Water Heaters: A Hot Revelation
Our nephew Chris is 22 years old and studying Spanish in Santiago, Chile. Chris lives with a Chilean family where he sleeps in a makeshift bedroom – a small section of the laundry cordoned off by a temporary wall. In a sleeping bag no less. Try that for a year. When we asked him about the living conditions he explained that one of the worst things he had to endure was showering. The daily ceremony involved lighting the pilot on the water heater, waiting for the tank contents to heat up and then completing a shower quickly enough so as not to be drenched with ice cold water from the tiny tank. Besides learning Spanish, Chris also is getting a very practical education in “real-world conservation.”
As a youngster growing up in the good old U.S. of A. Chris never had to worry about lighting the pilot or waiting for the water to heat up – or being suddenly drowned in icy water because only a few gallons of hot water were available. Mommy and daddy always provided at least 50 gallons insuring a nice long, hot shower – 24/7 – no waiting and no worry.
Fortunately, mom and pop America are wising up to the high cost and waste associated with heating a gigantic reservoir of stored water. The stored water cools and then must be reheated all day long every day of the year – nights too.
Home or not, showering or not, doing the laundry or not, a tank type water heater cycles on and off all day long 24/7. A 40 gallon, gas-fired, tank-type heater uses 40,000 BTU’s of energy every time it automatically ignites. And it stays lighted until the stored liquid returns to its preset temperature. A 50 gallon gas water heater uses 50,000 BTU’s and so on. The BTU consumption of a tank type water heater equals about 1000 BTU’s per gallon of water in the tank.
How often does a water heater ignite? Tank, tankless or hybrid – it depends on two things:
- The natural temperature of the ground water
- The climate and the season
The temperature of the water in the pipes below the ground varies all over the planet. The ground water in Alaska is lots colder than the ground water in the Mojave Desert. As hot water is used cold water is fed into the tank replacing what’s been used. The colder the water entering the heater, the sooner the thermostat will kick on the burners – and the longer it will take the burner to raise the fresh water supply to the proper temperature. Average climate conditions and time of year also play a major part in the water-heating process. During the cold season – and in generally cooler climates – the contents within the tank cool more rapidly – and whether water is being used or not the burner ignites more often and for longer periods of time. Tank type water heaters have other short comings. With gas fired units the burner is normally located at the very bottom of a tall, slender tank. The resultant heating “very high heat and focused” on the base of the tank – more often than not – results in calcium buildup at that location. Eventually, the resultant calcium deposit inside the base of the tank grows to such a size as to actually inhibit the burner’s effectiveness – requiring the burner to work longer to achieve the desired temperature. Bottom line is less efficiency. This condition is inherent in all tank type water heaters.
With electrically-fired, tank-type water heaters calcium build up occurs on the heating element(s) themselves instead of at the bottom of the tank. With electric water heaters the element or elements are usually spaced evenly along the long side (height) of the tank. No build-up at the bottom, but elements must be frequently cleaned and or replaced. Oh, the warranty on tank type water heaters – gas or electric – ranges from 3 years to 6 years on average – depending on the brand and the extra amount you are willing to pay for an extended warranty. Fired by gas or electricity, tank type water heaters are like a “window” on energy inefficiency – they are a really big “pane!?!”
We Americans have been using tank type water heaters for so long we take it for granted that tank type water heaters are our lot in life and that there are no viable alternatives. But there actually are two really cool alternatives, and they both offer improved solutions to what most of us now have:
A tankless water heater is just that – a device that heats water without the aid of an energy wasting water storage tank. Tankless units are all similar in principal. They operate in the same fashion as a distiller. A heating element (gas or electric) warms water flowing inside a coil of copper tubing.
When water is turned on anywhere in the home the tankless unit senses the resultant water flow and causes the unit to fire up. Instantly, the tankless unit begins to warm the cold water resting in the copper coils. Although the process is not instantaneous the water is heated in only a few moments and as soon as the hot water faucet is turned off the tankless unit immediately shuts down. Water on, burners on – water off, burners off. Simple huh? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a tankless unit can prove to be a really big money saver to a conservation-wise family.
