My partner, who does building maintenance, thinks that it may be possible to damage an electric stove top burner by extended use without a pot or pan because the heating element doesn’t have something to dissipate the heat into.

To me it seems like the heat would just be dissipated into the air, and the element wouldn’t get and hotter than its max setting.

I found some information about thermal regulators, but it’s not clear to me exactly how they work or if they work the same without cookware on the burner. We also have a very old stove and aren’t sure if the technology would be the same.

I have searched quite a bit but mostly found information about people leaving things on the burner unattended and then catching fire, or about faulty wiring, etc. I’m just wondering if a burner with nothing on it could overheat and burn out the element. Will the burner get hotter with nothing on it?

(The backstory is that I occasionally take the cookware off the burner between cooking ingredients so that I’m not damaging the cookware while there’s nothing in it, while I take a minute or two to prep the next ingredients for the pot.)

Edit: this is not a glass cook top, it's regular electric burners. I have viewed inside the oven that the model is J CS66 0W2AD. The serial number indicates it is from March of 1980. The maker is General Electric.


closed as off-topic by duskwuff, Voltage Spike, Dmitry Grigoryev, Andy aka, Lior Bilia Jul 10 '18 at 16:03

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  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, the burner would certainly get hotter without a heat sink. Whether or not that would cause damage, I don’t know. Either way, I can’t think of a good reason to leave a stove burning with nothing on it. \$\endgroup\$ – Blair Fonville Jun 30 '18 at 22:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ A glass stove top user and care guide does not address this issue and is not an issue regarding warranty. If it were a problem the manufacturer would address it in the manual. Any potential issues would have been resolved by the designers. No manufacturer wants more field service issues. Regarding the backstory, leaving empty cookware on the burner can (has by my experience) damage the cookware. \$\endgroup\$ – Misunderstood Jul 1 '18 at 1:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Leah What make and model? \$\endgroup\$ – Sunnyskyguy EE75 Jul 1 '18 at 4:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's General Electric manufactured in March 1980. Model: J CS66 0W2AD \$\endgroup\$ – Leah Bendlin Jul 1 '18 at 22:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it encourages people to be wasteful of energy. Don't do it. Have you heard the news recently? \$\endgroup\$ – Andy aka Jul 9 '18 at 13:15

An older stove element likely uses no active thermal regulator. It will run hotter, brighter when you remove cookware. It should be safe to run this way (from an electrical point-of-view).
However, watch for a hot spot, where one small section of the element is brighter...an indication that the element is damaged, at risk of imminent failure.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Given the "thermal regulation" of a stove top is a bi-metallic thermostat, how does the cookware removal make the element brighter? Or hotter? \$\endgroup\$ – Misunderstood Jul 1 '18 at 3:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Misunderstood I'm old (and my stove is older than me.) My old stove has no thermal regulator on its top elements. Oven does have a thermostat. "Very old stove" is a too-loose spec - don't know when active element control became common. \$\endgroup\$ – glen_geek Jul 1 '18 at 4:01

Relax, there is no problem with not having a pot on the burner.
Take a look at what is under the ceramic glass top.

  • The heating elements.
  • A probe to conduct heat.
  • A control box with thermostatic contacts

As the air around the heating element gets hot the heat is conducted from the probe to the control box. There is one set of contacts for the "burner hot" indicator and one limiting the temperature of the heating elements.

enter image description here

enter image description here


From the above you can clearly see it does not matter if there is a pot on the stove top or not.

There are no reflections from the pot involved and no mysterious sensors. Nothing to do with Color Temperature, not related to light bulb filament lifespan, or infrared waves. The heating element has no variable brightness, only off or on.

  • \$\begingroup\$ the probe is actually two dissimilar materials and when it heats up the end of the inner part moves relative to the outer part. \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Jul 1 '18 at 5:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jasen thanks. Maybe you could help me explain that to Tony Stewart older than dirt. If you look at the comments to his answer you will see I am struggling with explaining to him the concept of bi-metallic vs. his (imaginary or real?) cookware reflection to a mysterious sensor. \$\endgroup\$ – Misunderstood Jul 1 '18 at 5:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ dude's older than dirt, his brain has turned to rock. \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Jul 1 '18 at 5:59

I don't think so (something shiny like a stainless steel pot bottom is worse because it reflects the IR back into the heater on smooth top ranges), but the element and the (usually mechanical) device that drives it both have a finite life, so you're wearing them unnecessarily.

Also it sucks electrical energy, which is wasteful and costs money if you don't need it.

Also, it is possible to forget it and leave it on for a long time, which is wasteful (and even if the burner is not vacant it could easily damage an aluminum or non-stick coated pot).

I would say you should turn it off if you're not using for more than about 30 seconds.

