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What is a Water Heater Element?

By Troy Holmes
Updated May 16, 2024
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A water heater requires a heater element to warm the water within the cylinder unit. The water heater element is a metal rod that heats the water within the water heater canister. The metal rod becomes hot by using electricity, which causes the surrounding water to become heated.

Most heater elements are made from either metal or ceramic material. A ceramic water heater element is more efficient then a metal unit. This type of element is less prone to corrosion, which is more prevalent in areas with hard water.

The water heater element is typically engaged by a thermostat controller. When the water temperature within the canister drops below the predefined thermostat setting, the heater element is engaged with an electrical current. This current causes the metal rod to become red hot, which heats the surrounding water.

Replacing a water heater element is not a difficult task. It requires a few simple tools and a basic understanding of electricity. The water heater should be drained and disconnected from electric power before one begins a replacement process. Once the water heater is drained, the heater element can be easily replaced and reconnected to the electric power supply.

There are many types of water heaters available today. These include electric, gas, and solar-powered units. A water heater element is only necessary for an electric unit. This is because the water is heated with metal rods within the canister versus the boiling process used by the other units.

Most large water heaters include two water heater elements. This is typically better because the water is heated from both the top and bottom portion of the water cylinder. The dual-heater element design provides faster heating capability than a single-heater element water heater.

Homeowners can easily detect a failed heater element. If the water within the home becomes cool or cold, it is normally due to a faulty heater element. For dual units, the water will typically become warm when one heater element fails. If the unit is not replaced, the water will become more difficult to heat and eventually cause the secondary element to fail.

Many modern water heaters include heater timers, which are designed to save energy. A timer design will only heat the water heater at specific times during the day. Typically, a homeowner will only use the hot water during the morning and evening hours. This timer will override a standard thermostat design, which heats based on temperature only. A timer design saves energy but requires an override if off-hour usage is necessary.

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Discussion Comments
By anon328940 — On Apr 06, 2013

Can an AC residential water heating element be replaced and rewired with a DC element of the same wattage? That is, can I take my 1500 watt AC element, replace it with a 1500 watt DC element, and connect a DC source to the thermostat and element?

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