Tankless Heater Puts New Spin On Old Idea

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by Mike Burkett

roundup staff reporter

When you've owned a hardware store as long as John Patricia, you don't get excited about many new products. There are, after all, a limited number of ways to build a better mouse trap.

But Patricia is excited about a brand new item now available through his store, Ace Hardware, and most other plumbing supply outlets in the Rim country. And this product the tankless water heater doesn't just put a new spin on the traditional home water-heater. It revolutionizes it.

"We don't carry them yet, but we will, because the public awareness is growing very fast," Patricia said. "I use one right here in our employee break room. They are so energy efficient. The water doesn't sit there in the tank being heated all day whether you need hot water or not. With a tankless water heater, when you need hot water, you just open the faucet, and as soon as you do, an electric coil starts heating it and it's like boiling in a matter of seconds. It's great!"

A growing number of energy-conscious Americans think so, too.

According to information obtained from a variety of Internet Web sites, water heating accounts for 20 percent or more of an average household's annual energy expenditures. The yearly operating costs for conventional gas or electric storage tank water heaters average $200 or $450, respectively.

Traditional tank-type water heaters raise and maintain the water temperature to the temperature setting on the tank (usually between 120 to 140 F) even if no hot water is drawn from the tank. This is due to "standby losses," or the heat conducted and radiated from the walls of the tank and in gas-fired water heaters through the flue pipe.

These losses represent 10 to 20 percent of a household's annual water heating costs. One way consumers are now finding to reduce this waste is to use a tankless or "demand" water heater.

Common in Japan and Europe, tankless water heaters began appearing in the United States about 25 years ago. Unlike their conventional counterparts, as Patricia stated, they heat water only as it is used via a heating device activated by the flow of water.

Tankless water heaters are available in propane, natural gas, or electric models, and come in a variety of sizes for different applications such as a whole-house water heater, a hot water source for a remote bathroom or hot tub, or as a boiler to provide hot water for a home heating system. They can also be used as a booster for dishwashers, washing machines and a solar or wood-fired domestic hot water system.

Tankless models can be installed centrally or at the point of use, depending on the amount of hot water required. For example, you can use a small electric unit as a booster for a remote bathroom or laundry. These are usually installed in a closet or underneath a sink.

The largest gas units, which may provide all the hot water needs of a household, are installed centrally. Gas-fired models have a higher hot water output than electric models. As with many tank water heaters, even the largest whole-house tankless gas models cannot supply enough hot water for simultaneous, multiple uses of hot water (i.e., showers and laundry).

Large users of hot water, such as the clothes washer and dishwasher, need to be operated separately. Separate tankless water heaters can be installed to meet individual hot water loads, or two or more water heaters can be connected in parallel for simultaneous demands for hot water. Some manufacturers of tankless heaters claim that their product can match the performance of any 40-gallon tank heater.

Cost and life expectancy

Demand water heaters cost more than conventional storage tank-type units. Small point-of-use heaters that deliver 1 gallon to 2 gallons per minute sell for about $200. Larger gas-fired tankless units that deliver 3 gallons to 5 gallons per minute cost $550-$1000.

The appeal of demand water heaters is not only the elimination of the standby losses and the resulting lower operating costs, but also the fact that the heater delivers hot water continuously. Gas models with a constantly burning pilot light, however, offset the savings achieved by the elimination of standby losses with the energy consumed by the pilot light.

The exact cost of operating the pilot light will depend on the design of the heater and price of gas, but could range from $12 to $20 per year.

Most tankless models have a life expectancy of more than 20 years. In contrast, storage tank water heaters last ten to 15 years. Most tankless models have easily replaceable parts that can extend their life by many years more.

To learn more about tankless water heaters, corner John Patricia or any one of the able salesfolks at Ace Hardware, or contact your favorite plumbing supply house.

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