Water Heater Buying Guide
Looking for a new water heater?
Trying to figure out the best water heater to buy? Maybe your current one is on its last legs or you’ve simply outgrown your old unit. Chances are the technology, options and accessories for water heaters have changed since your last purchase. Use our handy guide on how to choose a water heater. AZ plumbing is happy to provide this buying guide on water heater information as a service to you.
Water Heater Types
The size of your family, the utilities in your area and the space available for your water heater all play a role in determining how to choose a water heater. Buy a water heater with the following information in mind.
Storage tank water heaters are the most common type and the best water heater to buy. These units have an insulated tank where water is heated and stored until it is needed. They are available in electric, liquid propane (LP) and natural gas models. Natural gas and LP water heaters normally use less energy and are less expensive to operate than electric models of the same size.
Storage tank water heaters are designated by the amount of water they hold, in gallons. Tank size is one of the major considerations when purchasing one of these water heaters. If you intend to use a storage tank water heater, use our chart as a guide to finding the size you need.
• Another consideration for storage tank water heaters is recovery rate — the number of gallons of water they can heat in an hour. The greater your demand for hot water, the higher recovery rate you need.
• When you buy a water heater, look at the energy efficiency and yearly operating costs of a water heater before you decide which one is right for your needs. This information can be found on the EnergyGuide label.
• Know the dimensions of the space where your water heater resides. If your hot water use increases and you need to upgrade to a larger tank size, it may be necessary to run plumbing to a different area so the new, larger unit will fit. One alternative to running new plumbing is to purchase a low boy or shorty water heater. These units are shorter and bigger around than a normal water heater, allowing them to hold the same amount of water as their larger counterparts while still fitting in areas with limited headroom.
• Small storage tank water heaters, known as point of use, utility or mobile home water heaters, are good choices for adding hot water to out buildings, shops or garages. Utility water heaters usually range in size from 2.5 to 19 gallons. The largest of these miniature units can also be used to provide hot water to secondary bathrooms that may be situated far from your home’s main water heater.
Tankless or on demand water heaters do not store hot water; rather they heat water as it passes through a series of coils in the unit. Since the unit only heats water as you use it, a tankless heater is usually more energy efficient than a traditional storage tank water heater. They are available in electric, LP and natural gas models. A tankless unit can provide an unlimited amount of hot water, but it can only provide a limited volume. Most tankless units can provide up to 3.5 gallons of heated water per minute. These units are a good choice for anyone whose demand doesn’t typically call for hot water at more than two points at a time.
Hot water dispensers are a convenient point of use water heaters. They are great for making soups, sauces, oatmeal and other instant foods. These units provide 190° water instantly, so be careful when using them.
There are many accessories available to improve safety and efficiency in your water heater.Water heater stands raise gas units off the ground and reduce the risk of fire in the event of a flammable liquid spill nearby.
• Water heater pans sit under the heater and collect water from leaks or overflows caused by excess pressure in the tank. The pan has an opening in the side for a drain hose to carry away any overflow water.
• Water alarms sit either on the floor or in the pan beside the water heater. If the heater leaks or overflows, the alarm will sense the liquid and give an audio alarm to alert the homeowner that there is a problem.
• Tank expanders are plumbed to the water heater. They are designed to hold the extra volume of water that can be produced when cold water is heated in the tank.
• Pressure regulators are connected to the outlet side of the water heater to keep the water pressure from exceeding a preset limit as it exits the tank. Regulating the pressure helps protect the interior pipes from leaking or bursting due to pressure surges in the plumbing system.
• Timers are wired into the unit’s electrical supply and can be set so the water heater only draws electricity at specified times. Running the water heater only when needed cuts down on energy use and saves you money.
• Insulating water heater blankets are made especially to fit over the unit and reinforce the insulating ability of the water heater. Insulating blankets are best for heaters that reside in garages or other unheated spaces.
Water heaters: Hot tips for a better buy
You probably don’t think much about your water heater until a cold shower or a telltale puddle suggests that you need a new one–now. How to choose? Most look alike on the outside. But a look inside tells a very different story.
Sawing open 18 gas and electric models confirmed that paying a little more for a longer warranty typically buys you a better water heater. Several smart steps can also help you save money, avoid installation hassles, and get enough hot water, even on busy mornings.
See whether it’s fixable. While a corroded, leaking the tank isn’t salvageable, a leaky drain valve or pressure relief valve or a worn-out electric heating element can be repaired. But replacing the heater may make more sense.
