What is an Electric Heating Element?

Patrick Roland

The heating element is the primary part of any electrical heat-producing product. From hair dryers to toasters and industrial iron smelts, an electric heating element helps each one get to the proper temperature. Commonly produced from a metallic amalgam called nichrome, heating elements come in many types, but they all serve a single purpose. There are other materials used to create heating elements, each with unique characteristics that aid in a particular style of heating.

Nichrome is a domestic heating element used in hair dryers.
Nichrome is a domestic heating element used in hair dryers.

A basic heating element is anything that electricity passes through and encounters a resistance and then produces heat. The amount of heat given off depends on the amount of electricity that passes through the electric heating element and the amount of resistance. For example, an element that passes a great deal of electricity but does not provide much resistance will give off a small amount of heat. On the other hand, something that uses a lot of electricity and incorporates a large amount of resistance will give off more heat.

Nichrome wire is often found tightly coiled in the tubular heating elements of electric stove tops.
Nichrome wire is often found tightly coiled in the tubular heating elements of electric stove tops.

Nichrome is the most common domestic heating element and is found in many household products. Commonly, items such as toasters, hair dryers and heaters use nichrome coils to pass electricity and give off heat. Nichrome is made of 80 percent nickel and 20 percent chromium, and its high melting point of 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,552 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it a perfect electric heating element.

Nichrome also is used in a tubular electric heating element. This tightly wound coil packs a larger amount of heating wire in a smaller space to create higher temperatures. The curvy bars of an electric stove heating element are a great example.

A ceramic heating element, commonly known as PTC ceramic, acts as its own thermostat, as opposed to an electrical heating element composed of nichrome that must be manually controlled. The ceramic heating element's resistant temperature threshold comes because ceramics allow electricity to pass easily when cool but not when hot. This lets designers set a maximum temperature more easily, and it is used for items such as rear window defrosters in automobiles.

An electric heating element that needs to reach much higher temperatures, such those used in iron production, commonly use materials other than nichrome and ceramics. An industrial heating element can be comprised of materials such as platinum, molybdenum or silicone carbide. The furnace elements reach enormous temperatures and allow many industries to melt metals down into their liquid form so they can be poured into molds or used in other ways.

A water heater element is necessary for an electric water heater.
A water heater element is necessary for an electric water heater.

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Discussion Comments


Electric range heating elements look so dangerous when you turn them on high. They start to turn red within seconds, and if any fragments of food or grease were present on the eye, you can see them going up in smoke and smell the burn.

Unless I’m in a big hurry to get a pot of water boiling, I turn the eye between low and medium. This is best when heating up oils for frying or sauteeing veggies and meats. If you make the element heat up too quickly, you can make the oil boil. If you add solid food to boiling oil, it can very easily splash onto your skin and cause severe burns.


I like to watch the electric heating element in my toaster do its job. Within seconds of popping a piece of bread in the hole, the element starts to turn a hot orange color. Often, if crumbs have flaked off into the toaster, I can smell them burning. They will turn totally black and I can shake them out after the toaster has cooled down.

I have a dial on my toaster that ranges from light to dark. I usually set it at midway, because anything other than that either produces toast that needs re-toasting or scraping. The heating element responds to the position of the dial and heats up the inside of the toaster accordingly.


Electric heating elements let me style my hair quickly and conveniently. First, I put a hair dryer on its highest and hottest setting to quickly remove all the water. I use a brush to hold the air up to the dryer, but I don’t hold it too close. Those heating elements can make the air extremely hot, so I try to keep the dryer about six inches from my hair.

Next, I choose between a hot straightening iron and a hot curling iron. Both contain heating elements that will allow them to reach the temperature that I choose within about one minute.

My curling iron has 15 heat settings, so I have a lot of control with it. The straightening iron only has three. Generally, the hotter the element gets, the less time it takes to style my hair.

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