how to replace water heater element

How to Replace the Heating Element in an Electric Water Heater

If you suddenly notice you have less hot water — and you haven’t added a teenager to your home — you may have lost a heater element in your electric water heater.

Here’s the good news. Heater elements can be easily replaced without a special element wrench. So, don’t panic and buy a new tank if yours fails on you. I’m going to show you how to do this quickly and painlessly.

What is a Water Heater Element?

A heater element is a part that heats the water in an electric water heater’s tank. Most (though not all) electric water heaters have two heating elements. Some only have one. But are all powered by electricity.

AO Smith water heater element - how to replace water heater element
This is what a typical A.O. Smith (the brand we recommend) water heater element looks like. It only costs about $43. Heater elements come in different types. Straight or circular. They have different wattages and use either 120- or 240-volt outlets. In addition, they can be screwed in, bolted in, or even clamped in.

What You Need to Replace a Water Heater Element

If you don’t have an element wrench, you’ll need the following tools and materials to remove and replace the bad heater element.

  • Replacement water heater element and gasket
  • Pipe-joint compound
  • Garden hose
  • Screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrench
pipe joint compound - how to replace water heater element
Pipe-joint compound is often referred to by plumbers as pipe dope.

How to Replace Water Heater Element

Not everyone (outside of a plumber) has a special tool called an element wrench. They’re used to quickly remove an electric water heater’s heating element. So, here’s how to do the job without an element wrench.

  1. Determine which element needs replacing (there are two). Replace the top element if you get no hot water or the bottom element if you get less hot water than usual.
  2. Turn off the water supply valve for the electric water heater. The shutoff will be located on top of the water heater (on the cold-water inlet pipe). Then turn off the water heater’s power at the main electric panel.
  3. Connect a garden hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the tank. Empty the tank into your basement drain. Close the valve and remove the hose.
  4. Remove either the top or bottom access panel on the side of the tank and pull back the insulation. Loosen the terminal screws on the heating element. Now remove the wires.
  5. Using your adjustable wrench, remove the element by turning it counterclockwise. If it is bolted in place, remove the bolds first. Purchase a replacement element: make sure it is the same voltage, wattage, and length. It’s a good idea to take the old one with you to the plumbing supply center or hardware store.
  6. Coat both sides of the new gasket with pipe-joint compound. Then, slide the gasket over the new element and screw (clockwise) the element into the tank.
  7. Turn on the water supply valve, then each of the hot-water faucets in the house until the water runs steadily.
  8. Reconnect the wires to the terminals. Restore the power and press the red reset button on the thermostat. Replace the insulation and the access panel.
heater element replacement - pipe joint compound - how to replace water heater element
Notice how the access panel has been opened, and the insulation moved to the side, to remove and replace the heater element.

Final Thoughts

Removing a heater element without an element wrench is easy if you have the correct know-how, tools, and replacement part. In fact, it’s kind of like changing a light bulb…with more steps.

Now that you know how to replace a water heater element, you’ll be able to quickly get your hot water back if the element ever goes out.

Call 1-Tom-Plumber

Don’t hesitate to contact us here or call us at 1-Tom-Plumber (1-866-758-6237) if you need help safely maintaining, repairing, or replacing your water heater.

1-Tom-Plumber’s certified team of plumbers and drain technicians respond immediately to any emergency plumbing, drain cleaning, or water damage problem. We also handle the excavation of underground water lines and sewer main lines. Our immediate-response team is available every day and night of the year, even on holidays.

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