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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!