How to Change a Heating Element for Hot Water Heaters

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In order to change a heating element of a hot water heater, the power will need to be turned off. Discover the dangers of changing a heating element with help from a master plumber and heating specialist in this free video on hot water heaters.

Part of the Video Series: Hot Water Heaters
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Video Transcript

If you ever notice your water heater to where it's not producing the hot water it used to produce, you get in, you take a five minute shower and then the water's gone, an electric water heater, typically this means that one of the elements has been burned out. In this process, it's not a complicated process, but it's one that if you're not comfortable with dealing with water and along those lines water and electricity is something that you should probably call a certified technician out. Probably eight or nine times out of ten it's going to be something that you'll find that you'll want to do that with, but we're going to go through the process here of what you have to do. First and foremost what you want to do is make sure the power is off to the water heater, this is really, really important. To do that you go out to your breaker box and you select the breaker that says "Hot Water", if you don't see one that says "Hot Water", you go to your double pole or 220 breakers, if you understand, and you flip them off one at a time and check your power inside. It's really important, if you can't find it, don't mess with it because you might hurt yourself, it can be very dangerous, you're dealing with water and electricity again, it's a bad combination. And then once you've got that shut off double check yourself, make sure that it's off. To do that what you do is there's many different kinds of meters, I have one like this one. Some of them are simple, got a little dial on them, and basically all you're doing is checking for 240 volts in the system. To start this what we do is open the door and get in. You'll notice that after we remove this safety cover here there'll be some insulation in here that you'll want to just kind of carefully pick out. It's one little piece that's made to be picked out, but you don't want to just reach your hands in there because there could be live wires back in there and it's very important that you don't latch hold of it until you know for sure that you don't have power. So we carefully pull this out, this one has two little pieces as you can see. And we come in, there's a little plastic cover on this one as well. This is where I check typically for power is down here on this is what's called the "upper element", this is on the topside of the tank. When you're changing one of these out or you've got the scenario that we just spoke about, say you've got a ten minute shower, it's typically the bottom element is the one that's burned out, so I would go directly there first if you are actually changing this one out and we have a ten minute shower scenario. So we're going to put our meter on and check to see that we have no power at this element. Another place that I like to check, because there's two in these systems, I don't see any here, sometimes this upper thermostat will transfer power down to the lower thermostat and you won't have power up here if the tank's already hot, or getting hot I should say, medium warm. The next thing I do is carefully grab hold of that plastic at the top and peel it, don't reach around it because there's electrical wires right behind it, you'll see them as you get in there. Next thing we check is these top two, and if you've got "0" there you don't have any power, so we should be good to go with this one. I'm going to show you a couple of different processes, one will be testing the element to see if it's actually good by using OHM's, the other will be to show you how to get a tool on it to get the element itself out. So what we do first to test this, we have to disconnect at least one of the leads because you don't want any resistant going through anything else but this. There are two things that you are checking for on this. You turn your meter to "OHM's" and what you have here is a resistance of 12.8. A normal water heater element that's a 4500 watt, 240 volt, will be right in this range if it's in perfect working order, between 11 and 14, 14 being on the high side. If it's anything less than that it's probably going to go out if it hasn't gone out. The other thing that you need to check for when you do this is one test lead to one of the pins on the thing and the other to the tank itself. If you get continuity here you have a grounding problem, that means the element has burned out. I always check it to both just because I'm here in and I can do it, because sometimes you will get a false reading across this. This tank here is actually in perfect working order and it's coming out just perfectly how it's supposed to be. So that's how you check for OHM's in the elements, both elements upper and lower are the same way in checking them. Now in the process of changing an element out obviously the first thing that you need to do is shut the water off to your water heater. What I do, and particularly in hard water situations, what I do is put my hose on down below here to your valve. There are different kinds of valves that you'll see on these, there's a plastic one, one that will rotate, it's a big knob and it rotates just like a valve in it opens up. Typically what you'll do with that one is just thread your hose on and kind of work it and make it work that way. It takes a little bit of finagling by twisting your hose, as you twist this on and you twist