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Merker gas fired water heater from the 1930's,...

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I have been thinking about purchasing a new water heater lately, as the one I had just didn’t seem to be performing very well.  I have a big household, with lots of hot water needs and there never seemed to be enough hot water to go around.  I also knew that the newer, more efficient heaters would save money and energy in the long term.  So when my water heater sprung a leak this past weekend, and the warranty having had run out years ago, I found myself in the market for a new one and I needed a crash course in what to look for. 

Capacity

One of the first things I thought about was capacity.  How many gallons can the tank hold?  Also, how much hot water can it deliver within a set period?  For that you’ll need to know the first-hour rating (FHR) for storage-tank water heaters and the gallons-per-minute rating (GPM) for tankless water heaters.  A plumber is your best bet here.  He/she can tell you what your household really needs (and you will need one to install the heater).

Type

There are a few different kinds of heaters to consider:

  • Storage-tank Heaters – Very basic design here; it’s a cylinder that gets fed cold water and heats it up.  Gas fueled ones cost more but can cost 50% less than electric models to run.  So if you have natural gas service already, you may want to consider this.  Oil-fired is also an option, but the heaters are much more expensive because they include the tank and an oil burner.
  • Tankless Heaters – These are small units that heat water only when it’s needed.  This means that less energy is used because there is no need to reheat water, as there is with a tank.  However, there are limitations on hot-water flow rates, so you would only want this in a smaller household.  In addition, they can be rather expensive to buy and install.
  • Hybrid Electric Heaters – These heaters actually supplement electric heat with a heat pump that takes heat out of the surrounding air to heat the water.  They can use about 60% less energy, but they are more expensive.  You also need to have some serious free space: 7 feet from floor to ceiling and 1,000 cubic feet of uncooled space.  And because they take the heat out of the air and exhaust cool air, you may find yourself using extra energy to heat your space.
  • Solar Water Heaters – These are supplemental to electric water heaters.  They use solar collectors mounted on your roof to help heat your water.  This works great on hot, sunny days, but not so much on cooler, cloudy days.  And they are expensive, so payback can take a while.

Warranty

Longer warranty water heaters are usually more expensive, but with good reason.  They usually have faster water heating and thicker insulation so less heat is lost.  Most warranties are about 3 to 12 years.  Obviously, aim to buy one with 12.

Drain Valves

Plastic or brass?  Brass, as it’s more durable.

Space Requirements

Make sure your heater fits in the space you have!

Anti-scale Devices

This feature available in electric water heaters swirls the water in the tank with the goal of reducing mineral scale that can build up at the bottom.  Buildup can shorten the life of the heating element but  if your heater has a 12-year warranty, it should  have a longer or thicker element and therefore not be as affected by build up.

Hopefully this will help you next time you find yourself shivering in your unexpectedly cold shower!

Thanks to Consumer Reports

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