If your water heater is nearing the end of its useful life and you’re thinking of replacing it before disaster strikes, you’ll be happy to know that you have better choices, thanks to recent federal regulations that require water heaters to be more energy-efficient. New storage tank water heaters are required to operate more efficiently, and tankless (on-demand) water heaters are even more efficient than that.
Typically, homeowners replace their old water heater with one of the same type that runs on the same fuel—natural gas or electricity. Switching from a tank water heater to a tankless unit can be expensive because it requires you to retrofit your plumbing and possibly your electrical system. But if you’re building a new home or adding to an existing one, installing a tankless water heater may make economic sense.
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Types of Water Heaters
Depending on how much hot water you use and how you’re heating the water (gas or electric), there are several choices. Some types are claimed to cut energy costs by up to half that of regular storage models. But their added up-front costs mean payback time might be longer.
Tankless (On-Demand) Water Heater
Rather than storing water, tankless water heaters use heating coils to heat the water as you need it. They’re more energy-efficient than a storage tank but provide only a limited flow of hot water per minute—about 3.5 gallons, depending on inlet water temperatures. They’re best for people who typically aren’t drawing water for more than one user at a time—such as running a shower and dishwasher simultaneously.
Storage Tank Water Heater
Storage tanks are the most common type of water heater. As the name suggests, these consist of an insulated tank in which water is heated and stored until needed then emerges from a pipe on top of the water heater. There is also a temperature- and pressure-relief valve, which opens if either exceeds a preset level.
Solar Water Heater
A roof-mounted cell absorbs the sun’s heat and transfers it to an antifreeze-like fluid in a closed-loop system that runs to the water tank. The best deliver stellar savings in summer, making them attractive for warm, sunny regions. But savings suffer on cold and cloudy days. Most models employ a backup system that kicks in when needed.
Condensing Water Heater
Condensing water heaters are an option if you heat with gas and need a unit with a capacity of more than 55 gallons. These models have a tank like a conventional water heater, but they capture exhaust gases that would normally go out the flue, which wastes energy. These gases are blown through a coil in the base of the unit, where incoming cold water can absorb most of the heat.
Heat Pump (Hybrid) Water Heater
These capture heat from the air and transfer it to the water. They use about 60 percent less energy than standard electric water heaters. And while they cost more than electric-only models, installation is similar and payback time is short. But they don’t work well in very cold spaces and need to be placed in an area that stays about 40° F to 90° F.
And because the heat pump is on top, a hybrid water heater needs as much as 7 feet of clearance from floor to ceiling. You’ll also need up to 1,000 cubic feet of uncooled space to capture enough heat from the air as well as a nearby drain to discharge the condensate.
Features to Consider
Warranty: Coverage for water heaters typically runs three to 12 years. While you’ll usually pay a bit more for longer-warranty models, we’ve found that they tend to have larger elements or burners that can speed up water heating and have thicker insulation for less heat loss. Choose a water heater with the longest warranty available.
Anti-scale devices: Some brands advertise features that are supposed to reduce the buildup of mineral scale at the bottom of the tank by swirling the water. While the scale can shorten the life of the heating element, you don’t need to invest in fancy features to get a water heater that lasts. Just look for one with a 12-year warranty, which typically includes a longer or thicker element.
Brass vs. plastic drain valves: These are situated near the base of the water heater for a garden hose that drains the heater. Look for brass drain valves, which are more durable than plastic.
Glass-lined tanks: Designed to reduce corrosion.
Digital displays: Help you monitor levels and customize operation. Some electric/heat pump hybrid water heaters let you set a vacation mode that uses just the heat pump for added efficiency when you’re away. Displays on solar water heaters often show tank and collector temperatures, along with pressure readings and other info.