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How To Replace An Electric Water Heater's Lower Heating Element

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Loss of adequate hot water from an electric water heater can be due to a problem with the lower heating element. The lower heating element kicks in once the upper heating element has already heated the top of the tank. Without the lower heating element working, the tank is only half heated and you run out of hot water far faster than normal.

Replacing the lower heating element doesn't require any electrical knowledge or highly specialized tools. But if you ever feel uncomfortable performing the task, stop where you are and call in a plumber for help.

Things You Need:

  • Hose
  • Screwdriver
  • Socket wrench
  • New lower heating element

Step 1: Drain the Tank and Access the Lower Heating Element

Turn off the electricity to the water heater at the circuit breaker. Shut off the valve on the water inlet pipe leading into the water heater. Attach a garden hose to the end of the drain valve and place the far end of the hose over a floor drain or sink drain. Turn on a nearby hot water faucet so that it will relieve pressure in your lines once the tank begins to drain.

Drain the tank by turning the drain valve and waiting until no more water is running out of the hose. Close the drain valve and remove the hose then turn off the hot water faucet before continuing.

Locate the access panel that leads to the lower heating element. Use a screwdriver to remove the fasteners holding the panel door in place. Set the panel door and fasteners aside.

Lift up the center portion of insulation in the access hole. Press that insulation up so that it is against the exterior water heater wall. Tape the insulation into place using electrical tape.

Use your screwdriver to pry up the tab on the plastic cover that is under the insulation but over the heating element. Set the plastic cover aside with the panel door and its fasteners.

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

Note the positioning of the wires attached to the lower heating element, then loosen the screws holding the wires in place. Use a socket wrench to twist the heating element until it is loose enough to pull out of its hole. Pull the lower heating element out of the water heater and dispose of the element.  

Insert the new lower heating element into the hole vacated by the old element. Twist into place using the socket wrench. Attach the wires to the correct terminals then tighten the screws to secure.

Press the plastic covering into place over the heating element. Carefully remove the tape from the insulation, making sure you don't rip the insulation, and press the piece back into its original positioning. Place the access panel door back on and secure with its fasteners.

Restore the electricity at the circuit breaker and the water supply at the inlet pipe. Give the tank adequate time to fill up completely and to potentially warm the water. Test to see if the water heater is now functioning properly. If you still have water supply issues, call a plumber.