Changing Electric Water Heater Element

If you have an electric water heater that isn’t heating, constantly tripping, or making a high pitch noise, you may need to change the element.

Disclaimer: I do not recommend anyone try this unless they have plumbing and electrical knowledge. Use your better judgement onsite, and call the plumber if needed.

If you live in Fayetteville, NC, and need a licensed plumber to come take a look, feel free to give me a call at (910)292-9870, or book online.

Tools needed: Voltage sensor or Multimeter, hose, phillips head screwdriver, element wrench

Check for Leaks

If your water heater is leaking, do not change the elements. Unfortunately, changing parts will not stop a leak. Once the tank is leaking, it’s time to replace the water heater.

Additionally, if the water heater is 10+ years old, keep in mind that it may need replaced soon. Consider whether it’s worth spending time and money on that water heater.

Turn off the Breaker

Electric Panel with Water Heater Turned Off

Turn off the breaker in the electric panel, which should be in the same room as the water heater. Alternatively, there could be a quick disconnect next to the water heater. In either case, disconnect and lock out the power to the electric water heater.

Here in Fayetteville, I often see the breaker for the water heater in the outside panel, rather than the inside sub panel.

You want some sort of power cutoff in the room you are working in so nobody accidentally turns the breaker back on while you’re working.

Verify that there is no power by using your voltage sensor or multimeter on the incoming cable.

Drain the Water Heater

Pump Draining Electric Water Heater

If the drain port is plastic, that means you have a ‘retail’ rather than ‘wholesale’ water heater, and you need to be very careful that it doesn’t pop off or break while you open and close the valve.

I use a pump because it’s faster, but here in Fayetteville, where water heaters are often above grade, a hose should work just fine. Run your hose out to the driveway, or somewhere lower than the water heater. Attach the hose to the drain port on the bottom of the water heater, and open the drain port valve. Wait until the water runs clear out of the hose, then close the ball valve on top of the water heater to stop the incoming cold water. Open up some faucets on the hot side only to allow air in (tubs work best).

Remove Cover

Removable Access Cover for Electric Water Heater

Remove the phillips head screw that holds the cover on the water heater. Water heaters are required to be serviceable, so if you had a licensed plumber install the water heater you should have no trouble accessing the cover. Remove the cover, fold up the insulation inside, and remove the white plastic protector to see the element.

Disconnect Wires

Double check that there’s no power to the element with your multimeter, then loosen each phillips head screw on the element. Once loosened, pull each wire out, and move them out of the way.

Wires Disconnected from electric water heater element

If you want to test the element, now is the time. Set your multimeter to ohms. You put one lead of your multi meter on each screw, and check your reading. Check the manufacturer, but most want to see 10.5. If you’re getting less, the elements are struggling. You can also check for continuity. Same process, but listen for the beep. If there is no beep, you the element is bad. If the issue is a singing element, no need to test them. Many plumbers don’t test the elements and just replace both (as well as the thermostats) while they’re at it.

Remove the Element

If your water heater is drained, or at least below the level of the element, you may now remove that element.

Element Wrench for electric water heater element removal

Place your element wrench over the element, and turn it to the left. Old elements can be difficult to get started. Once you’ve spun it loose, carefully pull the element out. Clean the threads where the new element will be installed.

Place this element aside, and pull the correct (upper or lower) element from the package. Be sure not to cross thread, and spin the element to the right until it is tight. Now you can put the wires back and snug them up. Repeat as needed with the other element.

Electric Water Heater Element

Refill the Tank

After the elements are installed, close the drain port at the bottom of the water heater, and open the ball valve on the top of the water heater. Do not turn power back on to the water heater. If you turn the power back on, the elements will break again. These elements are made to be submerged in water. If in contact with air, they will burn out.

Leave the hot side faucets open to let the air out. Tubs work best, because they do not have aerators that can clog from any sediment that may come from the water heater. Keep an eye on your element connections. Make sure there are no drips. If there are drips, you can try tightening them, but more likely than not the entire water heater will need to be replaced.

Once water is flowing through the hot side faucets in a steady stream, you can turn those faucets off. You can now replace the white plastic protector, insulation, and cover to the water heater. Turn the power back on. You should be able to hear the upper element hum, as it begins heating the water.


You just replaced your electric water heater element.

If this process is not in your wheelhouse, or if your water heater is leaking, feel free to give me a call. McSHea Plumbing services Fayetteville and Hope Mills, NC. Our phone number is (910)292-9870.

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