If you want to save money long-term, improve your home’s energy efficiency, and provide endless hot water, a tankless water heater is an excellent choice. But, as with all purchases, there are costs involved.
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While a tankless water heater is more expensive to install than a standard storage tank model, energy savings offset the extra cost over time. Tankless water heaters use far less energy to produce hot water than traditional tank models, and many can even save energy by shutting down when demand is low.
When you turn on your hot water faucet, a flow sensor (a.k.a. the “hot water tap”) detects incoming water and signals a control panel to produce hot water. The control panel opens and ignites the gas valve if you have a gas unit. The heat exchanger takes in the surrounding air, and a mixing valve tempers the superheated water that exits the heat exchanger to create hot water. The control panel monitors the hot water production, and a sealed vent (11) through a roof or outside wall carries away exhaust gas and conveys combustion air to the burner.
Tankless water heaters are more efficient than traditional storage tank units and can have a UEF (Uniform Energy Factor) of 0.93. They also are considerably more efficient than high-efficiency gas tank water heaters, which typically have a UEF of 0.55.
Because a tankless water heater operates at the point of use, it is far more efficient than a traditional storage water heater that must constantly heat the entire house’s hot water supply. The result is reduced energy consumption, lower utility bills, and a smaller carbon footprint.
A tankless water heater may seem to work against its efficiency by creating short spikes in electricity usage during peak electrical demand periods (as they are plugged into an electric grid). However, many electric utilities offer a time-of-use rate structure that allows consumers to pay a lower cost for electricity during non-peak hours.
If you plan on living in your home for several years and have the space, a tankless water heater is a great choice. However, if you need more space for it in your garage or basement or are not used to running out of hot water because everyone showers at once, stick with a conventional tank-style water heater.
Unlike conventional tank water heaters that store hot water until needed, your new tankless system only heats water as it flows through the pipes. This saves energy that would otherwise be lost by reheating cold water or heating the stored water while waiting for use (called standby loss).
When you turn on your hot water faucet, a flow sensor detects the incoming water and activates the control panel to produce hot water. The control panel then signals the gas valve to open and the burner to ignite. The heat exchanger then captures the heat from the flame and transfers it to the water flowing through the tubing. The water then passes through a mixing valve that tempers the superheated water. The control panel monitors the temperature of the incoming water and adjusts the burner, the gas valve, and the flow-regulating water valve to maintain the desired set point.
Suppose you opt for a gas-powered tankless water heater. In that case, the control panel will also monitor the ambient air temperature and activate the fan to circulate the outside air over the heat exchanger to remove condensation. The venting system for a gas unit is typically a sealed venting pipe through a wall or roof. This carries away combustion byproducts and conveys combustion air to the burner.
An electric-powered tankless water heater plugs into a standard electrical outlet but may require a dedicated 30 amp circuit to power the water pump. If you need the necessary amperage on your electrical panel, upgrading it during your installation project may be required.
During installation, your plumber must be experienced with installing tankless systems and modifying existing homes. Your plumbing professional should also ensure your selected model is compatible with your home and local codes.
For gas units, your installer will need to install a T and valve in your existing gas line or run a new flexible corrugated stainless steel (CSST) supply line from the meter to the heater location. CSST is a lightweight, durable material that easily adapts to varying temperatures and resists corrosion. It’s also safe for use with most appliances. It would help if you also had the installer bond the CSST to the heater’s metal during your installation. This protects against lightning strikes, which can cause arcing and rupture of the line.
While a tankless water heater will last longer than one with a tank, it still needs routine maintenance to ensure it continues to work properly. This maintenance includes both internal and external maintenance tasks. The internal maintenance includes cleaning parts of your water heater that touch hot water, and the external maintenance involves flushing and a general inspection. It’s important to keep up with these tasks to avoid costly repairs.
If you’re not comfortable with doing this yourself, you can hire a professional to do it for you. A professional plumber will make sure all connections are leak-free and can inspect your unit for rust or damage, which is especially important if you have a gas unit. A professional will also be able to estimate how often your tankless water heater should be serviced, depending on where you live and the hardness of your water.
Most tanks have a sediment filter that must be cleaned regularly to prevent larger debris from entering the heating unit and damaging it. This is typically a simple task, as the filter is easily accessible and can be washed in running water or soaked in white vinegar until it is free of debris. The frequency of this cleaning will vary by model, so consult your instruction manual if you are unsure how frequently you should clean it.
Your tankless water heater will also have a fan that must be cleaned regularly. This can be done by turning off the power to your water heater and then opening the access panel or removing the cover. The hoses need to be disconnected from the hose ports, and then you can open the port valves.
Once you’ve opened the hose ports, remove the hose and drain it in a bucket. This process will take about 20 minutes, and your water heater will be debris-free. It’s also a good idea to inspect the outside of your tankless water heater regularly, looking for rust or other signs that it’s starting to break down.
As with most products, your new Tankless Water Heater will have a warranty. A warranty is an insurance policy that covers the costs of repairs or replacements for a specific period after purchase. Most manufacturers set their warranties at half of a product’s expected life span. When you purchase a tankless water heater, you will want to compare warranties to find the best deal.
Many homeowners buy a home warranty to cover repairs on appliances and systems prone to breaking down due to wear and tear. However, not all companies offer plans that include tankless water heaters, and those that do often charge a higher service fee for these systems. Consider adding a water heater add-on to your home warranty plan for added coverage.
The average lifespan of a traditional tank water heater is eight to 12 years, while the average tankless water heater has a lifespan of 20 years. Tankless water heaters use less energy because they only heat water when needed. Additionally, they are not as susceptible to corrosion that impacts the life expectancy of a conventional water heater.
A tankless water heater installation requires making gas and venting connections for the unit and upgrading the wiring and circuit breaker panel. Having a professional handle, this installation is recommended to ensure the work is done correctly and complies with local codes. In addition, the professional will guarantee that the system is plugged into a dedicated circuit and that the voltage is adequate for the water heater.
The manufacturer will repair or replace the heater in case of a malfunction or failure. Sometimes, the manufacturer may send a different heater model or brand. The warranty will not cover damage to the heating element due to rust or corrosion, water quality issues, or other factors outside the manufacturer’s control.