Find out by getting a repair estimate. Then weigh that amount against the $500 to $600 you’ll pay for a new heater with installation. A rule of thumb: Consider a repair if the labor cost, which warranties often exclude, averages less than $50 per year for each remaining year of coverage. Otherwise put the roughly $100 you’ll pay just for the plumber’s visit toward installing a new unit, especially if yours is out of warranty.
Look past capacity. Most water heaters are sold on that basis. But a water heater’s first-hour rating (FHR) is more important since it tells you how much hot water the heater can deliver in an hour of use.
Determine how much hot water you need based on the busiest hour of an average day. Figure on roughly 2 gallons for shaving, 4 gallons for washing face and hands, 5 gallons for preparing food, 10 gallons for a dishwasher, and 20
gallons each for a 10-minute shower and a load of laundry. Factor in growing children and other issues that can increase your water needs.
Once you’ve arrived at a total, be sure that the FHR on the new heater’s yellow EnergyGuide label meets or exceeds that amount.
Look for a long warranty. Most cover 6, 9, or 12 years. Heaters with the lowest and highest warranties differ by just $60 to $80 for electric models and $50 to $100 for gas units. But we found much bigger differences inside.
COVERAGE COMPARED A look inside these gas water heaters confirms that a move up in warranty coverage from 6 years (foreground, left) to 12 years (foreground, right) typically buys thicker outer heat insulation, among other features.
Electric water heaters with 9- and 12-year warranties typically had larger heating elements, thicker insulation, and thicker or longer corrosion-fighting metal rods, referred to as anodes.
Most higher-warranty gas heaters had bigger burners and better heat transfer for faster water heating, along with more anode material and thicker insulation. An exception: Whirlpool’s 40-gallon gas heaters, whose 9- and 12-year models are identical inside.
Longer coverage is especially important considering that warranties typically cover only the heater, not the $200 to $300 you’ll pay a pro to install a new one. You’ll also welcome a longer warranty if you have hard water and use water softeners. These softeners can speed up the rate of anode corrosion. While anodes can be replaced if there’s enough clearance to remove them, you’ll need a plumber unless you’re handy.
Measure before you buy. Last year’s tougher federal energy standards require about 10 percent higher efficiency for gas water heaters and about 5 percent for electric models. But the insulation addded to meet those standards has made some heaters up to 4 inches fatter, a potential problem for closets and other tight spots.
Consider gas. Based on national average fuel costs, gas heaters cost roughly half as much to run as electric models and can pay for their higher up-front cost in as little as a year. Factor in the cost of running a gas line to your home if you don’t have one. Also, consider adding insulation to hot-water pipes and the cold water pipe exiting the water heater.
You may have heard about tankless water heaters, which save energy by heating only the water you draw. Those savings can add up to some $50 per year compared with conventional heaters. But even at that rate, it will take more than 25 years for an average household to recoup the extra $1,300 or so those units cost to buy, install, and maintain. Keep it safe. New 30-, 40-, and 50-gallon gas heaters are designed to prevent the heater’s flame from igniting flammable vapors in the room. As with any fuel burning appliance, however, you’ll still need smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors.
Also remember that heaters are generally vented through the same chimney as a furnace or boiler. If you change venting for one appliance, you might need to change it for the other.
Advice from the Experts:
Water Heater Maintenance
By Simon Leizgold
The water heater is something most of us take for granted, until it suddenly stops working. As cold water imposes reality, we desperately dial a plumber or rush off to get a new water heater. All this might be avoided with some regular preventive maintenance. In this article you will learn the following maintenance tasks:
• How to drain and clean your tank.
• How to change the anode rod.
• How to replace an electric heating element.
• How to test the pressure relief valve.
• Understanding the dip tube
• Water temperature tips
Water heater maintenance is easy to overlook because the tank just sits there and has no moving parts to worry about. But inside, two things are constantly attacking your water heater: sediment and rust.
Most steel water heater tanks are lined with glass to prevent rust. But the glass lining is never perfect, and the constant temperature fluctuations cause it to expand and contract, causing minute openings. When water eventually penetrates the lining, the tank begins to rust.
At the same time, the heated water causes calcium carbonate to form in the water. It’s a type of limestone that you can probably see inside your old teapot. As it forms, the calcium carbonate settles to the bottom of the tank. In gas-fired water heaters, the sediment eventually becomes thick enough at the bottom to reduce the heating efficiency. In electric tanks, sediment collects on the heating element, forming a hard crust that eventually renders the element useless.
To keep your water heater operating correctly, and to extend its life by years, you need to carry out regular maintenance to minimize rust and calcium carbonate.
