Skip to Content

Are Water Heater Elements the Same? Are They Universal?

Among the home appliances we daily use, water heaters hold a significant importance in our lives. Especially during the winter, this appliance becomes crucial when we are bathing, washing hands or even drinking water.

Water heaters provide us with warm comfort, so it is essential to know how to maintain it properly.

Are all hot water heater elements the same? Are they universal?

All hot water heater elements are neither same nor universal. Screw-in type heater elements are used in newer water heaters while Bolt-in types are found in older heaters. The operating voltages are either 120 or 240 volts, so check your state and local codes before replacing a heater element.

With the innovation of advanced and standard electric water heaters, various types of heating elements have been implemented into them by the manufacturers. These heating elements can be classified into two major categories: Screw-in and Bolt-in.

Screw-in is the most common type of heating element used at our homes nowadays and the new water heaters typically have this type of heating element fitted in them.

As the name suggests, this type of heating element is screwed into the chamber of the water heater.

Whereas Bolt-in is present in the older generation water heaters. These heating elements are installed into the chamber with the help of 4 bolts.

However, if you wish to replace it with a screw-in type heating element, it is possible to do so with Universal Adapter Kits.

Both Screw-in and Bolt-in come in various power ratings and voltage variants, commonly 120 or 240 volts. Therefore, check the state you are living in and the local code before choosing an element.

What are low density and high density water elements? What are the differences?

The density of a heating element refers to its surface area per cubic inches. High density elements have lower surface area and low density elements have higher surface area.

Despite their similarity in appearance and functionality, they have some key differences.

Low density water elements:

Low density elements take the same time to heat water without being as hot as high density elements, allowing them to have a longer life expectancy. They work excellently with hard water without any lime deposit build-up.

Their fold-back designs provide adequate heating space and surface area. They are interchangeable with high density elements of the same voltage and power ratings, but are more expensive.

High density water elements:

High density elements heat water but get hotter than low density elements per surface area but provide the same effectiveness as low density elements.

They are the most common heating elements used at homes due to being effective and less expensive.

They burn out and corrode quicker, thus having a shorter life expectancy. However, their commonality allows them to be easily replaceable as long as the replacement heating element is of the same power and voltage rating.

Can you use any heating element in a water heater?

Water heaters are not universal, therefore just any heating element will not function if installed. Other than the type of heating element you are installing, you need to keep note of several other factors when buying a replacement.

If your water heater is old, you can get a bolt-in or screw-in heating element whereas new ones use screw-in.

Next, you need to check the power and voltage rating of your older heating element and get the new one of the closest specifications. Lastly, check if the new heating element fits your tank’s dimensions.

Are water heater elements interchangeable?

While you are looking for replacement heating elements, you might not get the heating element of exact power ratings.

To overcome this, you can find what range of heating elements can be replaced interchangeably. However, this is not recommended as it tampers with the heater’s lifespan and violates electrical safety code.

Replace a 4500-watt with a 5500-watt element:

It is possible to replace a 4500-watt with a 5500-watt element as long as a 30 Amps circuit breaker is attached with a 10 gauge wire.

Replace a 3800-watt with a 4500-watt element:

Given the input voltage is the same, a 3800-watt element can be replaced with a 4500-watt element.

Replace a 3500-watt with a 4500-watt element:

A 3500-watt element can be replaced with a 4500-watt element given that it is connected to a 30 Amps circuit breaker with a 10 gauge wire.

Replace a 3500-watt with a 3800-watt element:

If you replace a 3500-watt element with a 3800-watt element, you need to attach it to a 20 Amp circuit breaker with a 12 gauge wire.

Why do water heaters have 2 elements?

Electric water heaters used at our homes come with two separate heating elements that operate at different times and serve different functions.

Both of the heating elements are controlled via two different thermostats, therefore their activating conditions are different.

One heating element heats up the water at the top of the tank, while the other is responsible for heating water at the bottom of the tank. This dual heating element system is especially helpful if you need hot water in a short amount of time.

Besides that, the top heating element heats up the water at the top, so you get an immediate supply of hot water when washing hands or other smaller uses.

Are top and bottom water heater elements the same? Do they have to be the same?

Although people might think that the top and bottom water heater elements are different, surprisingly, other than it’s activation condition both of the heating elements are identical in size and type.

Even though they are the same, they both serve different functions according to the temperature of the water.

There are two thermostats connected to the heating elements that read the temperature at the top and bottom of the tank. Both of the heating elements do not operate at the same and are controlled by the thermostats.

So the only difference between the top and bottom elements is that they operate at different water temperatures.

What size is a water heater element socket?

Water heater elements are tightly fitted to the water tank to prevent any leakages. However, these heating elements are not screwed or bolted in using a regular wrench, rather they have their own unique type of wrench.

Screw-in and Bolt-in types require different socket wrenches due to their differing socket size. For Screw-in heating elements, a 1½ inch socket range is required and Bolt-in elements require ⅜ inch socket wrenches.

You should note the socket size of your heating element before you buy a replacement. Any heating element will not fit into the tank if the socket size is incompatible.

Does water heater element length matter?

The length of the water heating element does not matter but can show a difference in performance if your new element is significantly longer.

The factors that determine the heating of your water heater are not dependent on the length of the heating element, so you can make do with either a longer or a shorter one.

Surface area, power and voltage ratings contribute towards your water heater’s performance and heating time.

If you previously owned a 10 inch and the new element is 12 inch, you will not notice any improvement in performance. However, shifting to a 14 inch element will show some boost in performance due to increased surface area.

How often should you replace water heater elements?

The life expectancy of a water heating element depends on the frequency of its usage, type of water it is used with or even corrosive build-ups.

On average, however, the heating element’s life expectancy falls between 6-10 years depending on your usage behavior. So, it should be replaced according to the life expectancy.

Low Density water heating elements last longer than high density counterparts due to their low burn-out and better protection against corrosive build-ups.

If you live in an area where the water supply contains hard water, then it will cause lime build-ups and wear out your element faster.

How much does it cost to replace an electric water heater element?

The cost of replacing an electric water heater element is highly customizable to its user’s preferences.

The density of the water heater element, the number of elements to replace, determines the total cost. You might have to add the wage if you choose to hire a plumber.

The cost of one heating element ranges from $200-$300 on average, however there are more expensive low density elements available on the market. Hiring a plumber would add an additional $50-$150 on your budget.

Final Thoughts

All hot water elements are not universal and have several key differences between them. Water heater elements usually come in the Screw-in variant while the older ones in Bolt-in variants. Their voltage ratings are either 120 or 240 volts, so check your state and local code before replacement.