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The Ultimate Water Heater Buying Guide

Tuesday, May 12, 2015 - 3:29pm

There will eventually come a time when you turn on your faucet, and all you get is a steady stream of cold water running through your pipes. When your hot water heater breaks, it can leave you in a panic trying to find a new one; this is especially true if it happens in the dead of winter when you are in direst need of hot water.

The interesting thing about hot water heaters is that while they are one of the most commonly used household appliances, they are typically not thought of until they break. These handy devices work behind the scenes pumping hot water through your pipes en route to your showerhead and faucet and in doing so, perform a great deal of work. According to, the average household uses about 64 gallons of water every day. It also spends between $400 and $600 annually heating water. In fact, heating water is the second largest expense in a typical household, accounting for 14 to 18 percent of utility bills.

With this in mind, it’s important to know how hot water heaters work, and what type of maintenance they require, so you know how to choose a water heater that aligns with your household’s budgetary needs.

Where should you begin in your quest to find a new hot water heater? We put together this water heater buying guide to walk you through the process and inform you of the various options that are available to you.

What Types of Water Heaters Are There?

Before you go out to look for a hot water heater, first it’s important to understand the different models that are available on the market. There’s not one solution to choose from, but many – each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Here is a breakdown of the most commonly used hot water heaters. Read on to determine the best kind of water heater for you:

Heat Pump

How It Works: A heat pump is basically a hybrid unit consisting of an indoor air handler and an outdoor conditioner that reverse surrounding temperatures on an as-needed basis. It works on the premise that heat energies are always present in the air, even when the weather is cold. Therefore, a heat pump will extract those energies and funnel them indoors on cold days. When the weather is hot, the pump will do the opposite and work to cool the insides of a house.

Lifespan: A typical heat pump will generally last from 10 to 15 years. Again, it pays to invest in a higher-end model that will last for a longer period of time rather than buying an economical model that will fail after just a few years.

Pros: Due to the fact that a heat pump does not continuously heat water, it has the potential to save a lot of money over the course of a year. In fact, as the EPA shows, an Energy Star-certified heat pump can save as much as $300 annually. As an added bonus, heat pumps will release cold air back into the room, which can help save on cooling costs in the summertime. This is something to be aware of during winter too since it can negatively impact interior heating.

Cons: Typically, the biggest drawback surrounding a heat pump is the condensation that will accrue, which needs to be regularly removed, as well as the steady stream of noise it releases. Heat pumps function most effectively in climates that aren't too extreme. Consequently, pumps are less common in places like New York, where supplemental heat is often needed to make units work during winter months.


How It Works: A conventional water heater uses a standard, pressurized storage tank and heats water externally using electricity, propane, oil or natural gas. Water then sits in a tank at a set temperature until it is drawn from the faucet.

Lifespan: A reliable water storage tank, if properly maintained, can last about 15 years.

Pros: A conventional water heater typically is not expensive. Furthermore, since it uses a large tank, you can pretty much always be ensured that you will have access to hot water when you need it. This means you can run multiple streams of water simultaneously without having a poor flow. It’s therefore great for multi-bathroom houses, as it can generally reduce arguments related to having to take cold showers.

Cons: Conventional storage tanks are prone to heat loss, which could amount to significant expenditure in wasted gas charges.

Solar-Powered Heater

How It Works: The most environmentally friendly of the hot water heaters, a solar-powered appliance absorbs heat directly from the sun and uses it to heat water. A solar water heater contains a solar panel for absorbing the sun’s rays, which heat the water, and a storage tank for storing the water. Higher-end models will come with circulation features, but not all models do.

Lifespan: Solar water heaters can last for several decades if properly maintained.

Pros: By and large, the biggest benefit of a solar water heater is that it uses completely renewable energy to heat your water supply. Using this method, you could save hundreds of dollars per year, and ultimately thousands of dollars in the long run.

It’s also a great way to embrace a sustainable energy solution for your home, as it can reduce your reliance on unrenewable sources like gas or coal.

