Electric Stove Burners on the Fritz: Quick Fixes and Other Tips

The Basics: How an Electric Range Works

Before you attempt to troubleshoot and repair, you should get to know your oven a bit. Knowing how your oven operates will help you narrow possibilities, figure out things beyond any troubleshooting manual and give you a little more confidence in your abilities.

Unlike a gas range, an electric range will never leak fuel or create carbon monoxide from burning fuel. Instead, an electric range uses an electrical supply — your home current, 220 volts — and converts it to heat. The greater the electrical flow generated, the more heat that results. Your burner and oven knobs work like light dimmer switches, increasing or decreasing the flow of electrical current and thus the temperature of the element.

Most oven or stovetop failures trace back to one of a few potential problems. Always start with the most simple or probable cause and progress toward more complex or less common causes.

The control knob you turn to set the burner temperature is connected to a temperature control immediately inside the stove control panel, on the other side of the knob. Often this control is called an infinite switch. It regulates the electrical flow to the heating element.

  • The oldest electric ranges use a conventional coil heating element, known as a “resistive coil.” This is fancy language for an electrical wire that's encased in an insulating sheath. (This sheath is the reason you cannot electrocute yourself by touching the burner or the pan on top of it, BTW). You know this one by the appearance — flat black coils over rounded burner drip bowls that catch your drips and spills.
  • Almost as old is the glass-ceramic cooktop style. Here, the element produces heat that both conducts and radiates through the glass top to the cookware above. Sometimes these feature thermostats that control the elements, turning them off and on to provide a steady temperature rather than ever-increasing heat like conventional burners. Smooth-top stoves like these are easily recognizable — no burner juts up, and often the “burner” looks like it’s painted on.
  • Newer cooktop styles, such as the induction, halogen or solid-disk cooktops (aka “Euro-burners”) combine the same basic styles with new technology to produce more even heating, greater efficiency, increased ease of use and sleek styling. In some cases, the burner element itself is easily changeable, but the process is slightly different from other cooktop styles. In addition, some feature thermal limiters or thermostats that regulate the burner system. Refer to your owner’s manual or a qualified technician for targeted information.

Common Stovetop Problems: Troubleshooting by Symptom

Once you know the basics of how your electric range works, you may be able to pinpoint the problem without a troubleshooting guide. If you’re still uncertain, however, try to narrow down the potential causes by locating the symptom. Most oven or stovetop failures trace back to one of a few potential problems. Always start with the most simple or probable cause and progress toward more complex or less common causes. If the situation still leaves you perplexed or you do not feel up to fixing the problem you identify, consult a qualified service professional.

Nothing Works, or the Stovetop Works Inconsistently:

  • Has the home breaker flipped or the fuse blown? Sometimes an electrical surge will interfere with the power supply, causing breakers and fuses to react to protect your appliances. Simply check your breaker or fuse box and replace or flip as necessary.
  • Is the range’s power cord plugged in securely? Grasp it by the plug and wiggle slightly to determine a good connection. If your range is plugged into an extension cord, disconnect it and plug it into the wall directly! A range consumes too much electricity to run off any extension cord.
  • Look over the power cord for signs of damage, such as missing rubber coating with wires showing through, sharp crimps or evidence it is getting pinched while plugged in. Pull out the oven slightly if its position is causing the problem. Electrical tape is good for covering bare wires and preventing them from touching anything, but a range is too powerful to take chances. Have a technician replace the cord as necessary.
  • If previous steps fail to fix the problem, it’s time to dig a little deeper. First unplug the appliance, then remove the back panel to access the area where the power cord enters the range. Inside, the cord wires connect to a terminal block. Look for loose, damaged or burned-looking wires. If wires are merely loose, wrap them around the screw terminal and secure by tightening. If you spot corrosion, like you sometimes see on car battery terminals, clean the terminal gently with a wire brush and reconnect the wires. Damaged wiring requires immediate attention from a professional.
  • Does your range have an internal fuse or circuit breaker system? Typically situated under the top of the range, directly around the elements or on the sides of the unit, cooktop fuses and circuits can also blow or trip. So can the fuses for the oven — located at the rear of the compartment — and fuses controlling the self-cleaning function, timer, clock or other features, if so designed. To replace any fuse, simply unscrew it, turning it counterclockwise, and replace with the exact same type and size (electrical rating) of fuse. For circuit breakers, push the “reset” button or as indicated.
  • Sometimes either the cord or even the electrical outlet is bad, even though you can’t see it. In that case, a multimeter will quickly and easily show if the outlet is receiving current and if the power cord is carrying it. Consult a professional for further information.

One Burner Won't Heat Up:

Most of the time, the cause can be traced to a defective element, a loose connection or a defective switch. Try a few things to pinpoint it — and possibly fix it in the process.

  • First, wiggle the burner element slightly. Turn off the power or unplug the stove to prevent electrical shock, if you must touch the interior portion of the stove to remove it. Note if the element feels abnormal or loosely connected; sometimes comparing it with another one will help you judge any differences. Try turning the burner on again to see if this fixed the problem.
  • Narrow down the possibilities by pulling the burner element free from the stove and switching it out with another element of the same size. If the replacement works, check the one that wasn’t working where it is now plugged in. If it doesn’t work, you can be sure the element is faulty. Purchase a new one and pop it in place to solve your problems.
  • Examine the element for warping, bubbles or any visible sign of damage. Look for signs of corrosion on the ends that plug into the burner (called terminals) as well as on the receptacle block into which it plugs. Clean, as necessary, with steel wool or a stiff-bristled brush to remove buildup that may interfere with proper operation. If you notice what looks like burned or scorched areas on the prongs, replace the terminal block that the element plugs into, as it is likely faulty. Consult a repair technician for further assistance.

My Stovetop Burners Work, But the Indicator Light Doesn’t Glow:

Every electric stove features a little indicator light that glows when the burner is in operation. If the burner is on but the light fails to glow, one of two things is the likely problem.

  • Using a multimeter, connect the probes to the final burner control switch terminal, the one labeled P, along with the L1 terminal, while the burner is on. It should register continuity. Any other result means that that portion of the control switch is faulty.
  • If you obtain continuity but the light still isn’t operating, try replacing the light bulb, located in the control panel behind the light position.

My Stovetop Burner Seems to Have One Temperature Only:

If the burner works but doesn’t get hotter or cooler, the infinite switch is likely faulty. Replace as necessary. Consult a repair professional for further information.