One of the joys of modern life is the ability to turn a knob and have nearly immediate access to hot water. We use our water heaters daily for everything from doing our laundry and washing dishes to enjoying a relaxing bath or shower.
We don’t often think about the appliance that makes hot water possible, as long as it works when we need it to. Whether you’re selecting appliances for new construction or need to replace your current water heater, there are a few things you should know.
As a top-rated Home Advisor pro, we often get questions from our customers about their household comfort and the technology that keeps us happy and healthy. If you’re in the market for a water heater or want to understand more about how yours works, review our essential water heater guide.
What Is a Water Heater?
A water heater does precisely what its name implies: It takes clean, cold water from a water supply pipe and warms it up. Then, this appliance pumps hot water to plumbing fixtures throughout your home, so it’s ready for you when you turn on a faucet or start a cycle of laundry or dishwashing.
Water heaters are familiar fixtures in most homes. They usually look like large, cylindrical metal drums often found in a laundry room, garage or basement.
Since a water heater isn’t an everyday purchase, you likely not have put much research into how they work, what they do, what style to get and how to maintain yours to extend its lifespan. Read on to learn more about all these.
Types of Water Heaters
If you’re ready to upgrade or update your home’s hot water source, you may be surprised to find how many options are available. There are five main water heater styles, each with distinct pros and cons. To help you choose which is best for your needs, here are details about each type.
Conventional Water Heaters
The traditional water heater stores water in a large, metal tank. These remain prevalent in homes throughout the country because they tend to be more affordable than other varieties, are easy to install and can keep gallons of hot water ready to go.
A water heater with a tank warms cold incoming water via a gas burner or electric heating rods. Once the water has reached the desired temperature, the water heater stores it within the tank, waiting for you to turn on your sink or shower. When you turn on your faucet or an appliance like your dishwasher, the water heater moves the warmed water through your plumbing pipes to the appropriate fixture.
Tankless Water Heaters
A tankless water heater, also known as an on-demand water heater, uses heated coils to provide hot water whenever you need it. If you and your family need unlimited hot water quickly, a tankless water heater can deliver it.
These appliances have the advantage of being more energy-efficient than traditional models, but they are also somewhat costlier to install and can be more challenging to maintain, due to small, hard-to-access components. Larger models might also be more expensive to run, based on your gas or electricity usage. When purchasing a tankless water heater, size is an essential consideration, as an undersized water heater won’t be able to keep up with your demands for hot water.
Hybrid Water Heaters
Hybrid water heaters rely on a heat pump that uses heat from the air or ground. Because of their design, heat pump water heaters can use less electricity than traditional models and are highly energy-efficient, thus saving you money on your utility bills over time. However, because hybrid water heaters have a tank, they require periodic cleaning and maintenance to extend their lifespan.
Because heat pump water heaters work by extracting heat from the surrounding ground or air, they’ll be less effective in uninsulated spaces like garages and basements or in regions that experience colder winters. Another possible drawback is that hybrid water heaters can have a significant upfront cost to purchase.
Solar-Powered Water Heaters
Solar-powered water heaters are an environmentally friendly option that harnesses the sun’s rays to generate energy. If you already have a solar panel array at your home or are considering having one installed, this water heater option can work in tandem with your solar photovoltaic system to provide your household with warm water.
Solar-powered water heaters are the most energy-efficient choice if you’re looking for ways to reduce your carbon footprint. If you live somewhere warm that sees a lot of sunshine year-round, using your solar panels to power your water heater might be an ideal choice for you. However, you might also wish to invest in a backup solution like natural gas or electricity to power your water heater on overcast days.
Condensing Water Heater
If your household already uses natural gas heat, you might want to consider investing in an environmentally friendly condensing water heater. This appliance uses the exhaust from the natural gas system — funneled through a coil at the bottom of the tank — to heat the water. This design uses very little energy to heat the water for your home.
When choosing a tank-style condensing water heater, you’ll need to be sure to get one that’s large enough for your family’s needs. Remember that your home isn’t a good candidate for a condensing water heater if you rely on electric heat.
Factors That May Influence Your Purchase Decision
If you regularly find yourself running out of hot water in the middle of a shower, it may be time for you to update or repair your water heater. The average water heater life expectancy is only about a decade or so, even if you have kept yours well-maintained. When you’re shopping for a new water heater, here are some factors to consider.
Fuel Type, Availability and Cost
Traditionally, both tankless and tank-style water heaters use fuel sources like electricity, natural gas or even propane to operate. You’ll need to ensure the water heater you choose matches the fuel type available to you. For example, if you use electricity to heat your home, it wouldn’t make sense to buy a natural gas-powered water heater. The fuel you use to power your water heater will also play a role in your annual operating costs.
Regardless of the fuel source, you want to match your new water heater to your household needs. Look at the “first-hour” rating — the number of gallons the water heater can supply each hour when starting with a full tank. This rating depends on the tank’s size, the heating source and the heating element. Next, estimate how many gallons of hot water your family uses, on average, per day, and get a water heater that can accommodate at least that amount.
Water heaters can be a significant source of energy usage in any home. While electric water heaters can be efficient, their ability to keep up with hot water usage tends to be much slower than gas, so gas water heaters usually make most sense for families and larger households. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends selecting an ENERGY STAR®-rated water heater with a high efficiency rating.
