Choosing a New Water HeaterChoosing a new water heater is a serious issue, but it’s a decision that you’ll hopefully only make every 10-15 years. According to Consumer Reports, that’s the average lifespan of storage water heaters, which are by far the most popular and conventional water heater used in America. Consumer Reports also states that nearly 20% of your home’s energy costs come from your water heater.Efficiency is important in today’s world where energy costs continue to rise faster than income. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) realizes this and recently introduced energy consumption regulations called the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA). This act took effect in 2015 and regulates minimum energy efficiency standards for all water heater types.This is good news for you as a consumer. Today’s water heaters are far more energy efficient than appliances manufactured in the past 20 years. Now, you have the choice to buy an economical water heater designed for budget-conscious consumers. You can also choose more expensive water heaters with larger capacities and greater energy savings.You’re in the driver’s seat when buying a water heater. However, like with other purchases, you’ll want to do your homework. Choosing a new water heater follows these logical steps:
- Determine your fuel source: Check out what energy options you have. The most common fuel sources are electricity, natural gas, propane, oil, solar and geothermal. You might be restricted to one energy source like electricity, or you may have any combination of options.
- Determine your type: Type refers to the water heating and storage mechanism. Basically, there are two main water heater types. One is the conventional storage tank. The other is a tankless system, also known as on-demand or instantaneous in-line water heaters.
- Determine your capacity: A water heater’s delivery capacity comes in different sizes. Storage water heaters measure capacity rates in gallons and first-hour ratings (FHR). Tankless, or on-demand, systems use a gallons-per-minute (GPM) measurement.
- Determine your space: Where your water heater is or will be located has a big effect on what appliance you’ll choose. If you have a basement home with lots of room, a large-capacity storage water heater may be ideal. However, if you’re cramped in a condo or crawlspace home, you’ll need something compact like a demand system.
- Determine your budget: Most of us have a cap on budgets. Likely, you’re in a similar situation. Generally, small-volume storage water heaters are the lowest cost, while high-technology solar and geothermal systems are expensive. Before going for low price, though, look at the overall value, like return on energy costs, extended warranty and appliance service life.
1. Determine Your Fuel SourceDetermining your fuel source should be fairly straightforward. If you’re in a water heater replacement situation, you’ll likely be restricted by what fuel source your current water heater uses. Changing fuel sources in existing buildings might be expensive, impractical or impossible.However, if you’re starting from scratch with a new home, you’re wise to choose a fuel source that will remain economical and readily available. This might be the opportunity to invest in advancing technology fuel sources that have long-term savings and are environmentally responsible. Different fuel sources available are:
- Electricity: Electric water tanks remain the most popular fuel source option since electricity is available in almost all locations. Most electric water tanks use household current and are wired into dedicated circuits. This is so extra electrical loads don’t trip your breaker and leave you cold. However, electricity can be expensive depending on your location, heater capacity and the type of tank or tankless system you have.
- Natural Gas: Natural gas water heaters have the lowest energy consumption costs. Storage tank systems work with a gas-fired burner heating a tank full of standing water. It’s the same principle as electric element heaters, only your fuel comes from your home’s natural gas supply system — not your electrical grid. Gas burners have two ignition types. One is a standing pilot light, which constantly consumes natural gas regardless if the burner is lit. The other is electronic ignition that’s more energy efficient. On-demand gas water heaters are not popular due to design complications like venting and fire safety. As well, many areas have no natural gas service, and installing holding tanks is not effective.
- Propane: Propane is more affordable than natural gas in situations where a piped and pressurized natural gas supply is unavailable. Propane burners work the same as natural gas appliances except for pressure rates and control orifice size. As a rule of thumb, propane and natural gas water heaters don’t interchange easily. Propane heaters are best suited for remote locations and vacation get-aways.
- Oil: Domestic home heating oil has fallen from favor in the 21st century. Oil can be prohibitively expensive in some areas, and many find oil dirty and environmentally unfriendly. Most oil tanks get replaced with new-technology electric, gas or propane water heaters. Because oil heaters are in low demand, their supply is limited. This combination leads to expensive replacement by sticking to oil-fired water heaters.
- Solar: Solar-powered water heaters are becoming more advanced and affordable as solar technology improves. Although solar heaters capture a tiny market share, their return on energy investment is large. Solar heaters make best sense in high-sun areas like the Southwest where long periods of direct sun are common. They don’t have a reasonable return in the Northeast or Northwest.
- Geothermal: Geothermal energy taps into natural energy sources like heat from the air, ground or water. In the long-term, geothermal fuels have the best return on investment, but payback can take a long time. One form of affordable and common geothermal water heater comes from regular home heat pumps. Their drawback is that they lose effectiveness when temperatures drop toward freezing. Then, backup fuel sources like electricity or gas are mandatory.
