How To Replace The Upper Heating Element In An Electric Water Heater

Electric water heaters can experience part failures over time that will cause your home to have inadequate or nonexistent supplies of hot water. A common cause of water heating difficulties is the upper heating element, which warms up the top portion of the water tank until it triggers a sensor that then moves the heating down to the bottom of the tank.

If you feel certain the upper heating element is the problem, changing out the part is a potential do-it-yourself task if you have some basic supplies.

What You Need:

  • Garden hose
  • Screwdriver
  • Electrical or painter's tape
  • Socket or heating element wrench
  • New upper heating element

Step 1: Access the Upper Heating Element

Shut off the power at the circuit breaker. Turn the shutoff valve on the water intake line by turning the valve in a clockwise direction.

Hook a garden hose up to the drain valve near the bottom of the water heater. Place the other end of the hose over a drain. Turn on a hot water faucet somewhere in your house to relieve pressure and then turn the drain valve. Allow at least half of the tank's water to drain out so that you can change the upper heating element. Turn off the drain valve, remove the hose, and turn off the hot water faucet.

Locate the access panel for the upper heating element. Use a screwdriver to remove the screws holding the panel in place. Pull the panel off and set the panel and its screws aside.

Look inside the access area and you will see insulation with the center piece cut into a flap. Pull that flap of insulation up and over so that it is flush with the exterior wall of the water heater. Secure the insulation flap to the heater using either electrical or painter's tape. 

Pull the tab on the plastic cover under the insulation then remove the cover and set the cover aside. You are now looking at the upper heating element.

Step 2: Remove the Old Element and Install the New Element

Pay attention to the orientation of the wires going into the element. Unhook the wires by loosening, but not removing, the abutting screws. Use a socket or heating element wrench to rotate the heating element in a counterclockwise direction until the element can pull free of the heater. Dispose of the old element.

Insert the new upper heating element into the appropriate hole in the water heater. Tighten in a clockwise direction using your wrench. Attach the wires in the proper terminals using the orientation you memorized earlier. Tighten the screws to hold the wires in position.

Snap the plastic cover into place over the heating element. Remove the tape holding the insulation onto the heater then push the insulation flap into place. Place the access panel door over the hole and attach with its screws.

Turn on the electricity at the breaker and restore water at the shut-off valve. Leave the water heater alone for a bit and then test to see if your water is heating properly. If you still don't have adequate or any hot water, call in a plumbing company to take a look at your unit.

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