Before you invest in a water heater, it’s smart to research and compare various models’ annual operating costs. You’ll also want to know the cost of the unit itself, as well as any estimated expenses associated with having a new appliance professionally installed. A water heater can be a costly purchase, but don’t risk your safety by attempting a DIY installation if you don’t have the necessary tools and training.
Features to Consider
If you’re in the market for a new water heater for your property, here are four factors you’ll want to think about to guide your decision. As with any large investment, there are pros and cons to weigh in light of your family’s needs and your household budget.
Coverage for brand-new water heaters typically last three to 12 years. While you’ll usually pay a bit more for longer-warranty models, they tend to be more efficient in terms of how quickly they heat water and how well they resist heat loss. When shopping for water heaters, look for the longest warranty available to protect your purchase.
Mineral scale buildup can shorten a water heater’s lifespan. Some water heater models come with built-in devices designed to reduce scale accumulation by swirling water around the tank. While this feature isn’t a must-have, you might want to look for brands that have it if your financial circumstances allow.
Brass vs. Plastic Drain Valves
Most new tank-style water heaters come with plastic drain valves, which are gadgets near the bottom of the tank that connect to a standard hose for ease of drainage. Metal valves are more robust and longer-lasting than plastic ones, and plumbers recommend using brass drain valves because they provide fast draining and less need for maintenance.
Many newer-model water heaters come with digital displays that help owners monitor their unit’s health by showing information like water pressure and temperature levels. If you’re a frequent traveler, you might want to look for a water heater that comes with a vacation-mode feature that automatically helps reduce your water temperature and energy bills while you’re out of town.
Maintaining a Conventional Water Heater
As with any appliance, regular upkeep of your water heater can prolong its life by helping it do its job better. If you want to save money on your energy bills and prevent your water heater from premature failure, knowing how to do a few simple DIY tasks can go a long way.
If you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work on your water heater, what equipment will you need to have on hand?
- A bucket
- A standard garden hose
- A pipe wrench and socket wrench with 1 1/16” head
- A flat-head screwdriver
Test the TPR Valve
Your water heater’s temperature-pressure release valve is a safety device designed to automatically release water if pressure or temperature in the water tank exceeds safe levels. To test this device, take these steps:
- Shut off the power and the cold-water supply valve.
- Place a bucket under the pipe connected to the TPR valve.
- Lift the valve’s tab to let some water out, then let go. If water keeps flowing, drain the tank partway, unscrew the old valve with a pipe wrench, then install a new one.
Check the Anode Rod
Rust is the most significant threat to any tank-style water heater. Your tank has a rod inside to keep rust from eating through the metal. Without this rod, hot water rapidly corrodes the inside of the tank, shortening its life. It’s much less expensive to replace the anode rod than it is to purchase and install a replacement water heater. To check the anode rod:
- Connect a hose to the tank’s drain valve and let out a few gallons of water.
- Now, fit a 1 1/16-inch socket onto the rod’s hex head and unscrew it. If you see it’s less than half an inch thick or coated with calcium, buy a new rod, wrap its threads with Teflon tape, put it back in the tank and tighten securely.
Drain the Tank and Wash Out Sediment
Over time, sediment can accumulate inside a water heater, which can lead to clogs. Draining your water heater is an essential part of flushing out minerals and other debris that can cause a malfunction.
- Shut off the water and power supply to your appliance.
- The water inside your heater’s tank can be more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. For safety’s sake and to prevent scalds, let the water cool for several hours before draining your heater.
- Attach a hose to your drain valve and put the other end into a bucket.
- Open the drain valve, allowing water to flow into your bucket.
- With the drain valve still open, turn the cold water back on to help eliminate any remaining sediment on the bottom of the tank. Repeat this step until the water runs clear. Then, turn the water valve off again.
- Turn the water supply back on to start refilling your tank.
Adjust the Temperature
Most water heaters come with their temperature preset at 140 degrees Fahrenheit by the manufacturer, but most homes only need temperatures around 120 degrees. For every 10 degrees you lower your water heater’s temperature, you can save up to 5% in energy costs. To adjust the temperature, unscrew the temperature dial’s cover, then use your flathead screwdriver to reduce the preset temperature from 140 to 120 degrees.
Insulate the Pipes
Insulating your hot water pipes reduces heat loss and can raise water temperature several degrees hotter than uninsulated pipes can deliver. You also won’t have to wait as long for hot water when you turn on a faucet or showerhead, which helps conserve water.
You can buy pipe sleeves or strips of fiberglass insulation from your local hardware store, and secure them with acrylic or duct tape, cable ties, aluminum foil tape or wire to secure the pipe-wrap material of your choice.
Insulate the Heater
If you’re not sure if your storage tank water heater’s insulation is up to snuff, touch it. If it’s warm, you need to add insulation. It’s an easy DIY fix that can save you a surprising amount in water heating costs. Many home improvement stores offer pre-cut blankets and jackets you can fit over the tank and secure with duct tape.
Every homeowner needs reliable professional service providers they can count on. At Pileiro Heating and Cooling, we proudly serve New Jersey’s Cape May and Atlantic counties with high-quality work at an affordable price.
Whether you need emergency repairs, routine HVAC maintenance or a full-scale replacement of your home’s climate control system, please reach out to us today. We have attained Trane Home Comfort Specialist certification and are part of the Top-Rated Home Advisor Pro network. We also maintain membership with Air Conditioning Contractors Association of America, the leading trade organization representing the heating and cooling industry.