2. Determining Your Water Heater TypeThere are two main water heater types. The first and by far the most popular is the conventional storage tank heater. You’ll recognize one right away because they’re bulky and usually placed in the open where the tank is accessible. The second water heater is the less-obvious on-demand or inline flow heater that gives you a constant and instantaneous hot water supply.Each water heater type has its pros and cons. Deciding on what type depends on several factors. The biggest consideration is the hot water demands of your family. It also depends if you’re simply replacing an existing unit and the specific infrastructure is already in place. And then it goes to your fuel source, capacity requirements and your budget. Let’s look at the two water heater types in more detail:
- Storage Tank Water Heaters: What makes storage water heaters so popular is their simplicity. Essentially, storage heaters are one holding tank containing a volume of water constantly kept hot by a consuming fuel source. Advantages of storage water heaters include a ready supply of hot water in a relatively uncomplicated and inexpensive system. Disadvantages to storage tanks are their limited capacity, which can run out during peak use periods. Then there’s the waiting time while the tank recovers heat. Size is another disadvantage, making storage tanks challenging in cramped situations.
- Tankless Water Heaters: These on-demand water heaters never stop supplying hot water. Tankless water heaters don’t use storage tanks. Rather, the heating device is plumbed right in with the water delivery service, and water is immediately heated as it passes through to the fixture. That can be your kitchen tap, bathroom faucet, dishwasher or laundry center. You never run out of hot water with a tankless system no matter how many family members take showers or how many loads you run on laundry day. Tankless, on-demand water heaters are compact and fit under cabinets or in crawlspaces. Their disadvantages are initial installation cost and being restricted to fuel sources. Also, in large homes, several point-of-use water heaters are needed in place of a large supply tank.
3. Your Water Heater CapacityWater volume capacity mostly refers to storage tank water heaters. Storage capacity varies according to tank size. It’s measured in gallons of water with small tanks being in the 30-40 gallon range, mid-sized tanks holding 50-60 gallons and large storage tanks containing up to 100 gallons.Gallon capacity isn’t the main criteria for gauging hot water capacity. This is truly measured by a storage tank’s first-hour rating or FHR. That tells the tank’s efficiency, or how much hot water it can deliver in its first hour starting from a full-capacity load. The FHR capacity should match what your typical hot water requirements are at peak periods. The federal government’s Energy Guide FHR sizing rates recommend:
- 2 occupants – 45-55 gallons
- 3 occupants – 55-65 gallons
- 4 occupants – 65-75 gallons
- 5 occupants – 75-85 gallons
- 6 occupants – 85-100 gallons
4. Determining Your Water Heater SpaceOne clear advantage of on-demand water heaters is how compact they are. Most heaters are small enough to fit in tight spaces like inside kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Some large instantaneous heaters get installed in crawlspaces or closets. It’s important to get them close to the end-use place as possible for maximum heating efficiency.There’s no doubt that storage tank heaters take up more space than on-demand units. That’s not a problem if you have the room, such as a basement or dedicated mechanical room. But it’s challenging to put a large-capacity water heater in cramped quarters.If you want the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of a storage tank heater but are space-challenged, consider using a lowboy or point-of-use compact tank. They’re made for low areas like tight crawlspaces or garage sites where codes call for elevated tanks. If width is at a premium, but height is less restricted, you may want a slender, taller tank.
5. Working Within Your BudgetBudget restrictions are a fact of life for most people. It’s tempting to go with the lowest price, especially when being surprised by a sudden water heater failure. But that might be a stop-gap measure and a short-sighted solution.Assuming you have a clear choice about water heater type, fuel, capacity and space, you’re always best to go with the highest-quality appliance you can afford. It’s almost always the case of getting what you pay for. Here are some thoughts about dollar value when choosing a water heater:
- Closely examine a water heater’s Energy Guide label. It tells you how effective the appliance is and what to expect in estimated annual operating costs. A professional plumbing company can help you interpret Energy Guide labeling.
- Make sure you size your tank properly. An oversized water heater uses unnecessary energy and an undersized unit will always struggle. Don’t hesitate to contact a reputable plumbing company for advice.
- Pay attention to product warranty conditions. A short warranty period like two years is a red flag, but 12-year coverage indicates a good investment. Reputable plumbing suppliers can recommend proper warranty coverage without you taking a chance.
- Do your homework on brand reputation. That can be internet articles or, better yet, call a local plumbing professional who’s in the water heater supply and installation business.
- Always rely on a professional plumbing company to install your water heater. Not only do they have the time, tools and knowledge to properly serve you, but they’ll back their labor with a strong guarantee.