Water heaters might not be sexy, but when they go on the fritz, they suddenly loom large in your consciousness. Especially if it’s the day before Christmas, both sets of parents are staying over, and the local repair personnel are otherwise occupied. So, we’ll take as an axiom that you should buy a reliable water heater. Having said that, how do you decide between gas and electric models? The simple answer is: It depends. Let’s see why.
First off, let’s dispose of some basics you need to understand before you go shopping for a water heater:
- Tank You: The majority of American water heaters store water in a tank and heat the water using gas or electricity. Tanks sizes commonly run between 20 and 80 gallons, but bigger units are available. Modern tanks are heavily insulated, and you can also wrap the tank in an insulating blanket to really squeeze out the utmost efficiency. Tankless units heat water on demand rather than storing hot water, and may not be adequate during heavy usage periods.
- Don't be Fuelish: Gas-heated units normally run by burning natural gas to heat the water, although propane is also used. To use a natural gas unit, you usually need to have utility gas lines running to your home and into your basement (or wherever you place your water heater). You can get a propane (or other combustible gas) unit that uses cylinders of gas that you have swapped out and/or refilled periodically so that you don’t run out. Propane units are appropriate if your home isn’t serviced by gas lines, but if you are a natural worrier, you might lie awake at night wondering whether the propane people will replace your cylinders before they empty. Electric heaters run current through a coil, generating heat that warms the water. Electricity can come from the grid, but eco-minded homeowners may opt for alternative energy sources, include solar, wind, and geothermal. Obviously, the local costs of gas and electricity largely determine the water heater’s operating expenses and can sway the choice between the two power sources.
- Energy Star is a Plus: Energy Star heaters saves up to 65 percent on power usage, so don’t even think about buying a gas hot water heater that isn’t Energy Star certified – you can save up to $3,000 over the life of the unit. Gas-powered units can receive Energy Star certification, as can electric units powered by heat pumps, which pull heat from the air to warm the water in the tank.
- Be Highly Efficient: High-efficiency (HE) water heaters waste less money because the water storage tank retains more heat. A gas-powered HE water heater earns an energy factor (EF) of about 0.62 (or 0.67+ if also Energy Star certified), as compared to 0.50 to 0.60 for non-HE gas models.
- Rating the First Hour: Tank size is important in terms of capacity, but the more important characteristic is the heater’s first-hour rating (FHR), which denotes how much hot water the heater will deliver in an hour. The FHR is important when you need hot water for several uses simultaneous. For example, if your family goes through 40 gallons of hot water between 6 and 7 a.m., an 80-gallon tank with an FHR of 30 gallons is unacceptable.
- Bells and Whistles: You can soup up your water heater with upgrades:
o Glass-lined Tank: A heavy duty layer of porcelain glass coating the inner tank wall fights corrosion.
o Extended Warranty: Most water heater manufacturers include a warranty that runs from three to 12 years. Better units = more years. An excellent heater can last 20 years, so you might want to purchase an independent extended warranty or service contract once the factory warranty expires.
o Brass Valves: The drain valve used for routine maintenance can be made from plastic, but a brass valve lasts longer (and looks more upscale).
o Digital Displays: Who can read those crowded needles anyway? Save your eyes and get a unit with digital displays and controls. Even better is a digital unit that collects data on itself to provide optimum performance.
- Point of Use: Some homeowners opt for multiple point-of-use water heaters that they deploy throughout their homes wherever hot water is needed. These units are electric with tank sizes ranging from 2.5 to 30 gallons. Point-of-use units waste less water because you don’t have to run the tap for a minute to finally get hot water.
Pros and Cons
Installation costs for units with tanks typically run from $700 to $2,000.
1. Gas-powered Hot Water Heaters:
a. Standard storage tank unit costs $300 to $600, plus installation costs. They have a shorter lifespan of 8 to 15 years and are less expensive than other types. They cost more to operate than do high-efficiency units.
b. High efficiency units are more expensive, ranging from $620 to $1,500 to purchase, plus installation costs. Energy Star HE units save up to 20 percent on fuel costs. Although costlier, HE Energy Star units can more than pay for themselves through energy savings.
c. Require gas lines or propane tanks. Can require expensive retrofitting and increases danger of fires, explosions and gas leaks.
2. Electric-powered Hot Water Heaters:
a. Standard storage tank unit costs $250 to $500, plus installation costs. Inexpensive, shorter service life of 8 to 15 years.
b. High efficiency units are available only as heat-pump models, costing $1,300 to $3,000 plus installation. Can save $3,000 over lifespan, but are initially more expensive, require more space, and need temperatures between 40 and 90 degrees to operate efficiently.
c. Solar hot water tank heaters cost between $8,000 and $10,000 for equipment and installation in areas subject to freezing, but only half the cost in warmer climates. Lifetime of 20 years, little or no operating costs, not good on overcast days.
d. Point of use water heaters range from $200 to $400 per unit, inexpensive to install, but require multiple units. Save on wasted water, but not eligible for Energy Star certification.