are 100% up top at the junction box and the heater is in the mode to heat that water at the top half until it meets my 120 degree thermostat setting.

    Always, always the high temperature limit switches are tested to make sure they are not popped/tripped upon install to make sure that nothing upon transportation of the heater across the states caused an issue. Same goes with checking the thermostat settings. All plumbers should check this on new installs.


    Customer calls me 4 hours later after installation, still no hot water. He took the upper thermostat cover panel off, insulation is warm, wires warm, he can tell that upper thermostat has electricity running to it. Still nothing more than luke warm water.

    This water heater has 4500 watt elements, that's the reason for the 30amp/10-2 minimum requirement. Customer confirmed a 30amp breaker came out, new one went in.

    I went through a list of tests to make sure my water lines are not crossed. Negative.

    I personally cannot touch the internals of this new water heater as it is reserved for the authorized rep for the product maker, comes at no cost to the consumer for the first year on parts and labor. After the first year it is parts/tank only till the maturity of 6 years.

    I've never installed an electric water heater that didn't work from the go, ever.

    The symptoms of this situation mimic the identical problems from 5 days prior.

    On my level, this customer was due for a new electric water heater but I'm miffed that it's not creating hot water, and definitely they are not happy either after spending quite a bit of money.

    Since it comes from a plumber's perspective that electric water heaters are very simple to install, *2 water lines, 3 wires* I installed this heater like I have the last 600 electric water heaters I've installed.

    I don't have any electrical testing instrument that measures the amount of current travelling to the heater, nor do I have anything that tells me the amount at the thermostats.

    I'm comfortable with this "lack of" knowledge because I'm not an electrician, I'm strictly a pipe and fittings plumber and when I get into troubleshooting these water heaters, older ones I'm usually not getting paid. That buck stopped years ago.

    Customer is contacting the same electrician that replaced the breaker to see what their thoughts are.

    My question is this:


    Does the explanation of the situation above lead any of you experts to finger pointing a particular spot in this system that may be the culprit? I'm not going to play electrician and fix this myself; the authorized rep or the electrician is going to get to the root of the problem and solve it.

    This customer put a ton of effort into this situation, and we're trying to find out if something back at the panel is to blame, like a second breaker got damaged when the homeowner hooked up the heater after using retrofit parts (upper/lower tstats, elements) and I do know that the ones used in replacement of the elements were lower wattage, 3500 instead of 4500 watts.

    Would appreciate any advice on this matter as I cannot see a brand new electric water heater malfunctioning like this. Connections are 100% tight at the junction box, confirmation of current making it to the upper element.
  2. LLigetfa

    LLigetfa DIYer, not in the trades

    Messages:
    4,185
    Location:
    NW Ontario, Canada
    Maybe a dumb question, but did you check to see if the water is flowing constantly from the tank, as in a leak under a slab?

  3. On the second floor, pipe coming out of the hot side never gets hot. If it was a slab leak, I'd have a trail of hot water leaving the tank, then getting cold at the faucets near or far.

    Every test I did on the heater passed for anything relating to crossed pipes, dip tube issue, cross connections via mixing valves.

    Even if the water isn't being used, hot water should be expanding out of this tank up the cold and hot side and it's not.
  4. jwelectric

    jwelectric Electrical Contractor/Instructor

    Messages:
    2,565
    Location:
    North Carolina
    The ONLY way to check a water heater is with an ammeter. One can be purchased for around $50.

    If there is 240 volts present at the element and no current is flowing then the answer is simple, the element is bad.

    Once in my life I did the electrical on apartments where there would be a lot of water heaters installed at one time. I got pretty good at replacing elements without draining the tank.
  5. jimbo

    jimbo Plumber

    Messages:
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    Location:
    San Diego
    I think you did the customer a disservice installing a new WH, when it had NOT been established that anything was wrong with the old one per se. All the blah blah about the age, warranty, etc is fine, but that old unit should have been heating water....new elements, new stats, new circuit breaker.

    Can we assume that you are checking for 240 directly across the element, and NOT measuring each leg indvidually to ground? If so, it has to be bad. If you have volts across a load, current has to flow. If no heat is produced, load is open. Check resistance of elements??
  6. hj

    hj Moderator & Master Plumber Staff Member

    Messages:
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    Location:
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    The first thing to do, ALWAYS, is to find out WHY it is not heating the water, and it appears that you did NOTHING to find that out. With certain types of problems, such as an underfloor slab leak, a new heater will NOT work any better than the old one. I have tried to explain this to other plumbers who have returned NEW heaters because the were "defective and not heating the water". If this is the case, you will NOT have "have a trail of hot water leaving the tank, then getting cold at the faucets near or far", because the water would NEVER stay in the tank long enough to get hot. In fact, when the leak gets bad enough the water will not even get warm.

