Heat waves are extreme climate events that have the potential to cause immense stress on human health, agriculture, and energy systems, so understanding the processes leading to their onset is crucial. There is no single accepted definition for heat waves, but they are generally described as a sustained amount of time where temperature exceeds a local threshold. Multiple different temperature variables are potentially relevant, as high values of both daily maximum (Tmax) and minimum (Tmin) temperatures can be detrimental to human health. In this study, we focus explicitly on the different mechanisms associated with summertime heat waves manifested during daytime versus nighttime hours over the contiguous United States. Heat waves are examined using the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Modern-Era Retrospective analysis for Research and Applications, Version 2 (MERRA-2). Over 1980–2018, the increase in the number of heat wave days per summer was generally stronger for nighttime heat wave days than daytime heat wave days, with localized regions of significant positive trends. Processes linked with daytime and nighttime heat waves are identified through composite analysis of precipitation, soil moisture, clouds, humidity and fluxes of heat and moisture. Daytime heat waves are associated with dry conditions, reduced cloud cover, and increased sensible heating. Mechanisms leading to nighttime heat waves differ regionally across the US, but they are typically associated with increased clouds, humidity and/or low-level temperature advection. In the Midwest US, enhanced moisture is transported from the Gulf of Mexico during nighttime heat waves.