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Hot Water Heaters | Consider an Upgrade for Energy Efficiency

Posted at 08/14/2017 02:16 PM by Pat O'Connor

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What it lacks in sex appeal, this critical component of your home makes up for in resourcefulness.

Think of the hot water heater as part of the offensive line of your home. Its “teammates” would include the HVAC unit, electrical panel and the roof, critical pieces of your home that don’t get the notoriety but are key elements in an viable home.

This decade has seen energy efficiency driving every aspect of home improvement, from your washer and dryer to new and replacement windows. The hot water heater is no exception. People want to invest in items that will save them money in the short and long term. Additionally, people are attracted to smaller setups that require less room and units that incorporate modern technology for optimal settings.

Roy Yehle, from Bill Smith Plumbing and Heating in Englewood, offers some insight into the latest technology and what people need to know before making this purchase.

What are some of the latest trends in water heater manufacturing/sales?  

Higher efficiency, and downsizing the unit. Hot water heaters have traditionally been quite large and have needed a lot of space.

What are the factors driving these trends?

Government regulation has required the water heater manufactures to produce more efficient water heaters. This includes a push to condensing type water heaters, which you’ll find in tankless water heaters. For the tank type water heaters, the efficiency can only be pushed so high; one way of achieving this is to add more insulation around the top and the sides of water heaters. Adding 2” insulation to a 50-gallon heater has caused the diameter of the heater to balloon to a point that, in some cases, we can’t get the new 50-gallon heater to fit where the old 50-gallon heater once did. The solution to this problem is to downsize to a 40-gallon heater for a tank type heater or upgrade to a tankless heater which mounts on the wall and takes up less room. We can add a mixing valve onto the smaller 40-gallon tank type water heater, turn the temperature on the control to 160 Fahrenheit (normally set at 120F without the mixing valve), and dial the mixing valve to 105-120F. This produces more hot water than the 50-gallon heater did on its own, and extends the life of the water heater by keeping it out of the “cold zone.”

How is the demand for energy efficient devices affecting water heater sales?

The cost of water heaters has increased as a result of this. The extra insulation on tank type water heaters caused the price to jump. In one case, we were told the plant that made the insulation had to upgrade their factory to produce more environmentally friendly insulation, and the price tag for that alone caused a 15% increase. The most common questions we get are, “Can I get a tankless water heater in my house?” and “How much money can I save by using a tankless water heater compared to a tank type?”

The answer to the first question requires an onsite examination. There are too many variables in each home to give an educated quote over the phone. The answer to the second question is completely dependent on how one chooses to use the tankless water heater. They are more efficient when they fire up, and they don’t store any hot water so therefore they don’t lose hot water. But, if they are forced to make a lot of hot water for an extended period of time, they will burn more gas than the tank type water heater. Xcel energy does offer rebates when buying a more efficient water heater.

https://www.xcelenergy.com/programs_and_rebates/residential_programs_and_rebates/equipment_and_appliances/water_heater_rebates.

Talk a little about smart water heaters

Smart water heaters are units that have had WiFi capability added to them and allows the customer to to get alerts associated with water heater operation. For example, you may change a setting on the water heater remotely on a handheld device like a smartphone or tablet, or a computer. This technology is usually associated with the tankless water heater, but there have been some add on kits for the tank type water heater.

What about hybrid water heaters? How do they work? Are they worth the price?

Rinnai brand tankless water heaters offer a hybrid unit that has one of their 82-84% efficient tankless heaters mounted on the side of a 30-40-gallon tank. It has a small pump inside that works to exchange the water in the tank through the heater apparatus. It heats the water up faster in the tank, and it does not lose any of the hot water it stores up a center baffle, like a tank type water heater. The other hybrids we have seen focus on space heating and making domestic hot water.

HTP brand makes a unit that has a dedicated tankless domestic heater with a small exchanger inside that also acts as the home’s boiler for space heating. This unit is a true condensing type of heater that operates in the 94-96% efficiency range. However, the boiler feature only works well with in-floor radiant heat that operates at a cooler range, as opposed to regular baseboard perimeter heating that requires hotter temperatures.

The pros to the hybrids usually come in efficiency of operation, and space savings. The cons would be the price to purchase and install are usually higher, and it is akin to the purchase of a tv with a built in VCR from back in the old days. If one of the the attachments goes bad, then it is no longer a hybrid but a partial operating unit.

Are solar water heaters viable?

They can be if they are installed properly, and if you can find someone to service them. We here in Colorado enjoy somewhere close to 300 days of sunshine a year. Unfortunately, our solar industry has never really taken off to a point where it is sustainable to the manufacturers, the contractors, their technicians or the consumer. There has not been enough interest demonstrated by the consumer to support the industry.

The price of solar water heating has always been too high and consumers have lost interest.  Through the years, there have been some good systems and bad systems. People have been burned by the bad systems, and that is mainly what people remember -- the bad system failures. So, with a languishing industry, consumers have found it hard to get good information, or if they have a solar water system, finding a stable contractor who hasn’t gone out of business, due to lack of business, or lack of good technicians.

