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 Smoke & smell from Electric Water Heater
Author: H2oGirl (AL)

My questions: Does/can a failed heating element emit smoke visible outside the tank/jacket? What can cause smoke to rise from the two access panels on my hot water heater? I'm pretty handy, but have not addressed a hot water heater before, so I'd love any help understanding what I may be dealing with.

The Story: My rented townhouse has a 2001 GE electric water heater (GE50M6A) & it's not been serviced in the 10 yrs I've lived here. About a week ago I started smelling a faint electrical/burning smell from the water heater closet. When it increased, I realized 3 days ago that it was coming from the water heater. The hot water was not notably less warm or running out. While actually looking at the unit that night (considering what to do) I saw small plume of smoke rise from the upper access panel & then about 20 seconds later I saw the same from the lower panel. After thinking, "oh no, it let its smoke out!" smiling smiley I turned off the breaker to the water heater. A plumber came out yesterday while I was at work & replaced the element saying the lower one was "shorted out/melted." I did not get to talk with the plumber & unfortunately my friend who let them in isn't inquisitive & couldn't tell me if they replaced both elements. Hopefully they checked both. The temp was immediately much warmer, but I have no idea if they changed the temp setting--now just below "B." The smell was still really strong last night, so I turned the breaker back off & called for a re-check by the plumbers. An electrician came today to fix another issue all together & he recognized the "distinct smell" of a water heater element; he reported checking all the electrical connections on the water heater thoroughly while here. I feel better about leaving the breaker turned on after the electrician gave me some piece of mind, but I am still wondering about the smoke.

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 Re: Smoke & smell from Electric Water Heater
Author: bernabeu (SC)

The smell should dissipate in a few days.

If not, contact the landlord.

Keep your renter's insurance paid up.


"Measure Twice & Cut Once" - Retired U.A. Local 1 & 638

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 Re: Smoke & smell from Electric Water Heater
Author: bsipps (PA)

I find it unusual the water heater is 20+ yrs old and the plumber didn’t just replace it
I personally would have not serviced it and said it must be replaced
Hope he checked all the safety components to ensure they were working properly
Some manufacturers recommend once wires are melted/burnt the unit itself should be replaced
Seeing smoke and smelling burnt wires can indicate more of an issue other than a bad element

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 Re: Smoke & smell from Electric Water Heater
Author: hj (AZ)

Burned out elements do not "smell". Wiring and plastic components smell when heated, usually from arcing or loose connections.

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 Re: Smoke & smell from Electric Water Heater clap
Author: H2oGirl (AL)

Thanks for the insight. The plumber came back & I got a little more info & saw pictures. Apparently both elements & thermostats were replaced. The plastic around the insulation near the lower element is what burned & caused smoke; it has been moved away from the elements/wires. The smell is dissipating a bit. The electrical points are not seeming to overheat & it is working well at present, but I'm going to keep an eye on it. Since its not been serviced in the last 10 years, he's recommending replacement to the management company. If it was my decision, it would have been replaced already.

Again, I appreciate your help.

Edited 1 times.

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