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Tankless Water Heaters  (January 30th, 2013)

Almost everyone is familiar with a conventional gas fired or electric water heater.  Our parents had them, our parent’s, parents had them.  They’ve been around a long time and are more often than not, completely forgotten about until something goes wrong.  They are also usually rented and you pay a fee every month so that you can have hot water whenever you needed it (in theory).

The most frequent complaint with a water heater is capacity.  Your teenager has just taken one of their famous 45 minute showers and now there is very little left for the rest of the family.  Or another scenario, you have company over and by the time the fourth person is done, there is no more hot water left.

Enter the tankless water heater.  These appliances work by heating the water as it passes through it, and can supply literally endless amounts of hot water.  Seem to good to be true–well it is and it isn’t..

The Pros:

As already mentioned, there is endless supply.  As long as the water is running, then it is producing hot water.  They also typically take up less space than a conventional water heater, often mounting on a sidewall in your equipment room.  The venting is dependent on the unit, but high efficiency units can vent just like a high efficiency furnace (out the side of the home rather than up a chimney).  

This brings us to the next pro: efficiency.  The standard conventional water heater can be as low as 50% efficient with units rated from 62% and higher being considered “high efficiency” (source: wikipedia).  If it’s not advertised on the tank, you can bet that you don’t have anything special heating your water.  Tankless units on the other hand claim efficiencies from 80-94%!  

The Cons:

The main detractor for these units is that they are more expensive to purchase than a conventional water heater–sometimes even twice as much depending on the unit.  This does scare many would-be switchers but I often urge people to look at the lifetime savings and see if it fits your application

There is a also a bit longer delay getting hot water in comparison.  So if your existing tap takes 10 seconds to get warm water it may increase to 15 or 20 seconds.  You will also have a tendency to use more hot water( if it doesn’t run out,why get out of the shower quicker right?).

The “cold water sandwich”.  This occurs when one person uses the shower, then another person comes in a few minutes after they are done.  The second person gets almost instant hot water so they hop in and start their routine.  They are then blasted by a slug of cold water, followed by more hot water.  This happens because when the first person shut off the shower, the unit shut down full of cold water.  The next person turns it on and all that cold water is pushed into the pipes before it was fully heated.

Often, maintenance is needed more often.  As mentioned up top, most people don’t do anything with their current water heater(sometimes absolutely nothing!)  A tankless needs to be flushed every six months or so to ensure that the heat exchanger isn’t filling with debris and hard water build up. Failure to do this WILL KILL the unit!  (Like any appliance it will also last longer when properly maintained, but most people consider doing maintenance a con so that’s why its in the this section)

Then there are the effects of using multiple fixtures.  This complaint comes from buying a unit too small for the application.  A standard tank typically supplies many fixtures at once, since it is running on the same pressure as the house supply.  A tankless unit on the other hand is rated at a certain GPM (gallon per minute) depending on how hot the water needs to be and how cold it is when it comes in.  

If the water is very cold coming in, it takes more heat and the unit restricts flow until the desired temperature is reached.  Assume 4.3GPM rating is a 1 to 2 fixture unit, whereas a 9.4GPM rated unit can do 2-4 fixtures at one time (2 showers at once).

Last point: it sometimes does not play well with low flow fixtures and appliances.  Many units need a minimum flow rate to even turn on and some appliances have become so efficient that the water heater doesn’t “see it”.  

Most of the cons can be mitigated by some lifestyle changes (changes that save you money incidentally) but you must be willing to make those changes to fully appreciate the benefits.

So where do I stand on these units?  I have one and absolutely love it–If I move, I’m taking it with me!  Case study: Our first unit was rated at 4.3GPM.  We have a family of 4 with two young boys.  It will easily run a shower, a bath, etc. but it will not run two showers or two baths (not really an issue yet since our boys aren’t nearly old enough to compete for shower time).  

That said, we did have to remove flow restrictors on the shower heads, and we now do a majority of our laundry in cold water since our high efficiency washing machine doesn’t have enough demand to activate the unit (this fitted our lifestyle, so no issues for us).  We also now fill the kitchen sink with hot water while filling the dishwasher.  Again, this was a lifestyle switch–we now wash pots and pans and weird shaped dishes while filling the dishwasher or else it needs to pre-heat the water and it takes longer to run.  If this isn’t your thing, then dishwashers with built in heaters handle this with no problem.

Our next unit is rated at 9.4GPM and I can’t wait to get it installed….to be continued…

If you have any questions about the above, please feel free to contact me–always happy to share my experience!

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