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, elements wear out and need to be replaced.

    If you notice 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.

    Your Guide to Water Heater Element Replacement

    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 relatively easily. Besides the feeling of pride in your accomplishment, the best part is, it'll only cost you for the price of the heating element!

    New water heater heating element on a white background

    Before You Begin

    Before starting, 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. Older water heaters have a tendency of leaking when they fail.

    Replacing a heating element will require working with electricity and water. If you don't feel comfortable, you should call a professional plumber.

    Before replacing your water heater's heating element, be certain that this is in fact the problem. Check the following:

    • Check to see if the circuit breaker was tripped or it was turned off by accident.
    • Look for a red button on the temperature cutoff. This is the reset button and its typically located inside the upper access panel above the thermostat.
    • Reset the button, then wait to see if it trips again. If it does, the problem is most likely your heating element.
    • 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.

    Watch the Video


    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 build-up 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. 

    Water Heater Element Design Styles

    There are 2 basic design styles of water heater elements: Screw-in and Flange.

    Screw-in Water Heater Element

    Screw-in elements are the most common type of water heater elements. The heating element requires a 1-1/2 inch socket to secure it in place. A special tool, called an element socket wrench, can also be used.

    Flange Water Heater Element

    A flange-type water heater element is held in place with 4-screws. If your water heater has a flange heating element and you would like to use a screw-in element, you can purchase an adapter kit. It's difficult to find low density heating elements in the flange style, which is one reason you may want to use the adapter.

    Voltage and Wattage

    You should always replace your old heating element with the same voltage and wattage. In most cases, the voltage and wattage is stamped onto the element itself.

    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.

    If all else fails, and you can't find the proper voltage and wattage, you can remove the element and take to a hardware 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. However, it could be lower. A lower wattage will generate less heat, but it will also extend the life of the element.

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    Density 

    There are 3 different types of water heating elements available. 

    High Density

    This is the type most often installed by manufacturers. They are the least expensive and also have the shortest service life. High density heating elements are typically 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

    Extra low density heating elements 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.


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    How to Replace a Water Heater Element

    Follow these step-by-step instructions on how to replace your heating element.

    Step 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.

    Step 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. Follow these steps to unclog a drain valve.
    • Do NOT drain the tank.
    • If you'd 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. Watch the video below.
    Watch the Video

    Step 3:  Remove the Access Panel

    • Most water heaters have an upper and a lower access panel. Each panel houses one water heater element.
    • Use a screw driver to remove the appropriate access panel and 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 overheat and damage the wiring. If your wiring is damaged, it'll need to be repaired.
    • Loosen the screws and remove the two wires that are connected to the heating element.

    Step 4:  Remove the Heating Element

    • Place the element socket wrench over the exposed part of the element.
    • Turn the element socket wrench counter-clockwise until you feel it move slightly.
    • Once you know you can loosen the heating element, you can drain your tank. The water within the tank will add weight to your water heater and make it eaiser to remove the heating element . . . especially if the element is difficult to remove.
    • Once the tank has drained, remove the element and the rubber gasket that seals the tank from leakage.

    Step 5:  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 it into place.
    • Securely connect the wires under the element screws.

    Step 6:  Refill the Tank with Water

    • Close the drain valve on the water heater and turn the water supply back on.
    • 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 situation, you may need to remove the element and reposition the 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.
    • Your household hot water faucets may sputter for a short time after changing a heating element. This happens because there's air in the plumbing pipes. The water flow will return to normal on it's own, or if you prefer, you can open each faucet until there's a steady flow.
    Watch the Video

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