How To Replace An Electric Water Heater Element

So you have the water hooked up, the toilet flushing, taps running, supplying the camp with oodles of fresh water, you’ve filled the electric water heater turned on the power switch and….then you turn on the hot water tap….and it’s cold.

“That’s OK” you say, “It’ll just take a couple of hours to heat the water. Sometimes these electric water heaters take a little while to heat the water.”

Three hours later, we still didn’t have hot water.

Check For Power

The first thing to do is check to make sure power to the electric hot water heater is turned on. It should have a separate switch.

If it’s on, and the fuses are OK for the electric hot water heater, then the next thing to do is make sure that the water supply pipe connections are all in proper order. If they are, then chances are good, you need a new element for your electric hot water heater.

As cottage repair jobs go, this one isn’t too bad. A replacement element for an electric hot water heater isn’t very much money, ours was under $25. It’s important to note, this repair was done to a 22 gallon electric hot water heater. It only has one element.

Some hot water heaters, especially larger ones, have two elements, one to heat the water and a second one to maintain the hot water in storage. One or both of them could be burned out. I suggest that if you have to replace one, replace both.

How I Replaced The Element In My Electric Water Heater

Please note, these directions are a little rough and ready, there are undoubtably better sources of info for this type of thing all over the internet. But this is how I did it:

1) Shut off the electricity to the hot water tank.

2) Shut off the water supply to the hot water heater tank.

3) Drain the hot water tank. Our water heater tank has a tap at the bottom of the tank that I screw the water hose to and run it outdoors.

4) In order to get the heater tank to drain fully, it is necessary to put air behind it. I have found the easiest way to do that is to remove the pressure relief valve from the top of the tank where it screws in to the tank. It is usually recessed a little, but it looks like a tap.

Once it’s out, the water will drain from the tank. Watch the amount of water coming out of the hose, it should be quite a bit, in our case, 22 gallons worth, yours could be bigger or smaller depending on the size of your electric water heater.

5) After the tank has drained, remove the protective panel from the front of the water heater tank. This exposes the thermostat where you can adjust the temperature of the water etc. It also is where the element is located. It is a round or hexagonal device with wires on the end of it and usually some electric info.

6) Using a screwdriver, loosen the screws connecting the two wires to the element and remove the screws. Take note of which wire goes where for hooking it back up. It may not matter, but for safety sake, ensure that by checking how it is hooked up before you remove the wires. Here is a picture of the end of the element where the wires are connected. This is what you will see in the side of the hot water tank.

7) Now comes the hard part….getting the element out. If you are lucky, you will have a deep socket wrench large enough to fit over the top of the element and you can simply unscrew it, or you will have an element wrench designed with that in mind.

But if you are like me, you won’t and you will be too impatient to wait for your buddy to arrive with his…..so what I did was take a straight screwdriver and a hammer and hit the element on the edge a couple of good whacks, to loosen it up, a couple more hits with the screwdriver and hammer in a counter clockwise direction and it came loose enough for me to unscrew it with my fingers. Voila…pull the element out to inspect it. In the absence of a water heater element wrench, and if you don’t like the hammer and screwdriver approach, sometimes you can get the element out using a large pair of channel-lock pliers.

Here is a picture of mine showing the two places where it froze and split. I’m keeping this as a reminder to make sure to get all the water out of the hot water tank in the fall.

8) If the element is destroyed, it might be split, like mine is in the picture, the end could be gone. I remember removing one that had no metal element left, it had rusted away over the time the water was disconnected.

Installing The New Element

9) Install the new hot water tank element in the reverse order to the above. Screw it in tight, remember you don’t want it to leak once the water is in the tank. Use the hammer and screwdriver method to tighten it, or if you are lucky, your buddy will have arrived by then with his element wrench and he will tighten it up for you.


10) Hook the wires back up the way they were on the end of the new element, replace the insulation and perhaps a plastic insert that might be there, and then the metal cover. There should be a reset button to press as well, usually located right above the element.

11) Using a wrench, tighten the pressure relief valve back up, make sure you get it tight, but not too tight…you don’t want to break anything. (don’t you love it when someone says, tight, but not “too tight” How the Hell do you know what that means…?????)

12) Turn the water supply valve to the tank back on, allowing the tank to refill with water. Wait until it is full before you turn the power back on to the element, otherwise you will probably burn out the new element.

13) Once the tank is full, turn the power on to the hot water heater.

14) Put your tools away, relax, have a drink.

15) Depending on the size of your tank, you should have hot water in a couple of hours minimum….go have a shower. You’re all sweaty from working…..

So what did I learn from this? I learned to be much more careful draining the hot water tank in the fall when I am winterizing the cottage. I learned that the key to getting the tank to drain fully is in removing the pressure relief valve fully, not just part way. It’s the best way I have found to ensure the tank drains completely.

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