Water Heaters: Replacing The Heating Element

The heating element is in a household, electric water heater is akin to a heart. It is the reason why your equipment is called a water ‘heater’. When you start getting cold showers instead of piping hot ones, this ‘heart of steel’ is usually at the end of its life cycle. But unlike human hearts, you can swap it for a new one for 20 to 30 bucks.

Neat! Just like replacing the dip tube, if you have the correct information about the technical bits and bobs about your water heater, and the knowledge to apply that information, you can be your own superman. And this guide will show you how to realise your inner plumbing potential!

Duality in Reality

Most modern heaters have two heating elements, much like a Time Lord with a binary vascular system. The common misconception here, though, is that if one fails the other should kick in. Well, tough luck. The other heating element is not a spare one. In fact, it is a part of an operational system which makes the water heater much more efficient. The first element is located at the top and the other at the bottom.

Only one of the elements operates at a time. The top one starts up first and heats the water near it. When the thermostat linked to its power source detects the right temperature, it trips and turns on the lower thermostat – heating element combo. The lower element operates similarly and shuts off when the lower thermostat linked to it trips.

When it’s time to change one of them, you need to perform a few checks to verify if one of the heating elements is truly malfunctioning.

Preliminary Checks

Unlike the dip tube problem which requires familiarity with plumbing, to resolve this problem you need to know about the electrical setup of the water heater in your home. This unit is generally connected by a circuit breaker (most high end electrical appliances need one). A circuit breaker, as the name implies, breaks the flow of electricity whenever there is a problem with the equipment. So check it first. If it is tripped, try to turn it on and observe the operation of the water heater.

You might also find a reset button or a switch on your water heating unit. This is typically a high temperature cut off switch. You can try resetting as well. If everything is fine, you are hassle free. But if both trip again you have got yourself a problem with your heating elements or the connected thermostats. If the heating elements are fine, the thermostats may have gone kaput.

You can find a guide on testing both with a continuity tester on the internet and the wiring diagram of the water heater in the user annual that comes with it. If the heating elements indeed, have gone bad, you can start preparing to replace them.

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Buying a New Element

Heating elements in a typical water heater are in contact with the waters, immersed in it. Therefore they are also called immersion water heaters. These come in two flavours – a) the screw in type; and b) universal 4 bolt flange type. When in doubt, always refer to the user manual and verify which one applies to you.

Next, find out the electric specifications of the heating elements – the voltage, wattage and ampere rating. Note these down and make sure to buy the new ones with the exact same specifications. You might be compelled into buying an element with a lower wattage rating, but they will take longer to heat the water. If you think that buying a higher wattage one will help you get hot water quicker, again refer to the user manual. Consider the user manual as your bible for everything technical.

Buying a higher wattage element is fine, but installing it in your water heater is another thing. It may have side-effects, most probably of the undesirable kind.
Next up is to determine the condition of the water that is supplied to you. If your supply consists of ‘hard water’, you will have to deal with a lot of mineral deposits. Yes. Those ugly, white specs on the glass panel of your shower cabinet are lime deposits. Lime consists of calcium. Calcium is a mineral in water. Hard water.

Getting the Gist?

Tip: You can clear this up using vinegar or acetic acid. Hannibal Lecter used it to cross the Alps. Surely, you can use to shine the panels of your shower cabinet.
However, before applying the same technique on your heating elements, please, refer to your user manual!


If you have a hard water supply problem, there are heater elements available in the market of the more expensive kind which is specifically designed for this issue. These are made from copper with a nickel / magnesium oxide coating for higher corrosion resistance. An even more expensive kind is made from high grade stainless steel, resistant to corrosion, build ups and burnouts.
Make your choice, superman.

Replacement Surgery

Whether you are replacing the screw-in type or universal 4-bolt flange type heating element, some of the basic procedure remains the same. Let’s see how you can go about it.
What you will need:

A good quality screw driver, screw-in element wrench or a socket wrench with the correct socket size, your brand-new heating element and a garden hose.

  • Turn off the power heater. We do not want water and electricity to mix. Otherwise the results can be hilariously fatal.
  • Turn off the water supply to the heater. You can do this by opening the hot water faucet, attaching the garden hose to the drain valve opening it. If you are a perfectionist, you can also check the tank for clogging.
  • Now open a faucet connected to the water heater and fill up your utensils or buckets (to save all that water and be environment-friendly). This will release any hot water pressure in the tank of the heater. Be sure to keep the cold-water valve closed during this process.
  • When all the water has been drained out, remove the access panel by removing any screws with your trusty screwdriver. There should be a fold-back insulation at the back of this panel. It protects the thermostat and allows it to read the correct temperature of the water (no use reading external temperature, is there?). Remove this fold-back insulation as well and keep it in a dry place.
  • Unleash the electrician in you and check the wires for burning smell, melting of the insulation, breaks, cuts or unusual contacts with any of the metal objects near them. Replace the wiring, if damaged, referring to a correct guide and the user manual.
  • Disconnect the wires from the heating element. They will most probably be screwed on to the appropriate metal contacts called as ‘terminals’ in electrical terms.
  • Now, depending on the type of heating element you have, use a screw-in wrench to unscrew it or a socket wrench to remove the bolts holding the element in place and then remove it by pulling it out. If you see a gasket lining the socket where the element is fit, remove it as well and clean the gasket area.
  • Unpack your new element. Fix the new gasket on the socket. Push the new element in the socket. If the element is a screw-in type, use a screw-in wrench to screw it in. If the element is a universal 4-bolt type, use the socket wrench to tighten the heating element bolts into the unit.
  • Attach the power supply wires to the terminals on the element. Be sure to check the colour coding of the wires and (again!) refer the user manual to know where to attach which.
  • Reattach the thermostat, fold-back insulation and access panel covers.

Post Surgery Treatment

Remove the garden hose from the drain valve and then close it. Turn the cold-water supply back on. Be sure to let the entire tank fill with cold water. If you turn the electric supply back on before this happens, you will blow your new elements into kingdom come in almost no time. Once the water has filled up, check for leaks. This might happen if the gaskets that came with the new element are faulty or low quality.

If there are no leaks, the tank will fill up fine. Remember that we opened a faucet to let all the residual water out? It should be open to let all the air out from the tank. You will know when that happens, because the water will start spurting out with full force as soon as all the air is drained out.

When everything above has been done, turn off that faucet and turn the heater back on. If all is well you should be getting nice, hot water as you used to.

If you still don’t get hot water, you know who to call – your friendly neighbourhood plumber-man!

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