Not related to the burner per se, but if you allow a smooth top cooktop to get very hot and place a pot with a wet bottom onto it (or let bit of liquid overflow onto it) you could induce crack propagation from a minor scratch and b*gger the whole top. At that point it's typically more sensible to replace the entire range or cooktop. Crazy expensive.


in the case of thermostatic tops the temperature sensor needs to contact cookware for them to regulate their heat, for those with just a power setting if there's no cookware cooling them down they will get hotter than usual, I've seen them get hot enough to melt aluminium. also seen them glowing orange,

  • \$\begingroup\$ How does the temperature sensor contact the cookware? \$\endgroup\$ – Misunderstood Jul 1 '18 at 3:36

My partner, who does building maintenance, thinks that it may be possible to damage an electric stove top burner by extended use without a pot or pan because the heating element doesn’t have something to dissipate the heat into.

Lots of people disagree, particularly in New Zealand.

"May be possible", OK, it "may be possible". I've used the stovetop as a heater, never burned them out. People sometimes leave them on, it happens. The heat dissipates into the air.

Hot Knife

Does he think if he goes outside it "may be possible" to get hit by lightning, thus he never goes out? What about driving a car or walking on a sidewalk ... just think what could happen!

  • \$\begingroup\$ hot knifing is legal there yet? I think this post will have a half-life of 10 minutes. But thanks for your non EE contribution to science \$\endgroup\$ – Sunnyskyguy EE75 Jul 1 '18 at 4:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ I had to look that term up - and then I found that image. \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Jul 1 '18 at 5:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jasen hot knifing refers to heating the knives red hot then picking up a small piece of hashish with one red hot knife then squeezing the piece of hash between the two red hot knives. The photo comes from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spots_(cannabis) \$\endgroup\$ – Misunderstood Jul 1 '18 at 5:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ yeah... that's where I found that image, I'd heard of spotting. \$\endgroup\$ – Jasen Jul 1 '18 at 5:46

Overall I would say listen to your husband even if he's wrong.

But in theory your husband is correct. In practise, you need a model number and data to support it.

(correction) Without a pot, there is less reflection to the sensor so the element will be slightly hotter and may appear a brighter red according to it's color vs temperature.

2nd correction. If your stove is really old like mid60's it wont have any temperature sensing and just has resistance elements switched by Low, MedLow, Med, Med-Hi, Hi

1000'C = Bright Cherry Red
500'C = dim Red

If removing your pot keeps the element to 500'C (dim Red) at areas of contact then rises to Bright Cherry Red that is equivalent to 1000'C and means the lifetime will significantly be reduced in hours of MTBF due to an effect called Arhenius Law which states failure rates double every 10'C rise when there are no defects.

But since we don't know how many centuries it will last at room temp its hard to predict. But like a light bulb at 2500'C if enclosed in a small globe , it may raise the bulb filament temp 40'C and only last 1/16 of 2000 hours ( estimate ). enter image description here

But in the end it may not make any difference as the pot does not make contact with the entire elemment all the time and if some parts are still Cherry Red , they become the weak link in the chain and will break there.

So it wont matter if the pot is on or not. It has a limited lifespan.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Reflections? Sensor? Color temperature? Light bulb filament? I do not down vote answers, but if I did... The correct answer is the cookware has zero effect upon the burner. \$\endgroup\$ – Misunderstood Jul 1 '18 at 2:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not so, a the load creates greater thermal gradient and coefficient of expansion stresses. No load creates a hotter red surface but a lower gradient. across the element. Arrhenius Law prevails on higher temps and the rugged design can withstand the gradients. So in Theory degradation rate of material doubles every 10'C rise approx. due to temperature. But that in normal use can be 60 yrs or 10 yrs (for eg) depending more now on defects than fake MTBF. \$\endgroup\$ – Sunnyskyguy EE75 Jul 1 '18 at 2:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Really? You are going to defend your answer? Good luck with that. Still think there are reflections and mysterious color temperature sensors? Still think a heating element resembles a light bulb filament? I'm not sure what is more frightening, your answer or this response to my comment. \$\endgroup\$ – Misunderstood Jul 1 '18 at 2:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ color temperature is physics and Arhennius Law is chemistry, both are related. YOu are confused. There is an adjustable thermal sensor not a color sensor on modern stove tops. \$\endgroup\$ – Sunnyskyguy EE75 Jul 1 '18 at 2:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nothing reflects from the pot to a sensor as you have implied. Whether physics blackbodies (color temp) or Arhennius [sic], neither (not both) applies to a stove top. There is no sensor, just simple a bi-metallic contact reed. See the photos in my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Misunderstood Jul 1 '18 at 3:24

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