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Replace Electric Hot Water Heater Element

Updated on July 17, 2014

Did your hot shower turn into a cold wake-up call? Is the hot water in your faucets more lukewarm? If you have an electric hot water heater, the heating elements most likely require replacement. You hot water heater uses two separate heating elements. One element at the bottom of the tank heats that water for immediate use. The upper heating element keeps the water hot and acts as a back-up of sorts to the lower heating element. You should first test the hot water heater elements to determine if they need replacing or if perhaps there are other factors contributing to your cold shower. Electric hot water heater element replacement requires draining the hot water tank.

There are two different types of hot water heater elements. Some water heaters use a screw-on element, while others use an element that secures to the tank with bolts. When you are replacing an electric hot water heater element, it is a good idea to remove the old one and take it with you to a plumbing supply house or appliance repair shop. Some home improvement stores also carry replacement elements. Having the old element with you will help ensure that you get the correct size element for your hot water heater.

Things You'll Need For The Project:

Garden hose
Phillips-head screwdriver
masking tape
Vise grips
Socket wrench
Replacement heating element
Pipe dope

Remove Faulty Hot Water Heater Element

1. Locate the circuit breaker for the hot water heater inside your home electrical panel box. The inside door of the panel box should indicate which breaker controls the hot water heater. If in doubt, turn the main breaker off to the house.

2. Go to the hot water heater, and turn off the water supply valve. The water supply valve is above the water heater tank on the house plumbing line. Turn the valve clockwise to shut off the water to the tank.

3. Thread one end of a garden hose onto the drain valve at the bottom of the electric hot water heater. Place the other end of the hose either outside or in a nearby bathtub. If you place the hose outside, be sure to keep children and pets away from the hose. Although one or both of the heating elements may be bad, the water in the tank can still be scalding hot.

4. Turn the drain valve knob counterclockwise to begin draining the water from the tank. If you are only replacing the upper hot water heating element, you only need to drain half of the water out of the tank. If you are replacing both hot water heating elements or just the lower element, drain the tank completely. Turn on the nearest hot water faucet to aid in draining the tank and leave it on after the tank drains.

5. Close the drain valve when there is no more water draining through the hose. Turn the valve clockwise with your hand to close the drain valve.

6. Remove the thermostat covers on the side of the hot water tank. There are two covers on the tank, one for the upper thermostat and heating element, and one for the lower ones. Remove the securing screws with a Phillips-head screwdriver. Pull back any insulation that is covering the thermostats and heating element. Examine the element to determine if you have the screw-on type or the bolt-in type. The base of the element is round and is above the thermostats.

7. Place small pieces of masking tape on each wire going to the hot water heater elements. Mark the wire location onto the tape with a pencil. This will help you later when installing the new hot water heater elements. Loosen the terminal screws that secure the wires to the element with the Phillips-head screwdriver. Pull the wires away from the element.

8. Turn the heating element counterclockwise with a pair of vise grips, if you have the screw-on type of heating element. There is a special wrench available for removing screw-on elements. A large socket wrench will also work to remove the heating element from the hot water water heater. If you have the bolt-in type element, remove the bolts with a socket wrench. When pulling the bolt-in type element out, pay attention to the direction of the mounting plate. This will help when installing the new element.

Installing The New Hot Water Heater Element

1. Apply pipe dope to the threads of the screw-on heating element. Thread the element into the hot water heater tank until the element is hand tight. Tighten the element completely using a socket wrench or vise grips. If you have the bolt-in type element, wipe off the contact area around the hole of the water heater tank with a rag. You want a good seal between the element mounting bracket gasket and the tank. Insert the element into the tank, making sure to seat the gasket and the mounting bracket flush to the side of the tank. Thread the retaining bolts through the mounting gasket until they are hand tight. Tighten the mounting bolts with a socket wrench, working one by one in a diagonal pattern.

2. Loosen the terminal screws on the heating element enough to wrap the ends of the hot water heater wires around the neck of the screws. Bend the wire ends around the neck of the terminal screws, and tighten the screws to secure the wires.

3. Turn on the cold water supply to the hot water heater, and allow the tank to fill with water. Watch the area around the seam between the heating element and the hot water tank as the tank is filling to check for leaks. Tighten the element as necessary to eliminate any leaks. Go to the faucet you turned on when draining the tank. When water is flowing through the faucet without any air gurgling, turn the faucet off.

4. Push the insulation back into the water heater tank cavity, and install the cover panels. Remove the garden hose from the drain valve, and turn on the circuit breaker to the hot water heater. Allow 30 minutes for the water to heat thoroughly before taking that hot shower after replacing your electric hot water heater elements.


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    • profile image

      electricians swansea 7 years ago

      Great article. But if your in doubt always contact a qualified electrician.

    • profile image

      Amy Appleton 7 years ago

      Everyone who owns a hot tub should be familiar with the water heater element. Great hub!