    As a second point, YOU are allowed to work inside a "new" water heater as long as you know what you are doing.

    A third point, I NEVER replace a water heater if it can be repaired and is NOT leaking. You cost your customer a LOT of money and did NOT solve her problem.

    4. quote; because the cost is no different to rebuild or replace.

    Either you are very expensive for your repairs/rebuild, or very cheap with your installs, because there is NO WAY the two costs should even be close together, especially with a heater in the attic.
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2011


  7. If I could and if there was the ease of calling an electrician whenever there's a malfunctioning electric water heater, I'd do it without second thinking.

    The issue is the money spent for the consumer in point of sale value is the fact that both tasks (repair against replacement) are closely tied together, with the replacement being slightly more. Still, that value is far better when we speak of a 10 year old water heater on the 2nd floor of a wood structured home.

    Time and effort of troubleshooting electric components on water heaters isn't going to bed the guarantee that it's the long term thinking cure most times, especially when the condition of the tank is soon to expire.


    [​IMG]


    The above picture is the condition of the water heater when I arrived. Incorrectly sized elements, no thermostats, wires sticking out of the upper and lower openings.

    When the customer called (wife) I was told,

    "My husband has worked on this heater all week, replaced elements/thermostats, had an electrician out and still cannot get it to work."

    ^^^^

    When I asked the age of the heater, (10 years) I have to put the customer's best interest into my thinking of what I charge them and what offers the best options.

    The back and forth conversation led to me stating, "You know, at 10 years old I would never recommend a repair of such an old water heater. Replace it so there is a warranty on the work done."


    That led to a sale of a water heater with my willingness to pick up the new one, bring it to the home and install it. Walking up those steps, seeing that water heater tore apart was a surprise at best, and no way in hell will I sit there with retrofit parts trying to piece the humpty dumpty puzzle back together... especially when I charge 3 figures an hour. I'd be stealing from the customer.





    I'm not cheap, and I won't allow any customer of mine to spend good money in a bad way, especially an old water heater.


    The consumer NEEDS the best outcome for the money spent, always. Repairing old water heaters that have never seen maintenance is thievery on the part of the plumber.
  8. Below is the picture of the installed water heater that was done yesterday.

    [​IMG]



    Between the work by the property owner for 4 days dealing with the electrical aspect of the heater, electrician coming out...


    then myself trying to rid the entire "bad" situation by telling them to get rid of the 10 year old heater that needs replacement anyway,


    The electrician came back today. Mind you, when I installed this heater, it was noisey the entire time I was at this home, and a kid's birthday party started 2 hours before I finished.



    It was indeed a slab leak. First floor. They cannot find it. This home has extreme water pressure that the customer chose not to purchase a replacement PRV but I did send him to the supply house to get one.


    No one knows yet if the leak underground is a split/break/hole in the pipe yet. All they know is there was a leaking sound at the toilet on the first floor that sounded like a leaking tank.


    When I turned the water off to start replacing this water heater, the main water shutoff was 95% closed, and I asked, "Did you turn the water off already?" to which the answer was no, but they said they turned it nearly off because last year a filter on the fridge blew out causing lots of damage.

    I had already confirmed at time of arrival that there was high water pressure. To see that valve turned nearly off is symbolic of people trying to "regulate" their water pressure on their own when it is high.


    So we have a toilet I'm told was making a leaking sound,

    An electrician saying the breaker was bad and needing replaced,

    A 10 year old water heater torn apart when I arrive, with missing and wrong parts installed,

    And I find a defective thermal expansion tank along with a pressure reducing valve.


    I cannot look at a leaking toilet with the water off draining from upstairs and call that a slab leak, ever.

    And from the way this house is built, we cannot understand "why" they didn't run the waters to this bathroom through the framed walls or joist spaces instead of going into the floor. Unbelievable.

    No one has located this leak. No hot spots in the floor, just a sound of leaking water at a wall. A very bad situation indeed and if it happened once, it'll happen twice.


    I didn't start 5 days before, trying to fix something that wasn't broken. I'm going off what I was told, what I saw at the jobsite when I arrived and giving the best resolve.

    I didn't put that leak in the slab, even the property owner can't believe there is a pipe in that slab. He (and I) expected the water service and that's it... and that is not what is leaking. It's tied to the hot side of the water system only.

    And why in the hell they thought it was a good idea to put the furnace and the water heater on the second floor is beyond rational thinking, completely.


    So as this leads to this very moment in time,


    How come this electrician made this asessment "now" instead of before, when he was there initially and replaced the breaker?

    Wouldn't the fact that the heater was trying to produce hot water be identical with a new one, doing the exact same thing be of merit and worthy of further diagnosis?


    Not trying to blame the electrician, but why wasn't the same conclusion drawn, and did it take the replacement of the water heater to further identify/look into the matter to find the core issue?

