Here’s how to replace the heat element in your water heater

If your water heater’s heating element fails, you’re going to be left without hot water. But, a failed heating element doesn’t necessarily mean you need to replace the entire water heater. In this article, we’ll outline the steps for installing a new heating element and getting your water heater back up-and-running again.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the DIY process for replacing the heating element in your home’s standard water heater. As you can probably tell from the complexity of the instructions below, DIY water heater repair isn’t for everyone. If, at any point, you don’t feel comfortable with the process, you need to stop and call one of our plumbers. We’d be happy to help you out.

Before you get started

Before you get started, make sure you have the following tools: 1) a water heater element wrench, 2) a multimeter, 3) both a Phillips and flathead screwdriver, and 4) a garden hose. Obviously, you’ll also want to have a new heating element to replace the old one with, but you should also order a heating element rubber gasket, since there’s a good chance that your current one has deteriorated and needs to be replaced.

Start by taking safety precautions

Before you do anything, you’ll need to turn off the power to your water heater, first at the knob and then at the circuit breaker. As a homeowner, you should have a multimeter handy for testing whether or not circuits are live—you’ll want to use it here. Few homeowners ever reset the circuit for their water heater, so it’s possible that the exact circuit might be mislabeled in your breaker box. When in doubt, check with a multimeter.

Next, you’ll need to drain the tank. Start by shutting off the water intake valve—this will ensure that no additional water comes into the tank while you’re working on it. There are two ways to go about flushing out your water heater.

The first is to attach a garden hose and run it somewhere outside. This is perhaps the easiest method. The second is to position a large bucket beneath the drain valve. This can be trickier, since many water heaters have the drain valve positioned relatively low to the ground.

You might be familiar with this process if you’ve drained your water heater previously or replaced the water heater pressure-relief valve.

To ensure the water heater is fully drained before you move forward, run the hot water tap in your kitchen. This will ensure any remaining water is removed from the system before you proceed.

Related: Check out our water heater buying guide

Putting in the next heating element

Now that you’ve removed the current heating element, it’s time to put in the new one. When you were removing the old one, you probably encountered the rubber gasket—or, at least, what remained of it after years of use. Go ahead and position the gasket so that it forms a tight seal between the element and the tank.

Running your water heater element wrench clockwise, install the new heating element. We recommend you start by hand-tightening it, and then using the wrench to tighten it just a little further. You need to find a happy medium here: you don’t want to overtighten (which will make getting this heating element off much harder next time), but you also don’t want the element to be too loose, which can result in leaks. Use your best judgment.

Watch: Replacing a water heater’s heating element

Check out this video to see what replacing a water heater’s heating element looks like.

Refill and test your work

Your new heating element should now be securely in place. Check to make sure the drain valve is closed at the bottom of the tank, and then turn on the cold water intake. Go to your kitchen and turn on the hot water faucet. This will allow air to escape as the water heater fills.

It goes without saying, but if you notice any leakage around the heating element, you need to immediately turn off the intake, drain the water heater, and start over again. You don’t want any water escaping the tank.

Assuming that your tank has filled without any issues, refer to the photo you took earlier to safely reconnect all the wiring between the heating element and the water heater’s panel. If you didn’t happen to take a picture, and you’re not sure which wire goes where, immediately stop and call our plumbers. You don’t want to put the wrong wires in the wrong places.

If you’re sure the wires are successfully reconnected, turn back on the power to the system at both the circuit breaker and on the system itself. You’ll want to let everything sit and warm up for about an hour or two before you test to see if there’s any hot water coming from the system. With any luck, your system will be leak-free and bringing you hot water.

Should you replace the heating element, or just buy a new water heater?

Ultimately, this is going to come down to just how old your water heater is, what kind of condition its in, and whether or not the extra years of operation outweigh the cost of the heating element itself. Standard water heaters, generally speaking, are a relatively inexpensive appliance, even when installed by professional plumbers.

Before you start on the steps listed above, you might want to consider giving Wagner a call to get the opinion of our plumbers. Based on the age of your water heater, we’ll be able to advise you on whether or not replacing the heating element is a good idea, or just buying you a year or two—at best.

If you do need a new water heater, Wagner is the local team you’ll want to talk to. We install both standard and tankless water heaters here in Albuquerque. Our experienced plumbers are ready to help with everything your home needs, including water heater replacement.