Give me a price breakdown on various to water heaters and installation costs. How much money can people expect to save on energy costs?

The government has dictated that the lowest efficiency allowed to be installed is a .62 efficient tank type water heater. Material and labor will vary according to size and BTU inputs but figure $1,500 to $3,500 (cost of operation per year, $237-272). More efficient tank type heaters that have either a damper or a draft fan to help the efficiency will be priced between $2,000 to $4,500 (cost to operate per year $193). Tankless heaters hybrid to true condensing tankless heaters vary between $3,500 to $5,500 installed (approx. cost to operate per year $148).

The most efficient type of heater is the heat pump type that don’t use gas. They have an electric heat pump built in on top that exchanges indoor air in the home to heat the water, with a hefty price tag of $5,000 to $7,000 installed (cost to operate per year, $143).

All these prices fluctuate depending on the type of home and usage.  The approximate cost of operation per year is based on manufacturer website information (A.O. Smith, Bradford White, Rheem, Rinnai).

Why are people attracted to tankless water heaters? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

People are attracted to tankless water heaters because they offer a chance to be more energy efficient but there have been some misnomers about their ability to deliver “endless” hot water. Under the right circumstances, they can produce a lot of hot water. The advantages are that they save space, they can be put in a closet, in the crawlspace or outside the home. They do offer savings in operation, especially when they are the condensing variety. They are more interactive and out of the box, compared to tank type water heaters Some come with a remote-control panel that can be installed in a different part of the house for more often and convenient control of the heating mechanism.

The disadvantages are, if you decide to use it for endless hot water, your energy bill will be endless as well. While it is true that they are more efficient, they can burn more gas than a tank type water heater, albeit at a more efficient rate. Also, the installation will require a larger gas line than the one connected to your current tank type heater. Make sure to check to see in the larger lines are available through your energy company. Also, your current tank type water heater may be able to operate during a power outage (if it is naturally drafted, like most are); the tankless will not be able to operate, unless you have appropriate back up power. Tankless water heaters are adversely affected by the cold water we experience in the Denver area during the late winter/early spring, slowing down how much “endless” hot water they can produce. Tankless water heaters must be serviced at least once a year to flush out calcium deposits in the exchanger; otherwise, the manufacturer may void your warranty. Be aware of these higher installation costs.

How long will the new water heaters last?

The average lifespan of a tank type water heater in the Denver area is 10-12 years. The tank type water heaters’ downfall is the center baffle that runs up through the center of the water heater. This area loses energy after it has gone through a heat cycle, about a gallon’s worth of hot water in a 12-hour period. Also as the tank type water heater is taxed by heavy use (multiple showers, tub filling, dishwasher/clothes washer) the water heater cools down to what we call the “cold zone.” The heater becomes like a cold glass of water on a hot humid day, it sweats. This sweat, combined with the burning flue product of the spent gas supply, turns acidic and starts to eat away at the metal of the baffle tube. Most water heaters fail in the baffle area because of this, and begin to leak. This problem grows to be an even bigger problem in the late winter and early spring in the Denver area, where the water delivered to houses fall to chilly 38-42 degrees. Most manufacturers offer a 6-10 year warranty on their tanks. As far as tankless heaters, those manufacturers have a 12-15 year warranty.

Should people wait until the current water heater breaks before getting a new one?

Although we have seen some tank type water heaters last as long as 27 years, this is an anomaly. We  would never suggest someone to plan on that happening and one shouldn’t wait for water to start seeping out of the water heater. Manufacturers don’t  place expect all the working parts to operate correctly on the water heater after their warranty has expired. This can potentially lead to catastrophic failure resulting in flooding, gas leaks and loss of hot water. Also with the downsizing of a water heater, this could lead to sending your new water heater into the “cold zone,” We suggest adding a mixing valve onto the smaller heater, so the new heater will operate in a warmer zone. Sizing your water heater correctly can save you money in the long run, even though going with a larger more expensive heater initially hurts the wallet. Our suggestion is if your water heater is out of warranty, it is time to start planning for a new heater. Most manufactures have a page on their website that will allow you to look up your serial number, and will tell you if you are under warranty or not. Also, we can always help navigate this for you.

Bill Smith Plumbing and Heating has been serving the Denver area since 1956. They provide service and installation for your home’s plumbing, heating or cooling systems. You may reach them at 303-781-7856.

Posted by Pat O'Connor

Pat O’Connor has dual citizenship in both Wisconsin and Colorado, having been born and raised in Wisconsin Dells, but later adopted by the Centennial State. A graduate of the University of Colorado (B.S. Journalism, 1980), O’Connor began her career as a sportswriter at the Boulder Daily Camera under the tutelage of the venerable Dan Creedon. Her experience also includes stints in public relations at Aspen Highlands Ski Area, the Colorado Trial Lawyers and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. When she isn’t piecing together sentences, the self-proclaimed “Cheesehead” enjoys traveling, running, playing golf, hiking 14ers, horseback riding and skiing. During football season, she can be found cheering for the Buffs and "whooping it up" when the Packers win. She loves talking sports and giving recommendations on cheese curds.

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Topics: Home Improvement