Cons: Like any solar investment, it’s important to think about how long you will be at your current residence. It doesn’t make much sense to invest in a solar water heater if you plan on leaving after three to five years. It’s also strongly advised to purchase a backup hot water heater that can kick in during a major storm or at night. The last thing you want is to be stranded without hot water due to solar power failure.

Tankless Water Heater

How It Works: Just as the name suggests, a tankless water heater will heat water without the use of a storage tank or heat pump. Cold water simply runs from the pipe into the appliance, which heats the water using electricity, gas or propane.

Lifespan: According to the EPA, a tankless water heater can last for up to 20 years if properly maintained.

Pros: The biggest pro to investing in a tankless water heater is that you never have to worry about hot water running out, since water is transferred directly from the pipe. With other models, there is a finite amount of hot water at a given time and if you run out, you have to wait for the tank to refill. A tankless water heater can also save a great deal of energy, which is great for the environment and can help ease your monthly electricity bill. Using a tankless system, you will be able to heat water using an on-demand type system. This will help save a lot of money on electricity usage.

Cons: The only real drawback to using a tankless water heater is that you typically can’t run more than one stream of hot water at a given time for an extended length and expect to achieve strong results. So while there is an infinite amount of water that you can use at a given time, it’s not easy to stretch this water out over multiple faucets or shower heads.

Now that you have a better sense of the different types of water heaters on the market, it’s important to discuss safety and maintenance tips.

Common Risks

As mentioned above, most of the time a hot water heater is a low-maintenance system that typically only becomes noticeable when it breaks. However, there are several things that you need to be aware of in order to ensure safe usage; this is particularly true in regard to water storage tanks.

First and foremost, you need to keep ventilation in mind. As with any other system that uses natural gas or propane, a hot water heater needs to be properly ventilated; make sure that ventilation pipes are well-insulated and have a clear route out of the house in order to prevent gas from escaping and causing an explosion or fire.

Next, there are temperature and pressure concerns to worry about for water storage tanks. It’s common to want to turn water to a lower temperature – from 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit – in order to reduce scalding threats. However, doing this could result in the growth of harmful bacteria inside of the tank that could actually be toxic. If you don’t want the hassle of worrying about adjusting your water temperature for safety reasons, you may want to avoid investing in a storage tank.

Lastly, failure to keep an eye on the pressure could result in an explosion, which could be fatal. Explosions are sometimes caused by gas leaks, but more often by the undo mounting of pressure within a water tank. Normally, tanks either shut off pressure or release it through a safety valve. However, if a tank wears down and its release mechanisms fail, pressure can build and ultimately lead to a big burst. To reduce the possibility of a water heater explosion, have your unit inspected on an annual basis.

As an added measure of precaution, regularly check your temperature and pressure – T&P – valve. Designed to release excess pressure, the T&P should let out some amount of water when you pull the lever. You should also keep the heating temperature set to a maximum of 125 degrees Fahrenheit; temperatures that exceed 130 will damage most units.

As you weigh the pros and cons of the different types of water heaters, it's also important to determine how much height and width will be available in your home for a given unit. Measure the dimensions of the area you have set aside for the installation of a water heater. If you foresee a rise in the hot water usage of your household in the years ahead, you might want to have the plumbing routed elsewhere to allow for a later upgrade in tank size. Alternately, a shorter, wider lowboy heater would allow you to heat the water in equal proportion to a regular model, but would also be an easier fit in low-ceilinged areas.

Modern Technology for Water Heaters

Water heaters with high efficiency are a low-cost option that are also eco-friendly. The efficiency of a given model is indicated by its Energy Factor – EF – rating, with the highest rankings equaling the greatest efficiency. A model with a higher EF will generally cost more, but its efficiency will save money on your water heating expenses in the months and years ahead. For a better idea of how the costs and functions of various water heaters will play out over time, refer to a given model's energy label; this should tell you how much water it can heat, as well as the average, yearly operating expenses.