How to Drain and Clean the Tank
The first task is to drain the tank at least once a year. This will remove most of the sediment collecting at the bottom of the tank. To drain the tank, follow these steps:
• Shut off gas or electricity to the water heater.
• Attach a garden hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the tank.
• Close the incoming cold water valve at the top of the tank.
• Open the pressure relief valve on the tank to break the vacuum.
• Open the drain valve on the tank and drain it.
• When finished, reverse the process, remembering to not turn on the gas or
electricity until the tank has refilled.
If your tank is located in the basement or a low area that prevents gravity flow draining, you can purchase a small electric pump, about the size of softball, in plumbing shops or large home supply centers. With this, you can pump the water from your tank to an outside drain or to an upstairs sink.
If you remove the anode rod at the same time (see below), you can insert a hose and nozzle into the water tank to blast loose the bottom sediment.
How to Change the Anode Rod.
The next crucial part of maintenance, which is rarely done, is to replace the anode rod in the tank. This rod is a length of magnesium or aluminum that is suspended in the tank and acts like a magnet to attract charged water molecules that would otherwise attack the steel tank. Check it each year when you drain the tank and replace if covered with lime or eaten away. Rods will usually last 5 to 10 years without checking, but cleaning them
prolongs the life. To replace the rod, which you can buy at a plumbing shop, follow these steps:
• Shut off the incoming cold water valve at the top of the tank.
• Unscrew the nut on the top of the tank that suspends the anode rod.
• Clip on new rod, insert into tank, and retighten the nut.
• Open cold water valve again.
How to Replace an Electric Heating Element
If your electric water heater has not been cleaned for years and seems inefficient, check the heating element. This is a rod that screws into the side of the water heater tank. Generally there are two of them, one high and one low. It’s the low one that is usually coated with calcium carbonate. The rod is connected to electrical wires but is still easy to change. Here’s how:
• Shut off electricity to the water tank.
• Test that power is off with an inexpensive electrical tester.
• Shut off the cold water supply valve.
• Open the pressure relief valve on the tank to break the vacuum.
• Connect a hose to the drain valve at the bottom and drain the tank.
• Open the cover located near the bottom of the tank to expose the heating element.
• Disconnect the electrical and ground wires on the heating element.
• Remove the screws that hold the element in place and pull it out.
• Buy a matching one at a home supply or plumbing center and install.
• Reverse the above process, remembering not to turn the power on until the tank is
How to Test the Pressure Release Valve
Another item to check when carrying out annual maintenance is the pressure relief valve. This is a valve on the side of the tank near the top. It should be connected to a pipe that directs the water down and away from the tank so that scalding water does not spray a person if the valve releases due to excessive pressure.
The valves should be opened at least once a year to make sure they work and do not become clogged with calcium carbonate. You can test the valve while the water tank if sull by lifting the handle slightly. Do this with caution because it will release hot water. Put a container under the drainpipe to catch the water. If the valve does not release, or if it will not shut off after the test, then it is corroded and needs to be replaced. To replace,
shut off the incoming cold water valve above the tank, open a nearby faucet to release the pressure, unscrew the pressure release valve, and install a new one.
Understanding the Dip Tube
The dip tube is a little-mentioned but important part of a water heater. It is a plastic tube on the cold water inlet that caries the incoming cold water to the bottom of the tube, where the heating process goes on. Hot water, which rises, is at the top of the tank. If the dip tub breaks off, cold water will surge into the top of the tank and quickly lower the temperature of the hot water there. Dip tubes in water heaters made between 1993-96
sometimes did break. A sign of this is just a few minutes of hot water before it turns cold. If you suspect a broken dip tube, take these steps to repair it:
• Shut off the incoming water valve.
• Remove the flex line from the incoming cold water to the water heater.
• Remove the fitting on top of the tank and pull out the dip tube.
• Buy a compatible replacement and reinstall.
• Reconnect piping and turn water back on.
Water Temperature Tips
Finally, keep the water temperature at 120F to 130F. Higher temperatures are generally necessary. Lower temperatures not only save energy, but also prevent overheating. You may have to keep the water temperature at 140 if your dishwasher does not have a heating element in it. Open the door and if you see a gray rod going around the perimeter of the bottom well in the dishwasher, that’s a heating element.
If your water heater pops and cracks on a regular basis, it is possibly because the temperature setting is too high. The excessive heat is causing the tank and pipes to expand and contract. Pressure expansion tanks can be added to the hot water line beside the tank to control this problem.
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