that out, you'll see how it works as you work it. This one right here what we do is twist it like this. What I do is go ahead and put the hose on, and then you can see our little knob here, this one has a screwdriver slot, you need to make sure that you have a big enough one because if you use a small one what you'll do is twist that little piece of brass out. Brass is softer than your screwdriver, I promise you, and it will become a mess for you and you'll twist that valve up and you'll have to call a guy like me. Next thing you do, make sure you leave your water on, make sure your power is off once again, and make sure you've got water flow, good water flow, especially in hard water because if you shut this off and try to drain it before there may be some sediment in there that will plug your opening and make a mess of it. So you want to make sure that you've got good flow before you shut your water off. After you make sure you've got your good flow out of your hose and you've blown out any sediment that may be there, is you shut your water off up at the top, which is this valve here. Now once again, I'm going to come back to power. Now you're draining your tank. If you have left the power on, the elements are not made for air, they will pop and it sounds like a shotgun going off. It doesn't happen instantaneously but it will scare you. Anyway, we're on to that, we've got the tank draining, you go ahead, you let it drain out. It takes a tank like this which is an 80 gallon electric, can take as much as an hour. So it's just a patience, it's not rocket science, walk away, have a cup of coffee, eat a cookie, whatever you want to do, let it drain out. Then you come back after it's all empty, said and done, and what you do is you make sure that all the wires are off of the element itself, and this is something, as you can see, the element's kind of back in there and it's kind of hex-shaped. Typically it takes a special tool to do this, you don't want to put a pair of channel locks on there, you'll end up in a mess. So it's something that you need like a big socket wrench, it is an inch and a half and this is particularly what I use, a breaker bar socket wrench. It works well, this is a tool I use only for this one job, and this is how it works. Basically you get it stuck on there and you give it a twist, and that's the first start out. Now, when it comes to changing out your lower element we're going to back up a little bit. There is a process that you can use to where you don't necessarily have to drain the whole tank out. I personally, I don't know if there's a technical term for it or not, but I call it "the hiccup process". What we do is we go down to the lower element, we do what we've done with the valve up here. We've shut the water off, we go ahead and shut all the valves in the house to make sure, but we've let the pressure off the water heater either at a faucet by turning it on and then shutting it off or your temperature and pressure relieve valve which is on top of the tank here, you can also do. You pull that lever up and let the pressure off, a little bit of water will come out, but not much, and then the pressure's gone, close the valve. Next thing you do is prep your new element. When I say "prep" there's two parts to this element. Although it looks like one solid piece here it is here, but you have a very important rubber gasket that needs to be put on previous to that. If you forget that part you're going to get wet. So you make sure that that's on there, make sure it's good and not twisted because that will leave you in a mess as well, and it's ready to go. The next thing you do is go ahead and twist your element to the point where it starts twisting with your fingers. What you've done by emptying this out and turning the faucet on is create an air bubble inside down below and it's kind of in a vacuum. So what you do is you thread it out with your hand quickly, you pull it and it will have a hiccup bubble to where it's kind of sucking some air and then it will bubble out some water and then it will suck some air again. But in that process if you're prepped and ready, you'll pull this one out and stuff that one in. I have to make you aware, sometimes these elements, when they're bad they're broken, completely disconnected and dismembered. You have to give them a jerk and tug after you get them out just to get them out, don't be shy to get it out, you're not going to hurt anything. Get it out, and get the other one in, thread it, and you're in there, all you do is seal it back up. In that process you may lose a gallon, if you're practiced at it. If it sounds like something you don't want to attempt, once again, call a certified technician and somebody like me can come out and take care of you. Or you can just drain the tank down completely to empty and go that process and that's your safest without doing this. This will potentially damage your home if you're not aware of what's happening here, so that's why I'm giving you that as just kind of a tip, it's something that I use every now and again to get it done. Now that we've replaced the element, sometimes our screws aren't in the same position as they were before, so sometimes you've got to stretch the wires around and get a little set of pliers on there just to get them because the wires are sometimes just a little tougher than what they are. You put your cover back on. I typically start with the top screw just because it hangs nicely but I don't tighten it all the way in, I just get it kind of in there, and then I come to the bottom one and I find the hole, go ahead and get the screw started, and then I tighten the bottom one down all the way.


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