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How to Easily Replace a Water Heating Element

Justice is currently an engineering student and has a passion for doing DIY projects and gardening.

Electric geyser for heating water

Electric geyser for heating water

No one wants to see their water heater break, but when it does, it can seem like an impossible problem to fix. Luckily, the process of replacing a heating element in your water heater can be relatively simple if you know what you’re doing and have the right tools on hand.

The following guide will walk you through how to quickly and easily replace your water heating element without draining the tank, resulting in much less downtime and not much more effort than dealing with the broken element!

Replacing a Hot Water Heater Element

If your water heater is more than 10 years old, it's probably time to start thinking about replacing the heating element. Water heaters usually have a life expectancy of about 6 to 10 years. So it is important to replace your water heater during that estimated time frame before you start to experience any problems.

This will save you money in the long run on things such as repair costs and you will spend less money on monthly energy expenses because the new versions of water heaters are more energy efficient.

Checking Your Water Heater Heating Element

Before going ahead and changing your water heater heating element, it is important to check if your element has any defects. It's not uncommon to try and switch out an element in order to resolve a problem only to find out that the original problem had nothing to do with the heating element at all.

One of the first things to do is to make sure the circuit breaker is in the on position. The breaker might be functioning, so if that checks out, you'll need to look into the reset button on the cutoff switch.

In order to find the reset button on a water heater, you'll need to take the thermostat out of the access panel on the upper side of the heater. It's typically a red button. The heating element is probably the issue if you press the button reset and the water heater trips once again.

Heating Element Style

There are two types of heating elements: screw-in and immersion. Screw-in elements have one or two screws that hold them in place, while immersion elements are held in place by a nut.

To replace a screw-in element, simply unscrew the old element and screw in the new one.

To replace an immersion element, you'll need to remove the power supply first. Once the power is off, remove the old element and screw in the new one.

You may need to add pipe dope or thread sealant before tightening the nuts holding it in place. If not, tighten it firmly but don't over tighten because they can break easily. If your unit has a cartridge style water heater, you will also need to swap out any corroded parts like anode rods before turning the power back on.

Heating Element Location

The heating element is located at the bottom of the water heater tank. To access it, you'll need to remove the metal plate that covers the bottom of the tank. Once you've removed the plate, you'll see the heating element. Remove the wire connectors from the old heating element. Pull out any insulation on top of the old element and discard it.

Remove any sediment on top of the old heating element with your hand or a brush. Wrap electrical tape around both ends of each wire connector (to avoid sparking). Slide each wire connector over one end of the new heating element and tighten screws to attach them securely in place.

Types of Water Heater Elements

There are 3 types of water heating elements:

  • High watt density heating element
  • Low watt density heating element
  • Lime life element

High Watt Density Heating Element

A high watt density heating element is a type of electric resistance heater. These are the most common type of water heater element and are used in tanks that hold up to 50 gallons of water. They are also the easiest type of element to replace.

Corrosive buildup and shorter life expectancy are associated with high watt density elements. You can expect these things to be the cheapest of the three types.

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Low Watt Density Heating Element

Areas with hard water benefit from the use of low watt density elements. Many designs have a fold back feature, which provides more heating space. Despite the lower watt density, there is no deterioration in efficiency. This works by helping reduce the amount of lime that is build-up as a result of having hard water.

If you have the same wattage and voltage, you can replace a high watt density bulb with a low watt density element. Due to their significantly greater expense, these elements will most often be more expensive than the high watt density items discussed earlier.

Lime Life Element

The Lime Life Element is an important part of your water heater. It helps prevent corrosion and scale build-up on the heating element.

These elements have a five year warranty and include all premium parts. Nickel and stainless steel are used in the construction of lime life elements, so lime scale cannot form on the surface.

The elements are excellent if you live in an area where water levels fluctuate frequently, since they are resistant to dry firing. It is generally the most expensive element, but it typically outlives the water heater.

What You Will Need

You'll need a few supplies before you get started:

  • A new water heating element
  • Phillips head screwdriver
  • Garden hose
  • Voltage tester
  • An adjustable wrench
  • Plus, it's always helpful to have a bowl or bucket on hand in case you need to catch any water that might drip out when you're removing the old element.

How to Replace The Heating Element

Step 1: Turn OFF the Power

The first step is always to turn off the power. In this case, you'll need to shut off the power to the water heater. Locate the circuit breaker or fuse box that controls the power to the water heater and switch it off. If you're not sure which one it is, it's always better to err on the side of caution and switch off all the power in your home. Once the power is off, you can proceed with replacing the water heating element.

Step 2: Connect a Hose to the Drain Valve

If your water heater doesn't have a dedicated drain valve, you can attach a garden hose to the cold water inlet valve. Once the hose is attached, open the valve to allow the water to start draining. Place the other end of the hose in a bucket or sink to catch the water.

Step 3: Turn OFF the Water

The third step is to turn off the water to the tank. You'll find the shut-off valve on the cold water line coming into the tank. Once the water is off, open a hot water faucet somewhere in the house to release any pressure in the tank. If there's no pressure release valve, you can just wait for the tank to cool down before proceeding.

Step 4: Remove the Access Panel Cover

Assuming your water heater has an accessible panel, it needs to be removed. Most covers are either screwed or bolted on, so use the appropriate tool to take it off. If there are any wires or plumbing attached to the cover, disconnect them before removing the cover completely. Once the cover is off, you should be able to see the heating element.

Step 5: Remove the Heating Element

Now that the power is off, you can remove the heating element. First, unscrew the retaining nuts at the top of the element using a wrench. Next, pull the heating element out of the tank. Finally, clean off any sediments that are on the threads of the heating element so that the new one will screw in easily. Once the old element has been removed, wipe down the inside of the tank with a cloth dipped in vinegar or white vinegar for an extra sanitizing step.

Step 6: Install the New Heating Element

Now that the old heating element is out, it's time to install the new one. Start by putting the heating element into the socket. Then, using the screws that came with the new element, screw it into place. Once it's secure, you can reattach the wires. Finally, turn on the power and test the new element by running hot water through it.

Step 7: Refill the Tank

  • Once the new element is in place, it's time to refill the tank.
  • First, turn off the power to the unit.
  • Next, open the cold water supply valve and let the tank fill until the water level reaches the top of the heating element.
  • Once the tank is full, turn on the power to the unit and wait for it to heat up. You may need to bleed air from the line if there is any present.
  • Finally, check for leaks around the new element and make sure everything is tight.

Turn off the power to the unit and replace all of your tools. Close your storage box carefully so that you don't get dust or dirt into your new hot water heater. Open both faucets in your home (one at a time) until all air bubbles have been cleared out of the system. Then close them again, turn on both hot and cold valves, then take a shower or wash dishes!

Electricity and water do not mix well. If you do not feel comfortable working with them, contact a qualified plumber. Always prioritize safety.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Justice Ndlovu

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