How to Replace a Water Heater Element: A Step-by-Step Guide

Electric heat element

Knowing how to replace a water heater element can save you money, it's actually not as difficult as you may think. Electric water heaters use heating elements to heat water, but over time, the elements wear out and need to be replaced. If you notice that your water heater runs out of hot water, is slow to recover from high demand times, or doesn't deliver hot water at all, it could be that one or both of your heating elements needs to be replaced.

Replacing a water heater element may sound like a daunting task, but if you're comfortable taking on do-it-yourself projects​ you should be able to do it with no problems at all. Besides the feeling of pride in your accomplishment, the best part is, it'll only cost you 30 to 40 dollars!

Before You Begin

  • First, consider if your water heater is worth repairing. The typical service life of a water heater is 8 to 12 years, if your unit is nearing old age it may be more cost effective to purchase a new one. 
  • Replacing a heating element will require working with electricity and water. If you don't feel comfortable, you should call a professional plumber.
  • Be certain that the problem is in fact the heating element.
    1. Check to see if the circuit breaker was tripped, or turned off by accident.
    2. Look for a red button on the temperature cutoff. This is the reset button and it is usually located inside the upper access panel above the thermostat.
    3. After resetting the reset button, wait to see if it trips again. If it does the problem is most likely your heating element.
    4. Using a multi meter check the heating element for continuity. If there is no continuity the heating element has failed and needs to be replaced. 
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This video will guide you thru determining if you need to replace your heating element. 

How to Purchase a Heating Element

The majority of electric water heaters have 2 heating elements. An upper element and a lower element. Because water heaters are prone to sediment build-up, the lower element is usually the one that needs to be replaced. This is because the sediment will cover the element, forcing it to work harder for the same results. Over time, the lower element will short out or simply break apart.

Once you've determined that your heating element needs to be replaced, you should purchase the same design style, voltage and wattage as the one you are replacing. 

There are 2 basic design styles of water heater elements: 

In most cases, the voltage and wattage is stamped onto the element. If it isn't, you can find this information on the water heater's nameplate or thru a simple online search with the heater's manufacturer and model number which is listed on the name plate. Or, you may feel more comfortable by removing the element and taking it to the store with you.

  • Never change the voltage on your replacement heating element. It should always be the same as the one you remove.
  • The wattage of your new element should never be higher than the one you replace, but it could be lower. A lower wattage will generate less heat, but it will also extend the life of the element.
There are 3 different types of heating elements to choose from:
  • High Density - This is the type most often installed by manufactures. They are the least expensive and they also have the shortest service life. High density heating elements are usually made from copper and have a zinc coating.
  • Low Density - This type of heating element provides more heating surface and are resistant to corrosion. Low density heating elements are made from copper with a magnesium oxide and nickel coating.
  • Extra Low Density - These are highly resistant to corrosive build-up and do not burn out. They are made from high-grade stainless steel and usually come with a lifetime guarantee. Expect to pay a little more for extra low density heating elements. 
Needed Supplies to replace a heating element:
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How to Replace a Water Heater Element 

1 - Shut Off the Power and Water Supply

  • Shut off the power to the water heater by flipping the circuit breaker off at the electrical panel. Then use a voltage tester to ensure that no power is reaching your heater. 
  • Close the cold-water inlet valve located above the water heater to turn off the water supply to the heater.
  • Open a hot water faucet in the house to allow air to enter the tank. 

2 - Drain the Tank

  • Connect a garden hose to the drain valve and open the valve.
    • If your tank begins to drain, your valve is not clogged. Close the drain valve. We'll drain the tank later. 
    • If your tank does not drain, your valve is clogged. Click HERE for options on how to unclog a drain valve.
  • Do NOT drain the tank.
  • If you would prefer not to drain your tank to change the heating element it is possible. The water heater element quick change tool makes it possible without creating a big mess. This video will show you how it works:

4 - Remove the Access Panel

  • There's usually an upper and lower access panel. Each panel houses 1 water heater element.
  • Use a screw driver to remove the appropriate access panel and then carefully pull the insulation aside.
  • Gently remove the plastic thermostat cover and check the wires with a multi meter.
  • Inspect the wiring for damage. Sediment build-up can cause an element to over heat and damage the wiring. Damaged wiring will need to be repaired.
  • Loosen the screws and remove the 2 wires connected to the element.

5 - Remove the Heating Element

  • Place the water heating element wrench over the exposed part of the element.
  • Turn the element wrench counter-clockwise until you feel it slightly move. 
  • Drain the tank once you are sure you can loosen your heating element.
  • Once the tank has drained, remove the element and the rubber gasket that seals the tank from leakage.
  • TIP: The water in the tank will add weight to your water heater and make it easier to remove the heating element . . . especially if the element is difficult to remove. 

6 - Install a New Heating Element

  • Attach the rubber gasket to the new heating element. Never use the old gasket.
  • Place the new element into the tank and use the element wrench to tighten in place.
  • Securely connect the wires under the element screws.

7 - Refill the Tank with Water

  • Close the drain valve on the water heater and turn on the water supply.
  • NEVER turn on the power until the tank is completely full of water.
  • Inspect the new water heater element for signs of leakage.
    • Turn off the water and tighten the element if you notice leakage. 
    • In some situations, you may need to remove the element and reposition the rubber gasket. 
  • Replace the thermostat cover and insulation before securing the access panel cover in place.
  • When the water heater tank has completely filled with water, turn on the power at the electrical panel. 
  • TIP: Your household hot water faucets may sputter for a short time after changing the heating element. This happens because there is air in the plumbing lines. The water flow will return to normal on it's own, or if you prefer, you can open each faucet until there is a steady flow.
This video will show you step-by-step how to replace a heating element:

Last update on 2018-09-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API