How To Replace a Water Heater Element

Water Heater Heating Element

Sometimes a water heater element needs to be replaced. Just because the heating element is no longer working, doesn't mean that you need to purchase a new water heater. The task of replacing a water heater element may seem difficult, but most homeowners can make this repair themselves.

If your water heater is slow to heat, runs out of hot water, or doesn't deliver hot water at all, there's a good chance that one or both of your heating elements are not working properly. In this article, we'll show you how to determine if your element needs to be replaced, and how to do the repairs yourself.

Replacing a Hot Water Heater Element


Before Beginning

  • 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.
  • 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's usually a red button that's located above the thermostat inside the upper access panel). If after being reset, it trips again, there's a good chance that it may be your heating element. 

This video will show you how to check the condition of your heating element:

Preparation

Heating elements are also called immersion heaters, because they are fully immersed within the water of the tank. It's important to note, that heating elements are only used on electric water heaters. Gas water heaters heat the water in an entirely different way.

Element Style

There are 2 different styles of heating elements: 

  • Screw-in: This is the type we will be covering because they are the most common heating elements. They typically are used on all newer water heaters, and the element is screwed into place. 
  • Bolt-in: There are several different styles of bolt-in elements, if you have an older water heater it's possible that this type is installed. The element is secured into place by 4 bolts. Universal adapter kit are available if you want to adapt a screw-in element into a bolt-in element.

Element Location

Electric water heaters have 2 heating elements. There's an upper element, which is located behind the upper access panel, and a lower element. The lower element is typically the one that needs to be replaced.

As the sediment within your tank accumulates, it will settle at the bottom where your lower element is located. The sediment surrounds the element and causes it to lose it's effectiveness. Eventually, it will either break or completely short out.

Purchasing New Heating Elements

When selecting new heating elements, it's recommended to purchase ones with the same voltage, wattage, and style (screw-in or bolt-in) as the element you are replacing.

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.

The voltage and wattage is usually stamped onto the element, or it can be found on the water heater's nameplate. If you can't find it, you can always do a simple online search using your water heater's model number (found on the name plate). If all else fails, or you feel more comfortable, you can remove the element and take it to your local hardware store.

Types of Water Heater Elements

There are 3 types of water heater elements. If your water heater is nearing the end of it's service life, you may want to install the least expensive, high watt density element.

However, if your heater is newer and you live in an area with hard water, you should consider the other more expensive options. Let's take a closer look at each:

High Watt Density Element

These are the most common water heater elements and can be used in all replacement scenarios, assuming the wattage and voltage match. In most cases, a high watt density element will be the same type that came with your original water heater.

High watt density elements are prone to corrosive build-up and have a shorter life span. You can expect these elements to be the least expensive of the three types. 


Low Watt Density Element

Low watt density elements are well suited for areas with hard water. Many are made with a fold-back design to allow for more heating space. Even though these are a lower watt density, there isn't a loss in efficiency. This helps them reduce the lime scale build-up that's common in areas with hard water.

Provided you have the same wattage and voltage, you can use a low watt density element to replace a high watt density element. In most cases, these elements will be more expensive than the high watt density elements discussed above. 


Lime Life Element

These premium elements carry a limited 5-year warranty. Lime life elements are ultra low watt density and have a high quality nickel and stainless steel surface that discourages the build-up of lime scale.

These elements are an excellent choice if you live in an area where you experience intermittent water supply levels, as they resist dry firing. Lime life elements are usually the most expensive element, however, once installed, they often will out live the life of the water heater itself. 


Necessary Supplies

In order to change an element you'll need the following:


Changing a heating element is a relatively simple task, however, you will be working with electrity AND water. Two things that do not safely mix. If you do not feel comfortable, you should contact a qualified plumber. Your priority should always be safety


Replacement

Step 1: Turn OFF the Power

  • Turn the circuit breaker OFF at the electrical panel. Use a voltage test to check that the power is no longer reaching the water heater. You'll be working with electricity and water, so it's critically important that the water heater is turned off.

Step 2: Attach a Hose to the Drain Valve

  • Attach a hose to the drain valve and 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'll need to address this issue first.
  • Do NOT drain your tank at this time.
  • It's possible to change the heating element without draining your tank, although, it can be a bit more challenging. If you'd like to give it a try, this video will show you how:

Step 3: Turn OFF the Water

  • Turn OFF the water supply to the water heater by closing the cold water inlet valve (most commonly located above the water heater).
  • Release the hot water pressure by allowing air into the tank. To do this, open a nearby faucet. Only open the hot water tap, not the cold. Be sure to leave the tap open.

Step 4: Remove the Access Panel Cover

  • Use a screw driver to remove the cover of the access panel. The upper panel houses the upper water heater element. The lower panel houses the lower element.
  • There's 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 the Heating Element

  • Use a heating element wrench to remove the element. It's designed specifically to remove electric water heater elements, and has a wide mouth that fits 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're confident that you can loosen the heating element, drain the tank by opening the drain valve. Depending on the size of your tank, this could take up to an hour.
  • 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 the New Heating Element

  • Wipe down the threads and gasket area of the new element to ensure that they free of dirt and debris.
  • Attach the new "O" ring onto the new element. NEVER use the old "O" ring.
  • Gently push the element into the tank and tighten it with the element wrench.
  • Attach the 2 wires to the element and secure them in place by tightening the screws. Double check that the wires are secure and will not slip.

Step 7: Refill the 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 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, the water will begin to sputter from the open faucet tap (left open in Step 3). The water is pushing the air out of the line. Once there's a steady flow of water, the faucet can be turned off.
  • Replace the plastic thermostat cover, insulation and access panel cover.
  • Once the tank has filled with water, you can turn the power back ON to the water heater by flipping the circuit breaker ON.
  • Since there will most likely be air in the hot water lines, it's not uncommon for the hot water faucets throughout the house to sputter. This will go away in a short period of time. However, if you prefer, you can open each faucet until you have a steady flow of water. 
This video will show you how to replace a water heater element