How to replace an electric water heater

Oh the joys of home ownership.  Yeah, that comment is laced in sarcasm.  Weekends like this one make me wish I had a “weekend” for my weekend.

My brother was in town for a couple days, and at some point months ago I was able to convince him to help me tinker with my water heater.  See, I had a 56 gallon water heater (it was pretty old) and I still couldn’t get enough hot water to fill a regular bathtub, or to take a shower longer than about 5 minutes.  So, after a bunch of research I figured that changing the upper/lower heating elements or replacing the dip tube might fix it right up– I thought it would be inexpensive too.

Unfortunately once we got started we noticed rust* along the top edge and a bulge in the metal casing.  That coupled with the fact that mine just looked plain O-L-D meant that it might not be worth paying for a new heating element in a water heater that really should be replaced.  So I bit the bullet and decided to just replace it now– hot showers were just too tempting.

*Rust indicates a leak somewhere– and that’s a really good sign that your water heater should be replaced.

No project is without its own issues, and this was no exception.  I’m going to walk you through the process so you hopefully don’t have the same issues as we did.

1. Find your cold-water turnoff and turn the knob to the right until no more water is entering the water heater.

2. Go to your Breaker Box and cut the power to your water heater.  Unhook the electrical connection to the water heater.

3. Hook a hose up to your drain valve and tighten.  We need to drain the water heater– this should actually be done at least once a year for the health of your water heater.

4. twist the drain valve to open the way for the water.  Open a hot-water faucet closest to your water heater to release a vacuum effect and watch the water drain out.

5. Wait for all the water (or as much as you can get) to drain out.

6. Unhook the hoses connected to the hot and cold water “nipples” on the water heater.  Use a hacksaw to cut through the PVC (or similar) pipe that serves as the overflow pipe.

7. Try not to bend the edges of the metal tray the water heater is likely sitting inside; use a dolly, 2×4’s to prop it up, or strong people to “bear hug” the thing out of it’s home.  Roll the thing on it’s edge so that it’s out of the way.

8. Clean the pan (if it’s dirty) and move the new water heater into place.

9. Use a wire brush to clean the threads of all open piping.

10. Use Teflon tape to wrap both the hot/cold “nipples” on the water heater and the pipes that bring the water into the space.  Wrap the teflon tape around 5 times around each one, making sure you’re wrapping it clockwise (if you wrap counterclockwise, the teflon tape will jam up and the threads won’t thread correctly).

11. Attach the new tubing between the wall/floor tubing and the nipples on the water heater.  Make sure that you’re connecting hot to hot and cold to cold.

12. Use PVC, and PVC cement/primer to attach a new overflow pipe.  Use a hacksaw to cut the PVC to size.  Allow the cement/primer 2 hours to fully dry.

13. Connect your electric wiring to the unit.  Black/black and red/white.  Make sure the ground wire is wrapped correctly.


15. Turn the cold-water valve back on to allow the water heater to fill up.

16. Make sure the tank fills completely.  Then “bleed” the system to get all the displaced air from the water heater out of the pipes.  Do this by opening warm water taps in the house.  Start at the top of the house and work down.  The crazy sputtering and dirty water that comes out is normal– eventually the air will work itself out.

17. When the tank is full and ALL the air is gone, then flip the breaker and cross your fingers. (If you turn on the power to the unit before it is COMPLETELY full of water and no air, you’re likely to blow out your heating elements– I would know, because that’s exactly what we did.  This will cause more frustration than it is worth, so just do it right the first time.)

18.  Give the tank approximately 30 minutes to start heating up the water.  Check a tap for warm water.

But, if you’re like me, you’ll turn the power to the unit before you bleed out the air, burn out the element, have no idea why you don’t have any warm water hours later, drive to Home Depot, get a tester, realize it’s not working, drain the heater again, pull out a completely fried heating element, drive back to Home Depot for a new element, install element but forget to attach the gasket, have serious leaking issues (think “waterfall”) for over an hour, figure out that you need a gasket, experience more waterfalls, get the element in without leaks, sop up the water mess with nearly all the towels in the house, and THEN finally get to fill the tank correctly, bleed the air, and turn the power on again.

We spent hours of unnecessary time, but we sure learned a lot about water heaters in the process.  It’s really not very difficult to replace a water heater– anyone can do it  Just make sure that you follow the directions carefully.

**Also, replacing an element is easy enough, but I don’t recommend trying it unless the tank is empty.  Waterfalls are meant to be outside, not in my laundry room.

So how was your weekend?  Hopefully not as eventful as mine.  Did you end up replacing any appliances unexpectedly?


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