There’s Something About that Hot Water Heater

Have you thought about your water heater today?

If you’re like most homeowners, you probably haven’t. Water heaters are one of the appliances that aren’t thought about until someone turns on the shower or faucet and there’s no hot water.

Although most water heaters can run for at least a decade, if not two, they can only do so when they receive regular maintenance and inspections.

That’s why you shouldn’t wait until you no longer have hot water to start thinking about your water heater. Start a maintenance and inspection routine right now.

Here, then, is a primer on what you should know about hot water heaters (or at least a good start).

Types of water heaters and the pros and cons

Basically, there are three types of water heaters: standard tank, tankless and heat pump water heaters.

Standard Tank Water Heaters

Standard or traditional tank water heaters employ a large heated storage tank of water to provide hot water for the household. As the name suggests, these consist of an insulated tank in which water is heated and stored until needed. A pipe emerges from the top of the tank to deliver hot water to its destination.

Standard tank water heaters are available in gas or electric models. Natural gas water heaters, as a rule, use less energy and cost less to run, sometimes by as much as half, than electric water heaters, although you should take note gas models cost more upfront.

Some newer tanked models also use solar panels to help provide hot water when the weather (sunshine) permits.

The truth is, quite a few homeowners utilize a tanked water heater to meet their hot water needs. It’s a system that has provided decades of hot water and will continue to do so in the future. For many, it’s the most cost-effective way to meet their hot water needs.

Pros:

  • Storage tank water heaters have lower initial cost by a significant margin.
  • They generally are the least expensive types and operate with a minimum of maintenance.
  • Storage tank systems are now Energy Star certified. So it’s possible to save money and energy with this traditional unit.

Cons:

  • Standard tanks are always on. No matter how energy-efficient, it cycles on a regular basis to heat and reheat the water at a preset temperature.
  • Occupy considerably more space because of their size.
  • Need to be replaced more often than a tankless unit.

Tankless Water Heaters

Rather than storing water, tankless water heaters use heating coils to heat water as needed, meaning they can provide endless hot water.

Tankless systems, also called “demand-type” water heaters, provide hot water when desired, but don’t offer a way to store it for future use.

When the hot water faucet is turned on, the cold water will journey through the home’s plumbing to the tankless heater. This triggers the element on the heater to turn on. As the water passes along these heating elements, it converts from cold to hot. The best tankless systems can provide up to 5+ gallons of hot water per minute.

Tankless models are best suited for homes that use natural gas to heat the water. Electric models might require an expensive upgrade of the home’s electrical capacity.

Pros:

  • Tankless models are more energy efficient than storage types. Saves money over time.
  • Compact size. Typical tankless unit is about the size of a small suitcase.
  • Longer useful lives, typically 20 to 30 years, than a traditional water heater.

Cons:

  • Higher purchase cost than a traditional storage heater (about twice as much) and installation can be tricky, driving up initial costs.
  • Depending on the size of your house and number of persons in the home, you may need more than one.
  • Electric models are not Energy Star rated and require a significant amount of energy.

Heat Pump Water Heater

A heat pump water heater works like a refrigerator in reverse. Rather than using a compressor to pull heat inside the refrigerator and transferring it to the surrounding room, a heat pump employs the compressor to take heat from the surrounding air and transfers it inside a storage tank where the water is heated.

A heat pump water heater is a great solution for a homeowner who currently has a standard tank electric water heater and is looking to replace it either because their current tank is old, inefficient, and/or leaking, or because they simply want to reduce their annual energy bills.

Pros:

  • High efficiency. Can save up to $300 per year for a family of four, depending on water use and electricity rates.
  • Uses waste heat from the central furnace during winter months.
  • Cools surrounding space in summer, making the area more comfortable.

Cons:

  • Compressor will make a noticeable sound.
  • Makes heating system work harder in winter because it generates cold air while operating.
  • Slow recovery may be a problem when water demand is high.

Solar Water Heaters

We would be remiss if we didn’t at least make a reference to solar water heaters. Here, a roof-mounted cell absorbs the sun’s heat and transfers it to an antifreeze-like fluid in a closed-loop system that runs to the water tank. The best of these units deliver stellar savings in summer, making them quite attractive for warm, sunny seasons. But savings suffer on cold and cloudy days so that probably makes them a poor choice for our section of the country. As mentioned, some homeowners do use solar as a back-up to other systems.

The mechanics of a tankless gas water heater installed by J&A South Park in Pittsburgh, PA.

When selecting the best type and model of water heater for your home, consider the following:

  • Fuel type, availability and cost. The type of fuel or energy source you employ for water heating will not only affect the heater’s operating costs, but also its size and energy efficiency.
  • Size. To provide a sufficient supply of hot water and to boost efficiency, you need a properly sized water heater.
  • Energy efficiency. To boost energy and cost savings, you need to know the energy efficiency rating of the water heater prior to purchasing it.
  • Costs. It’s also a good idea to estimate the annual operating costs and compare these with less or more energy-efficient models.

