Every electric water heater has a heating element, and most larger ones have two. Each of these is controlled by a thermostat and protected by a high-limit switch. When the high-limit switch trips, you can reset it using the reset button.
If you look at the front of the water heater tank, you'll see either one or two removable panels depending on the size of the tank. If there are two, one is near the top of the tank, and one is near the bottom. If there are two panels, there are two reset buttons, and you may have to reset both of them.
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Use a screwdriver to remove one of these panels, and you'll see the heating element, a circular component with attached wires. Those wires go to a pair of terminal bars to which the wires from the house circuitry are also attached. The electric water heater reset button is usually right between these bars. It's red, and if it needs to be reset, it's probably illuminated.
How to Reset the Water Heater
You need to reset the water heater if the reset button is illuminated or if there is no hot water in the house. In most cases, you should be able to reset the water heater by just pushing in the button. You won't get a shock if you touch the button, but because it's close to wires that can give you a shock, it's better to push it with a pencil or a screwdriver, or you could wear gloves.
If the button stays in and the light goes off, the reset has probably been successful. You should notice hot water flowing at the taps in an hour or two. If the button pops back out again, or the light doesn't go off, you've got a problem. To understand what it might be, it helps to know why the button tripped in the first place.
The electric water heater reset button is activated by the high-limit switch, which monitors the water temperature and shuts off if the temperature gets too high. The reset button can trip if:
- The thermostat is faulty or it's set too high.
- There's a short in the heater element.
- The high-limit switch itself is bad.
- There's no power to the water heater.
You should always check the water heater breaker to make sure it's on before suspecting problems with any of the water heater components. Like a GFCI breaker, a water heater reset button won't stay in if no power is flowing. The breaker has tripped if the rocker is tilted toward the outside of the panel. To reset it, turn it all the way off until it clicks, and then flip it in the opposite direction.
The water heater reset button may trip during a power outage, and if it does, you can't reset it until the power comes back on.
What About Gas Water Heaters?
If a gas water heater stops working, it's often because the pilot light has gone out. That could be because of a problem with the gas supply. To reset the water heater gas, you may have to refill a propane tank or open a valve that was inadvertently closed.
Once you're sure the gas is flowing, follow the manufacturer's instructions for restarting the pilot light. If the water heater has an electronic igniter, the pilot should start automatically as soon as gas starts flowing. Older models have to be restarted by hand using a match or a long-barreled lighter.
Gas water heaters with electronic igniters can also go out when you have a power outage. They don't have a reset button, and the igniter should start working as soon as power is restored.