We are interested in installing a tankless water heater in our townhouse. Our community does not have gas, only electric. Which brands should we be looking at? Our townhouse is 1550 square feet. What size should we be considering? Are they as efficient as claimed?
Phil M. in Huntington Beach, CA
I've checked into gas-operated and electric-operated instant hot water heaters. I have heard nothing good about the gas-operated ones. I heard no complaints about the electric ones. You can put one in each bathroom, kitchen, utility room with water, or you can do a big tank for the whole house. We're looking at putting "tanks" in individual rooms with the hot water heater backup because we are in the mountains and electric does go out for us. A generator can be used for emergencies. Also, if you have a really good friend who is a contractor, they can get it for you at a discounted price!
Sunny in Durango
Tankless (on-demand) water heaters save money because they have more efficient burners and don't waste energy keeping a large tank of water hot when you're not using it. They also provide endless hot water (no cold showers), take up a quarter of the space, never leak, and last twice as long as regular tank water heaters. The downsides are a higher up-front cost and a few seconds longer wait for hot water. You can add a recirculation loop to your house, which will give you instant-on hot water at every tap, mitigating lag time issue.
As far as efficiency, electric tankless units can provide enough hot water to run two to three hot water uses simultaneously. Tankless units are sized this way because they can only heat so much water at one time. Electric tankless water heaters are about 99.9% efficient, which is good, but only tells part of the story. They are efficient at using energy, but do require much more overall energy to heat water than a gas unit. High quality electric water heaters from A.O. Smith offer similar efficiency, but still use 10-15% more because of standby losses.
Have you considered solar hot water? A pair of 4'x8' hot water panels on the roof would provide 100% of hot water (for free) in the summer and 60-70% in the winter. A system runs $6000+ installed, but will provide hot water for free for 20 or more years. Modern systems have low maintenance, are attractive, and are very effective. They have a storage tank, backed up with an electric water heater element.
Overall operating costs would be a fraction of previous usage. There are up to $2000 in federal tax credits available, as well as possible state and local rebates/tax credits.
Tankless water heaters are a great idea for households that have a "low demand" for hot water. If your household consists of two or three people who need to take showers every morning, then the tankless design is perfect. You won't need to heat the water all day long, which will save you money.
However, if your household hot water needs includes showers, running the dishwasher, and doing laundry, all at the same time, then you might consider the normal tank model. A tankless water heater simply can't heat enough water fast enough to handle multiple hot water demands.
A water heater with a 40- to 50-gallon tank is hard to beat. The newer models are more energy efficient than ever before. Gas water heaters are the most efficient. It takes very little gas usage to keep the pilot light going. The amount of electricity needed to keep the water hot is very low as well. You will use more electricity running your lights, TV, computer, and refrigerator every day than it takes to run your electric water heater.
All new water heaters, whether gas or electric, tank or tankless, are going to have superior efficiency over models sold just five years ago. The main thing to think about is what kind of demand you'll be putting on the water heater. High demand requires a tank model. Low demand will be fine with a tankless model.
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