Your service professionals at J&A South Park will be glad to assist in making your decision regarding the best water heater for your circumstances.

Inspection and Maintenance are essential

There’s little debate that your water heater is the highest priced component for your home’s plumbing. That’s why routine inspection and maintenance is necessary to make sure you have the hot water you need when you need it.

Tanked water heater maintenance tips:

  • Whether you have an electric or gas-powered water heater, you’ll find a safety device called the pressure relief valve. It’s crucial to assure this valve is operating correctly because if it isn’t, it can mean an explosion. That’s because water heaters can explode if too much pressure builds up. Fortunately, they come equipped with a safety valve that releases pressure when too much of it builds up.The pressure relief valve is to be tested by first shutting off the power and the cold-water supply valve.Next, place a bucket under the pressure relief valve. Then, lift the valve tab to release the water. At this point, the water should stop flowing. If it continues to flow, the tank should be drained part of the way, and the old valve replaced with a new one.
  • It’s also a good idea to flush your water heater tank at least twice a year. Simply attach a garden hose to the drain valve and keep draining it until the water runs clear. If it’s already clear, you can stop this maintenance task immediately.
  • You should also insulate most hot water tanks. This is especially true for water heaters that have been given an R-24 value or less. If not already present, make sure to cut slots in the blanket or insulation so it can accurately fit around the valves, pipes, and controls on the tank. As a follow-up, be sure to inspect the insulation once a month to make sure rodents, pets or pests are not damaging its integrity.If you are uncomfortable with performing any of these inspection and maintenance tasks, contact our service pros at J&A South Park. They’ll be glad to help out in any capacity.

Tankless water heater maintenance tips:

Properly designed and installed tankless water heaters might seem to work wonders – after all, you get gallons of water heated on demand for showers, laundry, and other needs. Of course, like our other types of water heaters, it takes regular maintenance to keep the hot water flowing steadily.

Again, as with the other types of water heaters, you can schedule a service call or take a do-it-yourself approach to deal with maintenance. It’s your choice, depending on your level of know-how and comfort.

The most common enemy of a tankless water heater is hard water, which contains a high mineral concentration of calcium and magnesium ions. Over time, this sediment will cause a hard, scaly buildup on the heating units.

This can cause the heat exchanger within the heater to overheat, sending an error code to lock out the system. When this happens, you may not be able to get any hot water until the problem is fixed.

You can avoid wasting time and money to fix this problem by taking preventative steps.

By far, the most important maintenance tasks with a tankless system are flushing the system and cleaning the air intake filter.

  • First, regardless of the level of water hardness, all tanks should receive regular cleaning. The procedure is a bit more involved than flushing a storage tank water heater, but still pretty straightforward.The frequency of this service may range from between 6 to 12 months. The flushing process requires that you follow the manufacturers’ instructions.Again, as with all such maintenance tasks, you need to turn off the power and cold water to the unit.
  • The second tankless heater maintenance task involves cleaning the air intake filter to get rid of any accumulated debris. You can get to the filter by removing the unit’s faceplate – check the user manual for specific instructions. Once you’ve got the filter out, rinse it thoroughly with clean water, then dry it with paper towels before reinstalling it. Disconnect hoses, screw on all service caps tightly, then open the cold and hot water valves and restore power.During a regular professional maintenance visit, a water hater technician will descale, also called de-lime, your tankless water heater to make sure there’s no build-up around the heating elements.

Heat pump water heater maintenance tips:

  • Check air filters monthly. Clean or replace as needed.
  • Make it routine to inspect your heat pump during the winter months for signs of excessive ice or snow piled on or around it. Keep the snow, ice, and leaves away from the top, sides, and bottom of the heat pump.
  • Keep the outside coils clean. If they get dirty, you can use a heavy-duty degreaser and hose them down. Just turn the unit off first.
  • Keep shrubs pruned back at least 18 inches from all sides of the heat pump to allow for proper airflow and any servicing.
  • Elevate your heat pump. They should be raised 4 to 8 inches above ground level. This will keep coils clear of snow and ice and allow for proper drainage due to all the condensed moisture, much like an air conditioner.

A view of the top of a disassembled water heater that was installed by J&A South Park in Pittsburgh, PA.

Much like your car, your water heater also needs regular maintenance from certified professionals.

They’re trained to know exactly what to look for. They’ll also inspect parts of your water heater that you do not safely have access to.

A professional plumber will also be able to tell you when or if it’s time to consider upgrading to a new water heater.

Contact us, J&A South Park, your certified water heater specialists when the time comes for a maintenance check-up.