Ask the Handy Woman!
I was talking with a client the other day about water heaters. Her conventional 40-gallon electric storage tank water heater was going to need to be replaced soon and she had some questions about the differences between tankless, or on-demand, heaters versus the storage tank heaters. Which was better?
That is not an easy question to answer. There are many factors that need to be considered to determine which type may be the right one for a given situation. The concept of only heating water when you need it seems pretty appealing. As does the fact that the tankless heaters are about the size of a large suitcase (for a whole-house system) that hangs on the wall or fits in the crawl space. There are, however, some downsides to the tankless systems, as well. I will try to present you with some information that might help you decide which might be right for you, should you ever need to replace or upgrade what you currently have.
Cost is certainly an important consideration in this equation. Tankless water heaters for a whole-house application can run from $800 to $1200-plus, while a regular 40-gallon storage-tank heaters go for around $300 to $600. Some high-efficiency storage heaters can run as high as $1400. Gas tankless heaters need upgraded gas lines (generally larger than storage type due to larger burners) and electrical outlets for control panels and fan. Electric tankless heaters require upgraded wiring and circuit breakers (sometimes an entire electrical service panel upgrade for the house) since they pull a large amount of electricity to instantly heat 4 to 5 gallons per minute.
Installation costs tend to be higher for the tankless due to the extra items noted above when changing from a storage tank to a tankless type system. Efficiency of the tankless can also be affected by calcium buildup, which can restrict water flow and potentially damage the system. Some manufacturers suggest an annual system service by a qualified technician and installing a water softener ahead of the heater.
Whether storage tank or tankless, the location of the heater plays a big role in efficiently delivering water to any given location in a house. I installed a tankless Rinnai whole-house heater in my own home. The heater was in the basement and the master bath was on the second floor. With high efficiency, low-flow aerators on the faucet and showerhead, it took forever to get water up to that bathroom! Point of use electric on-demand heaters, small units serving only one fixture, may be a good option in that type of situation, perhaps. The kitchen sink faucet, however, had hot water right away, since it was sitting right over the heater, on the first floor, and had very little distance for the water to travel.
Another consideration is occasional power outages. With the storage tank heater you will still have hot water until the tank is drawn down if you are on a pressurized system, but with the tankless, no power means no hot water. Another issue can be the minimum flow rate threshold of the tankless, which might not turn the unit on to heat the water with low-flow bathroom faucets.
Consumer Reports did a comparison of tankless and storage-type water heaters. They stated that, “Heating water accounts for up to 30 percent of the average home’s energy budget.” That surprised me (I don’t think my home is average.). They found that gas tankless water heaters were 22% more energy efficient than the conventional storage tank heaters. Their finding was that because the tankless “cost much more than the storage water heaters, it can take up to 22 years to break even, longer than the 20-year life of many models.”
So which is better? It all depends on the individual answering the question and the situation in which the water heater will be used. I have had both. My preference for ease of maintenance, cost of replacement, and function is the storage water heater. The tank wall insulation is always improving which helps with the efficiency rating, and though they do take up more space than the on-demand tankless heaters, for me they are the better deal. But that’s just my two cents worth.
Kheli Mason, The Handy Woman, LLC With over 20 years’ experience in Home Maintenance and Repair, Remodeling and Building Inspection, Kheli started the Handy Woman LLC to be ‘not just your average contracting company’, but to also teach people how to take care of their homes by offering do-it-yourself coaching and how-to classes. Along with typical home repair and maintenance services, her focus is to help our elders age-in-place and teach women homeowners how to understand and care for their homes.
For more information please call Kheli @ 303.999.5812 www.thehandywomanllc.com