Everything You Want to Know about Tankless Water Heaters
Do your kids take endless showers and use up all the hot water? Are you blasted with scalding water if the toilet flushes while you are in the shower? Do you have to wait to take a bath if the dishwasher is running? Are you concerned about our planet running out of clean, fresh water and want to do your part by reducing your water use?
Most people learn to live with such inconveniences and don't give much thought to their water heaters until they give out, which usually happens suddenly and catastrophically. The corroded tank starts leaking water, causing damage to your floors, ceiling or walls. That's when virtually all replacement purchases are made. To best way to avoid this is to replace your aging unit before it dies on you. If your unit is more than a decade old, think about replacing it before disaster strikes.
Tankless water heaters are quickly gaining favor in both new and older homes. Long common in Japan and Europe, tankless technology began appearing in this country about 30 years ago. Unlike storage tank heaters, tankless units heat water only as it is used, or on demand, using a device that is activated by the flow of water when a hot water valve is opened. By delivering a constant supply of hot water, tankless water heaters can meet all your household hot water needs, or can be used for supplementary heat, such as a booster to a solar hot water system.
- Tankless Advantages
A tankless water heater is about the size of a large carry-on suitcase. As a replacement for the much larger tank style, tankless heaters can provide valuable space in your garage, kitchen or laundry room. More importantly, it can shave ten to twenty percent off your heating bill by eliminating standby losses—energy lost from warmed water sitting in a tank. Units come with a valve that can turn off the energy source while you are on vacation, garnering even more savings. Since water heating accounts for about 14 percent of the average U.S. household energy budget, this can mean significant savings. And, by conserving both water and energy, tankless heaters are far better for the planet.
- Electric, gas or propane?
The first thing to decide when selecting a tankless heater is your fuel source: electricity, natural gas or propane. Electric water heaters are especially efficient, but since electricity is relatively expensive, it's worth investigating all the alternatives. Gas heaters are far cheaper to operate and are the more popular choice for most homeowners. Oil-fired water heaters are available in locales such as the Northeast and Midwest, but they are comparatively expensive and represent a small fraction of the total number installed in homes. Solar and heat-pump-operated water heaters, using gas or electricity as a backup fuel source, make up another small part of the market. If you are still wondering which choice is right for you, click here for more information about fuel sources and specifics about how tankless water heaters operate.
The cost of installation will depend on the amount of work needed to be done. In some homes, a tankless unit can easily hook up to the existing plumbing, venting and electrical connections to your existing storage tank. In other cases, retrofit work will need to be done, driving costing considerably higher. Can you install it yourself? We wouldn't recommend it, unless you're quite experienced with plumbing, venting, and possibly electrical work. These systems are complicated, have particular code requirements, and in many cases the warranty is dependent on proper installation. In short, you will need to consult a professional to find out how much an install is going to cost you. If your plumber can work with existing piping, venting, etc., figure on at least $300 - $500 for installation. (Click here for tips on hiring a contractor.) The installation of a tankless water heater is similar to conventional tank-type models. Your pre-existing vents may be useable. Multiple circuits and heavier wire may be necessary for electrical models due to the higher instantaneous current draw.
Units come in various sizes, typically measured by the amount of hot water that can be generated at any given time. The size and capacity you need will depend on the number of bathrooms in your house and how much hot water you will require at peak demand. To calculate your usage, base your numbers on your busiest time of day, i.e. the time when you're using the greatest amount of hot water at one time. Figure on roughly 2 gallons per minute for shaving, 4 gallons per minute for washing face and hands, 5 gallons per minute for preparing food, 10 gallons per minute for a dishwasher, and 20 gallons per minute each for a 10-minute shower and a load of laundry. Factor in growing children and other issues that can increase your water use. Once you've arrived at a total, be sure that the new heater's yellow EnergyStar(TM) label meets or exceeds that amount.
- Cost: When Will it Pay for Itself?
Tankless heaters range in price from $200 for a small under-sink unit to $1,200 for a gas-fired unit that will cover the needs of an average household. Typically, larger capacity units will cost more money. Though tankless heaters are more expensive than your typical tank system (and more expensive to install), in the long run they can save you more money because they operate at a higher efficiency rate. Electric tankless water heaters generally cost 10-20% ($40 - $80/yr) less to operate than comparable tank-type water heaters. Gas savings may be about 20-40% ($50-$100/yr).
Also, the tankless variety has a longer life than their storage counterparts because they are less subject to corrosion. Expected lifespan of a tankless water heater is 20 years, compared with between 10 and 12 years for the tank type. And remember that there are rebates to offset the cost of the tankless unit. Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, homeowners who have a gas water heater with an Energy Factor of 0.80 or greater installed in their home are eligible for a $300 tax credit.
To determine when a tankless heater will pay you back for the cost of installation, estimate your energy savings as they accumulate over time. Then compare the cumulative savings and any tax benefits with the cost of the tankless unit installed. Because a tankless unit can easily cost $500 or more than a conventional water heater, it'll probably be a few years before you start reaping a true financial benefit. But in the meantime, you'll be cutting your overall energy consumption and have the guilty pleasure of knowing you'll never run out of hot water.
- Help the planet
In a time when we are all looking for ways to help the planet, it is good to know that tankless water heaters can make a difference to our environment, producing as little as half the greenhouse gas emissions of less efficient storage tank heaters. If we all used tankless water heaters, collectively, we could keep 91 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year. Also, keep in mind that after your storage tank serves its ten years or so, it can't be recycled so it has to be buried in a landfill. Your new tankless unit will last twice as long and take up much less space when it is ready to be replaced, so even when it dies, it will be better for the planet.
With all these benefits: an average life expectancy of more than 20 years, energy savings and an endless supply of hot water, your family will be both doing good for our planet and enjoying hot showers for years to come.
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