There is a problems with all mechanical devices and tankless water heaters are no exception. Tankless water heaters can only heat water so quickly. As more water is needed – say, with two shower heads instead of one – water flow diminishes – a problem we don’t experience with tank units. This phenomenon occurs because the tankless unit must automatically restrict water flow so that the unit has the needed time to properly heat the water. By the way, when it comes to tankless water heaters, stay away from “electric” units. To heat water quickly, a good electric unit requires a 200 amp circuit. The main circuit panel for an entire home uses about half of that (100 to 125 amps). If your family is large and many people will want to take showers at the same time this condition can prove to be a real problem.
The most interesting alternative to water heating – and the latest heating industry offering – is the hybrid water heater. The hybrid utilizes both tank and tankless technologies, and by so doing solves dozens of problems associated with either of the other types. For example, although the hybrid has a water storage tank it contains only a few gallons of water. We like to call this one “Minnie Me”. Having only a few gallons to keep heated the hybrid uses minimal energy to keep the stored liquid up to temperature. Minnie Me offers several advantages:
- Hot water is always available. No waiting for water in coils to heat up.
- The hybrid unit comes with a variable intensity burner system. Unlike tankless and tank type units the hybrid unit burner is computer controlled to provide as much heat as is needed based on the demand. One shower head – low heat, two shower heads – more heat, 3, 4 heads, etc. And best of all – no loss of water pressure.
- Folks who have hot water recirculating systems (hot water always at the faucet) must have a tank somewhere on the system. Tankless systems don’t have tanks. As a result tankless water heater companies strictly recommend against using recirculating systems. Their use voids tankless warranties.
The hybrid comes with stainless entrails – not copper. And although copper is much better than old iron piping, stainless steel beats copper “hands down for lasting quality.” Where a tankless water heater warranty tops out at 10 years the new hybrid unit goes for twice that – 20 years. A far cry from the 3 year warranty associated with a tank type water heater. How do we know so much about all three types? We have all three types – that’s why. In our storage building and a little apartment out back we have a tankless unit. It’s perfect. The water rarely ever gets turned on. Absolutely no energy is ever used unless a faucet is used. With the potting shed and studio being used no more than once or twice a year the tankless saves its weight in gold.
On the other hand, in the house where we use water every day we have a hybrid. No problem getting hot water quickly, no cold spots in the water, no pressure drop, our recirculating system (on a timer) works superbly and we are saving big time energy and energy dollars. How’s that for having the best of all worlds!
There are two drawbacks to tankless and hybrid – unit cost and installation cost. These types of units are more expensive because they are complex. They have computerized control systems and they are far expensive to manufacture. Even though they use less fuel overall they do burn more each time they fire. This will probably mean that you will have to install a larger gas line from your meter to the unit. Keep in mind that this is one of those pay now or pay later decisions. By the way, both the tankless and the hybrid are much smaller than their tank type cousins. Tankless units must be wall hung and care has to be taken installing the plastic lined metal flue because its exhaust gasses get pretty hot. The hybrid sits on the floor so installation is a little quicker and easier, and the exhaust gasses are cooler and safer, however the hybrid takes a bit more room than the tankless.
Conservation is Everywhere
We recently toured Venice. As we strolled along the Grand Canal we noticed a pair of construction workers removing a small patch of asphalt surrounding a pot hole. It was obvious that they were in the process of making a repair. They unearthed the damaged material and shoveled it into a wheelbarrow. While one of the workmen broom-cleaned the hole and sprayed a bonding agent into the void, the other, much to our surprise, ground up the old asphalt in the wheelbarrow and combined a small amount of new ingredients. Unlike their American counterparts, the Italian workers were reusing every bit of what they had removed. It was an enlightening experience that we won’t soon forget. Experiencing this simple act made us realize that there are people on earth who fully realize the true meaning of conservation.
When Chris gets back from Chile and sets up his own household what kind of water heating unit do you think he will purchase?