Water Heater Element Replacement Without the Mess!

My son taught me how to replace a water heater element without the mess of all that water that usually comes gushing out all over the floor.

We had a situation at one of the rentals recently wherein the tenant had hot water for only a few minutes whenever she took a shower. I called my son, James, – the plumber – and his answer was “the bottom water heater element is bad. I can fix it this afternoon if you get the parts and meet me there”.

I went to the house and pulled the cover off the lower side of the water heater to make sure what the wattage of the heating element was and verify the element was bad.

I disconnected the power, of course, and verified it was off by using my trusty voltage sensor.

Sure enough, there was no reading across the heating element.


The water heater element was 4500 watts with screw terminals and it was a screw in type. A little easier to change than the four bolt flange style. I used the ohm meter to check the water heater element and sure enough it was bad.

So, off to the big box.

Notice the two different lengths on these heaters. It’s important to measure the width of your water heater. I like to do repair jobs just once and correctly the first time.

When I got back to the house, I saw that the plumber had already arrived. He is such a good son. Here is what he did:

  • He had already disconnected the electric from the water heater element. A special wrench is required to get the old element out.
  • He turned off the water supply at the valve on top of the tank.
  • Turned on a faucet in the nearest room. In this case it was the kitchen. This creates a slight vacuum in the tank.
  • Working rapidly, he unscrewed the old water heater element and took it out.
  • Inserted the new element in the hole.
  • Tightened the element down.
  • Reconnected the wires.
  • Turned off the faucet in the kitchen.
  • Opened the valve on top of the water heater.
  • Ran the hot water to make sure there was no air trapped in the tank.
  • Everything looked okay with the water so he checked to make sure there is 220 volts on the leads connected to the heating element; and
  • Turned the electricity back on

Using this slight vacuum technique, there should be almost nothing to clean up. There was less than a 1/4 cup of water that leaked out on the above job and onto the towel on the floor. A wet or dry vacuum is also a good clean up tool.

Checking the Temperature and Pressure Valve

While you are working on the water heater, this is a good time to check the T and P (temperature and pressure) valve. This safety valve operates ONLY when the pressure or pressure inside the tank gets too high. There should be a pipe connected to the bottom of this safety device that extends to within 4 inches of the floor.

The picture to the left is a picture of a typical T and P valve.

Some building code departments require this pipe to extend to the outside of the home. Lift the lever at the end of the valve and water should flow out the drain. Release the lever and the water flow should stop. If this doesn’t happen, replace the valve.

The picture to the right is a picture of a T and P replacement valve.


The drain valve at the bottom of the tank should be connected to a hose on an annual basis to clean out any sediment from the bottom of the tank. I usually turn off the electricity and let the water pressure clean out the tank.

FINAL NOTE: There are some water heaters on the market that claim to be sediment free. They have a fill pipe that curves around the bottom to stir up the water. The only thing is, I can’t figure where the sediment goes.
And remember, water heaters sit in the corner and require little maintenance until we have little to no hot water, then they become very important and require immediate attention.

Dave Altman

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