Water Heater Heating Element 101

Water Heater Heating Element 101

The heating element is the heart of your water heater, responsible for actually heating the water in the tank. When it fails, you’re left with frustratingly lukewarm showers. This article provides a comprehensive look at water heater heating elements – what they are, how they work, why they fail, how to test them, and how to replace them yourself.

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways:

  • A water heater element is a metallic rod that heats water in the tank when electric current passes through it. It’s usually made of copper, nickel, or stainless steel.
  • Sediment buildup, high-voltage surges, dry firing, defective thermostat, and corrosion are common causes for a bad heating element.
  • Signs of a defective heating element include no hot water, slow heating, strange noises, and circuit breaker tripping repeatedly.
  • You can test a heating element electrically with a multimeter. A good element will show 10-16 ohms resistance.
  • Replacing a heating element involves shutting off power and water, draining the tank, disconnecting and removing old elements, installing new one, and refilling the tank.
  • Regular maintenance like draining sediment, inspecting anode rod, and testing T&P valve can extend the lifespan of a heating element.

Read Also: Water Heater Parts

What Is A Water Heater Heating Element and How Does It Work?

Water Heater Heating Element

A water heater element on an electric water heater is responsible for heating water stored in the tank. It’s a metallic rod made of copper, nickel, or stainless steel, encased in a protective sheath often made of magnesium or zinc. 

You should screw the heating element into the water heater, and the element has a gasket slide over the shaft. The gasket creates a seal between the head and the water heater. 

When you turn on the electric supply to the unit, the electric current passes through the heating element. And the resistance from the metal converts the electric energy into heat energy. This process continues until the water reaches the set point on the thermostat. 

Typically, the heating element is immersed in the water within the tank. As a result, the heating element can transfer heat efficiently. 

The size and wattage of the heating element will determine how quickly and efficiently it can heat the water. A heating element with greater wattage can heat the water more quickly. However, several factors, for example, sediment buildup and the quality of the insulation, can affect the heating efficiency of the heating element. 

What Causes A Water Heater Element To Go Bad?

Rusted water heater heating element

Sediment buildup, high-voltage surges, and dry firing are responsible for a defective heating element. 

Sediment Buildup

Over time, the water you use to heat up in a tank can leave behind some minerals that stick to the bottom of the tank and the heating element. These mineral deposits make it harder for the heat to transfer, which means the heating element has to work longer to heat up the water. This extended exposure to high temperatures can cause the heating element to overheat and wear out more quickly.


Heating elements, which are made of materials like copper, nickel, or stainless steel, can get damaged when they come in contact with water. This damage is known as corrosion and it can make the heating element weaker, causing it to leak or break.

High Voltage Surges

When there are fluctuations or sudden surges in the electric supply, the heating element may receive a higher voltage than it can handle. This can cause the heating element to become electrically shorted or damaged internally.

Dry Firing

The tank should be full of water when operating the water heater. If you operate the unit with inadequate water, it could cause the heating element to dry fire. It means the heating element will heat up water without being immersed in water. Dry firing can cause overheating and lead the heating element to burn out. 

Defective Thermostat

If your hot water system is overheating, it may be caused by a broken thermostat. The thermostat is in charge of regulating the heating element and making sure it turns on and off as needed. However, if the thermostat is not working properly, it can’t keep track of when the heating element is on, which can cause it to overheat and even burn out.

Bad Water Heater Element Symptoms

How do I know if the water heater element is bad? Here are some signs that indicate the thermostat is not functioning correctly: 

  • No hot water: The heating element is responsible for heating water. If the heating element is not functioning properly, it won’t heat water as intended. As a result, you will get no hot water from your water heater. 
  • Slow Heating: If it takes longer to get hot water from the water heater, I bet the thermostat is not working correctly. Sediment buildup, corrosion, loose wiring will affect the efficiency of the heating element. 
  • Strange Noises: Unusual noises like popping or rumbling sound can be a sign of sediment buildup on the heating element. The sediment buildup will create air pockets that can cause those noises as the water heats up. 
  • Breaker Keeps Tripping: If the water heater keeps tripping the circuit breaker, I bet the heating element is at fault. You can read this article- Rheem Water Heater Keeps Tripping Breaker to explore the reasons behind it. 

How To Test A Water Heater Element?