    All 3 of us were not aware there were underground water feeds in this home. It's built in a way where it would be a backwards move to go with any water lines underground on this construction of the home. Water service comes up the same wall that serves the kitchen, the 1/2 bath is less than 4 feet from this water service. Less pipe, less effort to go across the ceiling to drop down and catch the 1/2 bath because there's a full bath directly above, water heater. Full size (3/4") that makes perfect sense to go above, not into a floor that you cannot access.
  9. jadnashua

    jadnashua Retired Defense Industry Engineer xxx

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    The bus bar in the panel may be bad and won't allow any decent current to flow. The electrician should have seen that, if present, but he may have missed it. It's also possible that the wires are spliced somewhere in a junciton box (if to code, or elsewhere, if not), and those connection(s) may be bad. Voltage without current doesn't do much. Loose connections can cause arcs which can cause pitting and corrosion, which can lead to all sorts of power problems.
  10. LLigetfa

    LLigetfa DIYer, not in the trades

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    Location:
    NW Ontario, Canada
    IMHO you did the right thing to replace that frankenstein of an old HWT basket case. It's just too bad you did not notice the constant flow into and out of the HWT and that someone else had to find it for you.

    Glad you got it sorted in the end.

  11. It was noisey at this residence the entire time, moreso when the kid's birthday party started two hours before I got done with the install.

    Still, and in most cases, I can hear when water is flowing in the home. I actually could tell when the heater filled up to the top (to switch the breakers on) and when the last 2 faucets were running, hearing the water passing through the heater.

    By that time though, too late. They still needed a water heater replacement in the near future because the tank had been leaking at the top, down the back side of it. It was time.
  12. jwelectric

    jwelectric Electrical Contractor/Instructor

    Messages:
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    Location:
    North Carolina
    What I said here.

    If voltage is present and the element is good the amp probe will read somewhere between 18 and 19 amps. If it doesn't then there is a problem
  13. jimbo

    jimbo Plumber

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    BUT, if there is a bad connection somewhere, you would not measure 240 at the load, because as soon as the element tried to draw current, voltage drop would occur at the bad spot.

    It sounds like the electrician was careless at best, and probably just wanted to give them a bill and get out. After seeing the photo of the existing, we have perhaps been too harsh on our friend dunbar! I don't think any of us would want to try to bring that thing "back from the dead"!!!! It is just too bad the SOMEONE...Mr. D or the electrician.....did not find that the elements were actually heating and the water was just going away. We can all chock this one up to experience!
  14. hj

    hj Moderator & Master Plumber Staff Member

    Messages:
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    IT appears that this whole job was a "cluster f***". Are you justifying the replacement of the heater by TRYING to find some reasong why it COULD fail shortly? I also charge "three figures" but I could have put that whole thing back together in an hour, or hour and a half at the most". IF the homeowner had not tried to "help out", then the leak would have been obvous before I did ANYTHING to the heater, other than test the electrical components, and would not have had to put it back together first. It is like what happens when a customer decides to take the toilet up so it will make my snaking job "easier", but I have to put it back to determine where the problem is and I do not snake through a toilet anyway. I do NOT tell customers to call an electrician because few of them know anything about repairing or testing water heaters. I do my OWN electrical testing and repairs. You appear to be "out of your element" when it comes to electric water heaters. Do I see an expansion tank installed "side arm" WITHOUT any support other than the copper line connecting it? And, the relief line should NOT be connected to the safety pan's drain line. as a sidebar, many plumbers would NOT consider it an "upgrade" to replace a Bradford-White with an AO Smith.
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2012
  15. DonL

    DonL Jack of all trades Master of one

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    WOW.


    Now I see why people are afraid to come to this site and ask questions...


    Have a Happy New Year All.
  16. BobL43

    BobL43 DIY Senior Member

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    And why would that be Don?:rolleyes: Yes, Happy New Year to all!
  17. DonL

    DonL Jack of all trades Master of one

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    Just a observation that I observed...
  18. kevink1955

    kevink1955 Member

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    Not to stick up for the electrician but when he replaced the breaker he may have put an amprobe on the wires at the breaker, saw it was drawing current and called it good. I would not have expected him to wait an hour or more to see if it cycled off. Guess it never cycled due to the slab leak.

    Just for the future, you do not have an amprobe but the house does have an electric meter. Have someone cycle the breaker while you watch the meter. If it slows when the breaker is off and speeds up whan on you can at least verify it's drawing some current.
  19. BobL43

    BobL43 DIY Senior Member

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    and it is obvious that you observed it, I observe.
  20. jadnashua

    jadnashua Retired Defense Industry Engineer xxx

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    Location:
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    The only thing that can be hurt by asking is maybe your ego...regardless, the majority of info is both correct and useful...you just have to filter it sometimes, and potentially have tough skin!
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