  • ENERGY STAR®. As the federally backed seal of approval for efficiency, ENERGY STAR points consumers in the right direction as far as products and purchases that are both reasonably priced and kind to the environment. Created jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, devices that bear this symbol mostly use 20 to 30 percent less energy than standard devices; water heaters that bear this symbol are now available with a 0.62 energy factor. To the efficiency minded consumer, the ENERGY STAR symbol serves as an indicator of affordability and eco-friendliness.
  • Intuitive Technology. On many newer water heater models, the settings and temperature gauges can be altered based on the usage habits of your household. This allows for improved efficiency, better functionality and a longer life for your unit.
  • Premium Electronic Gas Valve. On some of the newer water heating units, gas valves are becoming both simpler and more advanced. With precise and reliable accuracy, these valves offer vastly improved temperature control with less complicated parts than those found in traditional gas valves. Premium electronic gas valves are easy to install, because they're thermopile powered and therefore don't run on external sources.
  • Dry Fire Protection. This is a protective feature on electric water heaters that prevents the upper element from going out when no water is detected.

Accessories for Water Heaters

Various accessories can be utilized to further boost the efficiency and security of your water heater.

  • Expansion tanks. Made to hold further supplies of water while the main tank heats up cold water, expansion tanks connect to water heaters.
  • Insulating blankets. Designed to fit over a water heater, these blankets – which are especially good for units in areas that lack heat – will strengthen the insulation.
  • Pressure regulators. To stop the water from going over the limit as it leaves the tank, regulators can be attached to the outlets on a heating unit. This safeguards pipes from plumbing pressure surges, which could otherwise lead to leaks.
  • Timers. Attached to the electrical supply of water heater units, timers allow you to save energy and cut down on your heating costs by reserving the process for when it's needed.
  • Water alarms. Usually placed beside the heating unit, the alarm will sound if it detects that there's a leaking problem or too much water in the system.
  • Water heater pans. Designed to capture leaking water caused by overflows in heat tanks, pans sit under the units and connect to drain hoses.
  • Water heater stands. Used to propel a heater off the ground, a stand would help lower the possibility of a fire if ever a flammable liquid were to land on the ground.

While most water heaters last from 10 to 15 years, problems with certain models could possibly occur before that time. The following problems are among the warning signs of a troubled water heater:

  • Soaring utility costs. If your heater is exerting a lot more effort than before just to perform its basic functions, chances are that repairs are in order.
  • Leaks and/or rust. To ensure optimal performance from your water heater, you should have the unit inspected annually for signs of wear and distress. If water is corroding the unit or seeping onto the floor, the heater is likely in need of repairs.
  • Dirty/contaminated water. If tap water becomes rancid or rusty, it could be due to problems with the water heater.
  • Noise from the unit. If you hear popping or crackling noises coming from your unit, it's possible that the heating mechanisms are under stress.

2015 Water Heater Mandates

On April 16, 2015, new efficiency mandates to the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA) take effect. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the new rules — which affect all residential water heaters — will lower energy consumption by 3.3 quads and energy bills by $63 billion over the next 30 years. Additionally, the new standard will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 172.4 million metric tons.

In order to meet the new mandates, water heaters will be larger and require more space for installation. This means new units could need extra inches in height or diameter to have the same gallon capacity as older units. You may need to switch to a heater that's the same size but with smaller capacity, or get a larger unit in order to have the same capacity. In general, space is more likely to be an issue among apartment residents rather than homeowners.

Before you make the commitment to invest in a new water heater, explore the possibility of whether your existing one could be restored by a licensed plumbing service.

When you do decide to invest in a new water heater, contact Mr. Rooter Plumbing for all of your service and installation needs. Whether you're in the market for a tank or tankless model, Mr. Rooter will walk you through the options and help you arrive at the right choice for your home. Alternately you could choose from one of our on-demand water heater options. Whatever system would ultimately suit your household, Mr. Rooter is the premier source for service and maintenance on different types of hot water heaters in Greater Syracuse.

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