Tankless Water Heaters Mandan ND
West Fargo, ND
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Getting into Hot Water
Hot water: Endless streams of it, like lava flowing from a volcano. That's the image that springs to mind when one thinks of tankless water heaters. These units, sometimes called on-demand water heaters, are clever devices. Small enough to mount on a wall, they have the power to instantly and efficiently heat all the water a homeowner could need for bathing, laundry and dishes.
Tankless water heaters are showing up more and more as an appealing alternative in new construction, since planning for and installing a unit during the building process is fairly simple. The most efficient units even qualify for a $300 federal tax credit, which helps offset their higher costs.
Owners of existing homes, however, are faced with a different set of questions and factors to consider when determining if it makes sense to replace a current storage-type water heater with a new tankless model. Issues such as the current fuel supply into your house, local fuel costs and your family's hot water requirements, for instance, all must be evaluated during the decision-making process. By weighing these factors and others carefully, you can ensure you make the right choice for your home.
The Costs of Heating Water
Large tankless heaters - the ones designed to handle up to three hot water chores at once - can range in price from about $1,000 to $3,000 or more, depending on the size of the unit. So the upfront investment tends to cost much more than putting in a storage-type heater.
Will the conversion really save enough in energy costs to pay for itself in a few years, as some proponents claim?
Perhaps, but don't rely solely on manufacturers' charts or graphs to answer that question for your home. Showing how a tankless heater will "save up to 50 percent" or "pay for itself in two to three years" is like saying a certain car gets 35 miles per gallon. It's useful for making comparisons, but we all know the real-world numbers depend on how you drive.
Let's consider some of the variables that drive the cost of heating water in your home.
Fuel costs. Here's a real wild card. Charts that estimate the annual cost of heating water make certain assumptions about fuel prices. One manufacturer, for example, pegs the annual cost of hot water at $705 with an electrically heated tank and $557 with a tank heated by natural gas. The company then estimates the cost of its tankless heater fired by propane at $382 and natural gas at $364.
The fine print raises some questions, however. That's because these annual costs are based on energy prices that may or may not reflect reality today where you live. In this example, electricity is assumed to cost 13 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh); propane, $1.83 a gallon; natural gas, 40 cents a therm, plus delivery and other charges.
In early January, according to the Department of Energy, the average home electric rate was 10.5 cents. Propane was averaging $1.99 and natural gas was about $1 a therm. So at that point, electricity was less expensive, and propane and natural gas were more expensive than the prices used by the company to make its comparison.
We've all noticed how petroleum prices keep bouncing around. And electricity rates vary greatly by service area. Averages range from roughly 7 cents per kwh in Washington State, the government says, to 17 cents in Massachusetts. These variations suggest that you need to have a handle on your specific fuel costs to make valid comparisons.
Fuel supply. We all have electricity in our homes, but only light-duty tankless heaters use electricity. To meet all the demands of a typical house, you'll need a unit that runs on natural gas or propane, or perhaps kerosene or fuel oil. If your home doesn't have one of these fuel sources now, factor in the costs of adding them. And remember that combustion units need to be vented, so plan to make provisions for that.
But this is a very squishy assumption. Water tank life varies greatly, and it depends on the hardness of the water, the quality of the unit and its maintenance. Better water tanks, for instance, have dual stainless-steel heating elements and are self-cleaning. Some have a 12-year warranty. Of course, cheaper tanks can die in half that time. So again, you need to look at your specific situation.
Here's an additional thought: Many people don't plan to stay in a house 20 years. So weigh the impact of a more-expensive water heater on resale value, if you're planning to move soon.
Water usage. There are charts and estimates available on the Internet to suggest how much hot water people use for showers and laundry. But again, these are averages. If you do all your laundry in cold water, for instance, or you have a teenager who spends an hour in the shower, these averages provide little guidance.
It helps to use a worksheet to calculate your family's peak demand (see sidebar). These calculations are critical if you decide on a tankless heater. Each unit has a flow rate - how many gallons of hot water a heater can make every minute. Also affecting the calculation is a factor known as temperature rise. This means that if the water coming into your home is 50 degrees, and you want tap water to come out at 120 degrees, the unit must increase the temperature 70 degrees. And it must do it at a flow rate that meets your peak demand, say, five gallons per minute.
There are other ways to heat water, depending on where you live. In cold climates, indirect water heaters that circulate through a high-efficiency boiler can be economical. Solar heaters and heat pumps also are worth exploring.
And don't overlook the most cost-effective option of all - conservation. If you haven't insulated hot water pipes, installed low-flow devices at the tap and set the heater's water temperature to 120 degrees, then you're just wasting money, no matter which option you choose. This is especially true for storage tanks.
Also, keep in mind that newer storage tanks are better insulated, with some clad in three inches of foam. You can upgrade the insulation on your storage tank by wrapping it in fiberglass batts. (Just don't cover vents in a gas unit). The point is, the more you cut standby heat loss in an existing unit, the less fuel you need to keep water at a given temperature. And that changes the payback calculations for a tankless heater.
On the flip side, tankless water heaters do provide a number of benefits storage tanks don't. The biggest benefit, of course, is that there's no tank of water that needs to be continually heated, which can decrease energy usage by 10 to 20 percent when compared to a storage tank heater, according to the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH). They are less subject to leakage and corrosion than standard water heaters, since they don't store water. They can easily be located at remote locations in a house, close to hot water outlets. And, of course, there are those tax credits, which apply to retrofits as well as new construction.
It can be complicated to sort through all the variables, but let's face it - you're not going to be happy with lukewarm water. So take the time to check out the claims of any heater manufacturer. If possible, get the name of a local homeowner who already has the system you're considering. The more homework you do, the happier you'll be with your final decision.
Tux Turkel reports regularly on energy-related issues. He's based in Portland, Maine.