How to Repair an Electric Tank Water Heater

How to Repair an Electric Tank Water Heater
September 13, 2012 Lorelie

You may be wondering who used up all the hot water in the house?  You’d be surprised to find out that nobody had taken a hot shower or used any hot water in the house all day.  Maybe your electric water heater needs some fixing.  Once you know how it works and how to diagnose its common problems, you can fix it and save some money.

If in case you find out that your electric tank water heater unit stops heating water as fast as it did when it was new, or it looks like it runs out of water much quickly, chances are that one of the two heating elements inside the tank has a malfunction.  Or, it could be that there is an electrical problem such as a faulty thermostat or a simple reset button which needs to be pushed; however, it is most likely that the culprit is one of the heating elements.  With basic and easy-to-use tools, you can change these elements yourself and save you the trouble of having to call a repairman which can unnecessarily cost you some money.

Things that You Will Need:

  • Multi-meter
  • Digital camera
  • ½-inch drive socket wrench and sockets
  • ¼-inch drive socket wrench and sockets
  • Small screwdriver
  • Garden hose
  • Pencil
  • Notepad



  1. Turn off the electricity to the water heater unit at the home’s main load center by means of flipping the appropriate circuit breaker to the off position.
  2. Turn off the water supply to the tank by means of turning the handle on the valve on the cold water inlet pipe to the heater.
  3. Open the two access panels located in the side of the water heater unit by removing the small retaining screws with the appropriate flat screwdriver or small Phillips.  Remove the insulation that is inside the access panels to reveal the thermostats and electrical elements mounted on the inside of the tank.  The electrical element is the part that has a huge hexagonal head with two electrical wires attached to threaded posts protruding from the head.
  4. Connect the garden hose to the drain fitting at the tank bottom and route the end of the hose outside to a well-situated floor drain lower than the bottom of the water heater unit.
  5. Open up the drain valve and then empty the water heater.  The drainage will be facilitated by turning on the hot water faucet that is nearest to the water heater unit in order to let the air into the top of the tank as the water drains out.

Electrical Testing:

  1. Shoot a close-up digital photo of each of the access panels as well as the electrical hook-ups inside.  The wiring may look simple, but in case you become confused, you will surely be able to ensure that you are correctly re-hooking up the wires when re-assembling as long as you refer to the photo you have just taken.
  2. Set up the selector switch on the multi-meter to 250V-AC setting.  After that, touch each of the electrical connections on the head of the heater element with one of the two probes from the multi-meter.  Either probe can be placed on either electrical connection.  Check the reading on the display or meter, it should be zero.  This ensures you that the electricity to the elements is really turned off.
  3. Simply remove the two electric wires from the heating element head by means of unscrewing the nuts on the connector posts using a ¼-inch socket wrench and the correct size of socket.
  4. Set up the selector switch on the multi-meter to the “ohms” configuration.  Touch one of the multi-meter probes to each of the electrical posts on the end of the water heater element.  If the ohms reading still stays zero, then this means that it is a defective element.  If you think that neither element is defective, call for professional assistance.  This indicates that something is amiss other than burnt-out heater elements and the repair will require someone with special training and equipment in order to diagnose water heater problems.

Removal of Elements:

  1. Use a ½-inch drive socket wrench that is fitted with an appropriately-sized socket to unscrew the defective heating element from the tank and take it out.
  2. On a notepad or paper, write down the make, model and serial number of the water heater.
  3. Bring the note and the old heater element to a hardware store or plumbing supply store.  There are heater elements for many models and brands of water heaters that are interchangeable, but it would be wise to bring with you the specific information of your own water heater unit and the old element as it would ensure that you are getting the proper replacement items.

Reassembling the Heater Element:

  1. Insert the new heating element into the tank and then tighten it firmly.  Ensure that you are using the new gasket or O-ring that comes with the replacement elements.
  2. Re-attach the electrical connections and then replace the access panels and insulation.
  3. Turn off the bottom drain outlet and then open the cold water inlet valve, which leaves the hot water faucet in the sink that is nearest to the water heater unit in the open position.
  4. Let the water heater tank to refill and wait until there is an uninterrupted flow of water that comes out of the open sink faucet.  After that, shut it off.
  5. Turn on the electricity to the water heater unit at the circuit breaker box.  At most, the water inside the water heater tank should get hot in about one hour.

The steps mentioned above are simple yet effective tips on how to repair your electric water heater.  Due to the fact that electric water heater units are simple in operation, a few things can go wrong with them, and the solutions are easy.   If you are still unsure or you do not want to mess with your water heater unit, you can always call a professional for help.  It may cost you some money, but you will be assured that your water heater unit is properly diagnosed of its potential problems and the right ways on how to fix it are carried out.

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