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Old 06-14-2012, 09:08 PM   #1
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Lesson Learned

Make certain that there is water in the tank when turning the electric heater element on.

The first trip of the year was early spring, and as we were just parking on a friends acreage, hooked up to his power, and never bothered to fill tanks other than a bit of water for the toilet if needed.

Well, when getting ready to go to Osoyoos the water heater was switched on by my wife for some cleaning in the trailer, and she did not realize that it was still bypassed. Nothing was said(or even realized), other than the plugs in the trailer were not working. At Osoyoos we discovered that the water heater would not work on electric, so we tried it on propane. Nothing. We then discovered that the reset buttons on it were tripped(thanks to Reace pointing them out), so I reset them. Still nothing on electric, but the propane worked fine.

We left the breaker off thinking that the element may be shot, and used 120V for our little kettle only. On the way home we stopped at a BC Parks site with no hook-ups. Forward to a couple weeks later to get it ready for our next trip, and clean it up a bit, I found nothing electrical would work. As soon as I plugged anything in, it would trip the GFI breaker on my house. I thought weird, as it did work at Osoyoos, but realized that they likely did not have a 30A GFI plug.

When I got home, set to do some lighting work in the trailer, and have a look at replacing the element. I then realized that the 20A DC fuse on the panel was blown, and replaced it. Lots of things to confuse me, so I set up to trouble shoot. I disconnected the converter thinking that maybe it had a short somehow, just enough of a trickle to trip the GFI. Nothing. I turned all the breakers off except the plugs, turned on a heat gun (I was heat shrinking tubes on wiring for cupboard lights), and it tripped. I then tried to plug in to a non GFI outlet, and the resultant was to blow the 20A fuse again. The first time it tripped was likely at home, and we had enough charge in the batteries to run everything for a bunch of days, as during this whole time they were not charging. Still confused.

I pulled the leads to the panel off and hooked up a plug to them, and it worked fine. Obviously something within the trailer was grounded which caused the GFI to trip. I then had one of those "D'oh" moments, smacked myself in the head, because I realized that the heater element was likely shorted to ground and just removing the hot by turning the breaker off was not enough, as the neutral was still connected to the others in the panel.

As soon as I disconnected both the hot and neutral from the water heater, everything else worked just fine. Converter worked great too after getting a new fuze. A smarter fella might have tried this first.

Then I had a look at changing out the heater element. I took a plastic cover off of it that protects the leads, and saw it had a big ass hex head on it. My largest socket was a 1 1/4" and was too small. I determined it was 1 1/2" and headed off to Canadian Tire to buy one, no luck. I then went to Lowes and looked for one, and they had it. I also went to the water heater section, and found a 1500W heater element with the same head size on it. The existing one is 1440W. I thought great, probably a lot cheaper than an RV parts store.
Socket - $14.98 (So, if anyone local ever needs one )
Element - $22.98

Changing it out was real easy. Basic steps to change out the heater element on a Suburban SW6DE water heater were;
1. Ensure the breaker is off to the water heater
2. Drain the water heater
3. Remove the propane burner tube from the water heater as it blocked access to the element.
4. Remove the cover off the heater element
5. Disconnect the leads
6. Using a 1 1/2" socket with extension, removed the old element
7. Install the new one with the included gasket
8. Hook up the leads, replace the cover, reinstall the burner tube
9. Fill the tank with water, turn on the heater and make sure it works.

The actual work once you have the parts takes about 15 minutes or so. Very easy to do.

My Lowes purchases



The pooched element



A closer look



A look at the water heater with the burner tube and element cover removed. The new element is now installed.



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Old 06-14-2012, 09:12 PM   #2
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Re: Lesson Learned

I fear that same problem so I try to remember to turn the electric element off both at the water heater and the circuit breaker so I have to do both to turn it on.

Thanks for the photos and parts, etc.

Eric

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Old 06-14-2012, 09:16 PM   #3
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Re: Lesson Learned

Quote:
Originally Posted by Eric T
I fear that same problem so I try to remember to turn the electric element off both at the water heater and the circuit breaker so I have to do both to turn it on.

Thanks for the photos and parts, etc.

Eric

I even installed a switch and an indicator light in the trailer for easy disconnect and to know instantly that it is on. None of this matters if you power it up without water though.



