How To Replace a Water Heater Element

How to Replace a Water Heater Element

Water heater elements occasionally need to be replaced. If your water heater is slow to heat, runs out of hot water, or doesn’t deliver hot water, it’s a good chance that one or both of your heating elements is not working. The task of replacing a water heater element may seem difficult, but most homeowners can make this repair themselves, and will likely spend less than 30 dollars in water heater parts!

Consider Before Beginning

  1. Water heaters typically have a life span of 6 to 10 years, if your water heater is approaching this age, it may be worth considering purchasing a new one.
  2. The issue may not be your heating element. First, check the circuit breaker. It may have tripped or been accidentally turned off.  Next, check the reset button on the temperature cutoff (it is usually a red button that is located above the thermostat inside the upper access panel). If after being reset, they trip again, it’s a good clue that the problem may be your heating element. This video will show you how to check if your heating element needs to be replaced.
  3. Although, changing a heating element is a relatively simple task, you will be working with electricity AND water. Two things that do not safely mix. If you do not feel comfortable, you should contact a qualified plumber. Safety should always be your priority.

Preparing to Change Your Heating Element

Heating elements are also called immersion heaters because they are fully immersed in water within the tank of your electric water heater. There are generally 2 different types, a screw-in type is the most common, and the type we will be discussing, and a flange type.

Electric water heaters have 2 heating elements. An upper element, located behind the upper access panel, and a lower element. It is the lower element that typically needs to be replaced. This is because the sediment within your tank encases the element causing it to lose effectiveness, and eventually either break or completely short out.

When buying your new elements, it is preferable to purchase the same voltage, wattage, and design style (flange or screw-in) as the element you are replacing. This voltage and wattage is generally stamped onto the element or the water heater’s nameplate. However, you can always do a simple online search with your water heater’s model number (found on the name plate). If all else fails, or you feel more comfortable, simply remove your element and take it to the hardware store with you.

The voltage of the new element should always match the old element. However, you could use lower wattage to extend the life of the element. Keep in mind, the element will also generate less heat. Never purchase more wattage than your previous element.

If you find that your water heater is prone to mineral build-up because of “hard” water, you may want to use the more expensive extra low density type. There are 3 types of water heater elements:

  • Low Density – Made from copper and coated with magnesium oxide and nickel. These are a little more expensive, but provide more heating surface and are resistant to corrosion.
  • High Density – Made from copper and often have a zinc coating. These are the least expensive and commonly the type originally installed on your water heater. They are prone to corrosive build-up and have a shorter life span.
  • Extra Low Density – Made from high-grade stainless steel. These are the most expensive, but they are also the best element available, and they often come with a lifetime guarantee. They are highly resistant to corrosive build-up and will not burn out.

To change the element, you will need a hose, Phillips screwdriver, water heater element wrench, and a new element with gasket. The water heater element wrench can be purchased at any hardware store and is usually only about 5 dollars.

Replacing the Water Heater Element

Step 1: Turn Off the Power

  • Turn the circuit breaker off at your electrical panel, and use a voltage tester to check if power is still reaching your water heater. You will be working with electricity and water, so it is critically important that the water heater is turned off and is no longer receiving electricity.

Step 2: Attach Hose to Drain Valve

  • Attach a hose to the drain valve and turn the knob to open the valve. At this point, we do not want to drain the tank, only to make sure that the drain valve is not clogged.
  • If your tank is clogged, you will need to address this issue first.
  • Do NOT drain your tank yet.
  • It is possible to change the heating element without draining your tank, although it can be a bit more challenging. If you would like to try, this video will show you how.

Step 3: Turn off Water to the Water Heater and Release Pressure

  • Turn OFF the water supply to the water heater, by closing the cold-water inlet valve which is located above the water heater.
  • Release the hot water pressure by allowing air into the tank. To do this, open a nearby faucet in a bathroom or kitchen. Only open the hot water valve, not the cold. Leave the valve open.

Step 4: Remove the Access Panel 

  • Use a screw driver to remove the access panel. The upper panel houses the upper water heater element, and the lower panel houses the lower element.
  • There is usually insulation between the panel door and the thermostat, set the insulation aside in a dry place.
  • The thermostat should have a plastic cover, gently remove the cover.
  • Check the wires with a volt meter to ensure that there is no power.
  • Inspect the wiring. Has any of the wires been damaged? Are there any melted parts? Wiring can be damaged if sediment has caused an element to overheat. Any damaged wiring must be repaired.
  • Loosen the screws and disconnect the 2 element wires from the heating element.

Step 5: Remove Heating Element

  • Use a heating element wrench to remove the element. The element wrench can be purchased for about $5 at your local hardware store. It is designed specifically to remove electric water heater elements, and has a wide mouth that will fit over the exposed part of the element.
  • While the tank is still full of water, slightly loosen the element in a counter-clockwise motion. The water’s weight will help keep the tank in place.
  • Once you know you can loosen the heating element, you can now drain the tank by opening the drain valve. Depending on the size of your tank it could take between 30 to 60 minutes to fully drain.
  • Remove the element. There will be a rubber gasket or “O” ring that seals the tank. Be sure you remove the O ring with the element.

Step 6: Install New Heating Element

  • Wipe down the threads and gasket area of the new element so that they are free of dirt or debris.
  • Attach the new O ring onto the new element. DO NOT use the old O ring.
  • Gently push the element into the tank and tighten with the element wrench.
  • Attach the 2 wires under the element screws. Be sure that the wires are secure and will not slip.

Step 7: Refill Tank

  • Close the water heater’s drain valve.
  • Turn ON the water to the water heater.
  • Do NOT turn the power ON at this time. The tank must be full of water before turning on the power or you will damage the heating elements.
  • Check the newly installed water heater element for leakage. If leakage is present, turn off the cold water supply and tighten the element. It may be necessary to remove the element and reposition the O ring.
  • As the tank fills, water will begin to sputter from the open faucet tap that was left open from Step 3. The water is pushing the air out of the line. Once there is a steady flow of water, the faucet can be turned off. 
  • Replace the plastic thermostat covers, insulation and access panel covers.
  • Once the water heater tank has filled with water, you can turn the power back ON to the water heater by flipping the circuit breaker ON.

⇒It’s not uncommon for the hot water faucets throughout the house to sputter, as they will likely have air in the line. This will go away in a short period of time, you can open each faucet until you have a steady flow of water if you prefer.

Here’s a video that will show you how to replace a water heater element.