Testing a water heater heating element
Testing the water heater heating element

Test the heating element electrically to determine if it’s at fault. Try these steps below to check the heating element electrically: 

  • Turn off the electric supply to your water heater at the circuit breaker.
  • Unscrew the upper access panel by using a Phillips head screwdriver. 
  • Remove the insulation and the plastic protective cover to expose the heating element. 
  • Verify that there is no power at the unit by using the multimeter. 
  • Set the digital multimeter to the lowest setting. Touch the probes to the screws on the heating element. 
  • A healthy heating element should give a reading between 10 to 16 ohms of resistance. If not, understand the heating element is at fault. 

Note: Follow the same steps to test the lower heating element. 

Water Heater Element Replacement: A Step-By-Step Instruction

Once you verify that the heating element is at fault by testing it, you must replace the heating element to get hot water. The following steps will help you replace the heating element like a charm: 

  • Turn off the electric supply to the water heater at the circuit breaker. Then, shut off the water supply to the unit. 
  • Using a Phillips head screwdriver, unscrew either the upper or the lower access panel (depending on the heating element you are going to replace). Then, remove the insulation and take out the plastic protective cover. 
  • Ensure that there is no electric power to the unit using a multimeter. 
  • Attach a garden hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the unit and place the other end to the nearest floor drain. You can also read this guide to learn how to drain Richmond Water Heater. You should drain water below the point of the heating element. If you are going to replace the upper heating element, you should empty half of the tank. On the other hand, you should drain the entire tank when replacing the lower heating element. 
  • Disconnect the wires attached to the heating element. 
  • Use a 1 ½” element wrench to unscrew and remove the heating element from the unit. 
  • Install the new heating element into the water heater tank. Verify that the new heating element matches the old one. 
  • Once you install the heating element, tighten it up until it’s snug. 
  • Reconnect the wires to the heating element. 
  • Replace the plastic protective cover, insulation, and the access panel cover. 
  • Restore the power to the heating element and refill the tank with water. After about an hour, you will get hot water. 

Related: Richmond Water Heater Element Replacement

Water Heater Element Replacement Cost

Replacing a heating element in your water heater can cost you between $200 to $300. But the heating element itself is not that expensive, ranging from $20 to $50. However, the actual cost of replacement may vary depending on the type, brand, and model of your water heater, as well as the labor costs in your area. Additionally, the total cost may increase if there are any additional repairs or services required.

Maintenance Tips To Extend The Lifespan of Water Heater Elements

Performing regular maintenance will prolong the lifespan of the heating element. Here are some maintenance practices you can apply to extend the lifespan of the heating element: 

Flush the tank regularly

Minerals coming with the water supply can cause a buildup at the bottom of the tank. And the sediment buildup acts as insulation, causing the heating element to run longer to heat water. Consequently, it can cause overheating and burn out the heating element. 

To avoid this issue, flush the tank regularly to clear the sediment buildup. Depending on the hardness of the water in your area, I recommend you flush the tank once a year or twice. You can read this article to learn How To Drain Richmond Water Heater. The procedure will be the same for every tank water heater. 

Inspect the Anode Rod & Replace If Required

An anode rod sacrifices itself by absorbing corrosion from the water to protect the tank and the heating element. If the anode rod deteriorates, it can’t protect the heating element from corrosion. To avoid this issue, you should check the anode rod once a year and replace it if required. It will help extend the lifespan of the heating element and its efficiency. 

Operate The T&P Valve Manually

Test the T&P valve periodically to ensure that the valve is working properly. A defective temperature and pressure relief valve can build up excessive pressure in the tank, which can lead to damaging the heating element or other components.

To operate the T&P valve, lift the lever on the valve to release a small amount of water. If you fail to close or open the valve, you should replace it professionally. 


Can you replace a water heater element yourself?

Yes, you can replace a water heater element yourself. However, it requires a certain level of skill and precaution. Fortunately, I already described the step-by-step procedure to replace a heating element. Follow those steps and have the heating element replaced like a pro. 

Are water heater heating elements universal?

No, water heater heating elements are not universal or interchangeable. Heating elements come with different sizes and shapes to fit different water heater models. Besides, each water heater has a different voltage and wattage rating to meet the requirements of a certain model. 

How do I know which water heater element I need?

Check the manual of your water heater for specifications of the heating element. You will get every information about the heating element like the part number, voltage & wattage rating, length, diameter, and material. You can also check the existing heating element to know the part number of the heating element. Finally, contact the manufacturer support team to verify which heating element you need for your specific water heater model. 

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