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Old 06-14-2012, 09:24 PM   #4
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Re: Lesson Learned

Hi: Jim Bennett... My RV Tech only charged me $16.50 for the element and installed it while packing the wheel bearings. I know I was the guilty party who didn't fill the water heater!!! Our old element came out and broke into two pieces...that's luck. Alf
escape artist N.S. of Lake Erie
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Old 06-15-2012, 12:00 AM   #5
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Re: Lesson Learned

For we dummies on this, could someone please answer the following:

Does some of the water put into the fresh water tank automatically go into the water heater tank?
If, for instance, the fresh water is about 1/3 full (say 7 gallons), has about half that much gone into the water heater tank (3 1/2 gallons) so that you actually have a total of 10 1/2 in the trailer? Or how much, what percentage, is going to the water heater tank?

How many gallons do we need in the hot water tank to prevent the element from burning up? Would 1/3 of a tank of fresh water always guarantee no such problem? (assuming that you do not use more than a couple of gallons when at that level)

If the fresh tank is filled, that means that the hot water tank has 6 gallons and fresh has 20 so 26 total? (for gray of 26 gallons)

Thank you for telling us about that, Jim. And Alf earlier.





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Old 06-15-2012, 01:21 AM   #6
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Re: Lesson Learned

Cathy:

In order to fill the hot water tank you need to turn on the hot water tap and let it run until all the air in the tank has come out -- the water stream will stop sputtering. The hot water tank will be completely full.

If you are in a campsite with a water supply and it is turned on the water will be coming from the external supply.

If you are dry camping (boon docking) and have filled the fresh water tank with water, the water going into the hot water tank will be pumped from the fresh water tank. If you are filling the fresh water tank it is a good idea to turn the pump on and also to run water from the hot water tap so that both tanks will be full.

It is definitely not a good idea to turn on the hot water heater if it is not completely filled with water. This can burn out the electric element if you are running it on electricity (as it did for Jim) and can melt the insulation on the hot water tank if you are running hot water on propane. You don't want to have this happen! Don't ask me how I know this.
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Old 06-15-2012, 03:26 AM   #7
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Re: Lesson Learned

Hi, Brian! Thank you for the explanation.
So I take it that the hot water tank is nearly full right off with the first six gallons and it is a matter of getting a little air out of there through the faucet, which we have been doing. The manual info seems contradictory, as if it needs to be full and then just that it should not be empty (as if half full could be the case or would be sufficient.) We did not know what the state of it usually was. So we always make sure it is full anyway.

I am supposing that burning out the element becomes a more likely problem for many when winterizing. We will try to make it at least until then.

By the way, looked at some cameras today. Have to have a mega-zoomer! The photos won't look nearly as good as yours but they will do.








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Old 06-15-2012, 06:43 AM   #8
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Re: Lesson Learned

Cathy:

Reasons why the hot water tank may be less than full:
1. winterizing, when the hot water tank will have been drained, including removing the anode bar and completely draining the tank
2. draining the hot water tank using the low level drain during travel to reduce weight (we always do this as well as draining the fresh water tank when travelling)

The hot water tank is not automatically filled when you connect to a water line or when you fill the fresh water tank when dry camping. You need to run water into the hot water tank by turning on the hot water tap as I described.

You will know how full the hot water tank is by turning on the hot water tap. If any air comes out it is not full. If only water comes out it is full.
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Old 06-15-2012, 12:42 PM   #9
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Re: Lesson Learned

Brian, we have always been leaving a few gallons of water in the tank during travel, not draining it like you. That is probably why we haven't burned out our element yet! Just give us some time. Obviously, if we drain it all of the time, we will have to make sure we have the water heater tank full.
We always turn off the water heater when travelling and will remember to run the sink water until no air before turning the heater on. I can believe that people could forget that or not know about the element.

We have not been boondocking but the last two places we camped, we had electric but no water at the sites so had to fill up first. Bought another water hose as we could have reached water both times if we had had two hoses. Every place is different, it seems.
Thank you for the reply.
Happy Camping.
Cathy
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Old 06-15-2012, 06:49 PM   #10
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Re: Lesson Learned

Thanks Jim for the lesson, pictures and reminder. There are so many things to think about, even seasoned veterans can miss things.
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