Electric Water Heater Keeps Tripping the Breaker – Why it Happens and What to Do

Is your electric water heater constantly tripping off the breaker? This can be frustrating because there are many reasons, and especially when you're not sure what to do about this problem.

Let's face it, calling in the plumper (or electrician) for every little problem can get tiring. Not to mention the impact it has on your pocket or comfort. But that's why we're here. If you want to know what to do about the breaker tripping off all the time, keep reading, you will find some interesting tips on how to deal with the problem.

How electric water heaters work

Electric water heater tank-type

Generally, an electric heater will use one or two directly immersed elements to heat water. These elements are controlled by a microprocessor control module or a thermostat. The type of materials used in making the elements will affect the output and options. Basically, the voltage/wattage you get as well as the storage capacity of the tank, are some options you may find. Also, the thickness of the insulation.

Electric water heaters for residential use, when equipped with two heating elements, also utilize an upper and lower thermostat that will charge the heating element and start heating water. These are also equipped with the high limit switch to prevent overheating, and they can be reset it manually if it trips. All these components work together to avoid overheating or underheating water and to protect the integrity of the heater.

To check why the breaker keeps tripping, you need to know more than basics about electricity and water heaters and have tools such as the multimeter or non-contact voltage tester.

So, what is the relationship between an electric heater and a breaker?

Circuit breaker

Well, the breaker is an important safety mechanism in your home. Where there's too much current flowing to the appliance, it cuts the power until the problem is sorted.

So, if there's no breaker, you will have an unstable supply of electricity into your home. This means that water might either be too hot or not hot enough. Also, if there's too much current flowing into your home, there's the risk of a fire outbreak. An overloaded wiring is a major source of fire outbreaks. Therefore, if the breaker keeps tripping off, then it's probably overloaded.

In other words, a breaker saves you lots of stress and potential harm. And, when it isn't functioning correctly or is constantly tripping off, then there's a problem.

The role of a breaker

Critically, where there is a short circuit or an electrical surge, the breaker will immediately shut off. This, in turn, cuts off the electrical supply to the appliance and allows you to find and repair the problem. 

In other words, if your breaker keeps tripping off, it cuts off the supply of electricity to the water heater. And when an electric water heater does not get electricity, it means you won't be getting hot water. This could also be a potential danger hazard. So, if the breaker trips off, you want to look into it as soon as possible.

What causes the breaker to trip?

Now, it is important to figure out what exactly might be making the breaker trip, and there are several reasons why. Most times, you might be able to sort that out by simply resetting the breaker to get it working again. However, this isn't always the case, and if done many times, you might get the unit and you in danger.

Here are a few reasons why the breaker might be tripping off.

An overloaded circuit

Sometimes, an issue could be as simple as an overloaded circuit, especially when several appliances are running simultaneously. This is actually the most common cause.

Faulty heating element

Basically, the heating elements in your electric water heater might stop working. It becomes a problem if the element splits in two, so the electrical part gets exposed to the water. This will short circuit, tripping of the breaker.

Also, if the heating element stays on for too long, maybe because of a short circuit, the water gets too hot.

A faulty thermostat

Also, a defective thermostat could be the cause. Generally, residential water heaters operate at temperatures of up to 160 degrees. Once it gets hotter than that, the breaker could trip off.

Of course, you could always test the thermostat by using a multimeter. Just be sure that the water heater is off, and the thermostat wires are not connected beforehand.

Water leak

Also, if your water heater is leaking as a result of a faulty gasket, it will cause some problems. If the water from the leak touches the electrical components, it could trip off the breaker. This is not always the case, so if you notice a leak, call in an expert to avoid getting shocked. Don't wait.

Issues with internal wiring

Now, a breaker that continually trips off could be a sign that there's a problem with the internal wiring. To be sure, turn off the power, open the panel and check where the heater is connected to your home wiring (usually top of the unit). Look for damaged wires or burned out connections. It is important to get the problem fixed before turning the power back on.

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Electrical or wiring problem

Finally, none of the reasons listed may be causing the problem. Sometimes, it could be that the external wiring is faulty. This could be as a result of a bad connection in the panel, a worn-out breaker or bad/loose wiring. With the incorrect wiring, the hot wire can touch the ground wire, so breaker trips without resetting.

Breaker issues

Bad breaker cannot reset or won't stay ON.

Loose breaker leads to overheating.

Undersized breakers usually resets but trips again after a period of time.

What to do when your breaker trips?

First, kill the temptation to keep flipping the breaker back on when it trips off. It's okay to do that a couple of times, but if it persistently trips off, then there's a problem. Repeatedly flipping it back on can wear out the breaker and may lead to a fire outbreak.

Second, understand that a breaker constantly tripping off is merely a symptom of a problem. It is necessary to troubleshoot the problem to sort this issue.

With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to:

  • Locate the tripped breaker: Firstly, Locate the tripped circuit breaker. Usually, the breaker is in a metal box found in the garage, utility area, or basement. When you locate the main breaker box, open it, and you will see a row of switches.
  • Identify the tripped breaker: Secondly, identify the breaker that has tripped. This is going to be the one in the OFF position. In other words, its lever will be pointing in the opposite direction from others.
  • Turn off all affected appliances and fixtures: Thirdly, ensure that all electronics and lights that are controlled by the tripped breaker are turned off. This is an important safety measure.
  • Flip the breaker switch back ON: Go ahead and flip the breaker switch ON. You will get a clicking sound to indicate that it is back ON. This action restores power to the breaker.
  • Testing the breaker: Next, turn on the lights and appliances that are supplied by the breaker. Everything should be back to normal. If the breaker trips again immediately, it's time to call in the professionals.

How to avoid breaker tripping

Yes, there are a few things you can do to prevent the problem. We'll list a few below. Note that these aren't fail-safe, but they will help you keep the breaker on. Also, you will identify problems on time, if there are any.

  • First, try to reduce the workload on that breaker that trips often. This could be a sign of overload.
  • Occasionally check the wiring for any loose, damaged, or burnt wires.
  • Avoid replacing the breaker with a higher rated breaker as more current could flow in and cause overheating.
  • Replace bad thermostats along with heating elements.
  • All wiring issues should be resolved immediately. Also, check the wiring often for any faults.
  • Avoid placing two or more large gadgets on one breaker rather, have dedicated circuits.
  • Avoid resetting a breaker that constantly trips off. This is a sign that there's a problem. Call in an expert.
  • Lastly, breakers are not immune to wear and tear, please try to replace them when the need arises. This a way to avoid breaker tripping.

Protect yourself from electrocution

  • Always call an electrician.
  • Never work on the appliance before turning off the electricity - on the electrical panel.
  • Do not touch wet water heater, and always stand on a dry surface.
  • Do not touch electrical wires.
  • Always double-check the power supply using the voltage tester or multimeter.

Conclusion

Finally, it can be very frustrating when your electric heater continues tripping the breaker. Beyond that, it is important to note that it could be a danger to your water heater or home. If the breaker keeps tripping off, try the troubleshooting methods we've listed. However, call in an expert if this happens often or if you don't have sufficient experience for this.

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Related articles

Electric water heater troubleshooting
How to replace electric heating elements
How to replace a thermostat
Installing an electric water heater
Installation tips
Maintenance guide

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