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Cut energy costs with more efficient use of water heater

When we asked our 22-year-old nephew Chris about living conditions in Chile, he complained about the shower.

The daily ceremony in the house in which he's staying involves lighting the pilot on the water heater, waiting for the tank contents to heat up and then completing a shower quickly enough so as not to be drenched with ice cold water from the tiny tank.

It might be uncomfortable, but Chris is getting an education in conservation.

Growing up, Chris never had to worry about a limit to his hot water - like other Americans, he's used to a nice long, hot shower at any time. Fortunately, mom-and-pop America is wising up to the high cost and waste associated with heating a gigantic reservoir of stored water.

The stored water cools and then must be reheated all day and night. Home or not, showering or not, a tank-type water heater cycles on and off all day long. A 40-gallon, gas-fired, tank-type heater uses 40,000 BTUs of energy every time it automatically ignites.

How often the unit fires up depends on your climate and the ground water temperature. But calcium deposits in the base or on the heating element can inhibit the burner's effectiveness, requiring it to work longer to get the same results.

Thankfully, two alternatives offer improved solutions:

Tankless

A tankless water heater heats water without the aid of an energy-wasting water storage tank. A heating element (gas or electric) warms water flowing inside a coil of copper tubing.

When water is turned on anywhere in the home, the tankless unit senses the resultant water flow and causes the unit to fire up. Instantly, the tankless unit begins to warm the cold water resting in the copper coils. Although the process is not instantaneous the water is heated in only a few moments and as soon as the hot water faucet is turned off, the tankless unit immediately shuts down.

Water on, burners on; water off, burners off. It's a simple money saver for a conservation-wise family.

Of course, as with any mechanical device, there are problems. Tankless water heaters can only heat water so quickly. As more water is needed - say, with two shower heads instead of one - water flow diminishes. (Water flow is restricted so that the unit can properly heat the water.) And stay away from 'electric' units. To heat water quickly, a good electric unit requires a 200-amp circuit. The main circuit panel for an entire home uses about half that.

Hybrid

A hybrid water heater uses both tank and tankless technologies, and by doing so solves dozens of problems associated with either of the other types. For example, although the hybrid has a water storage tank, it contains only a few gallons of water.

Having only a few gallons to keep heated, the hybrid uses minimal energy to keep the stored liquid up to temperature. It offers several advantages:

- Hot water is always available. No waiting for water in coils to heat up.

- The variable intensity burner system is computer controlled to provide as much heat as is needed based on the demand. One shower head, low heat; two shower heads, more heat - and no loss of water pressure.

- It allows for a water recirculating system, unlike tankless heaters.

- It has stainless entrails, not copper, so where a tankless water heater warranty tops out at 10 years, the new hybrid unit extends to 20. That's a far cry from the three-year warranty associated with a tank-type water heater.

The Catch

There are two drawbacks to these options: unit cost and installation cost.

Hybrids and tankless heaters are more expensive because they are complex. They have computerized control systems and they are more expensive to manufacture.

And even though they use less fuel overall, they do burn more each time they fire. This will probably mean that you will have to install a larger gas line from your meter to the unit. Keep in mind that this is one of those pay now or pay later decisions.

Tankless units must be wall hung, and care has to be taken installing the plastic lined metal flue, because its exhaust gases get pretty hot.

The hybrid sits on the floor, so installation is a little quicker and easier, and the exhaust gases are cooler and safer. However, the hybrid takes up a bit more room than the tankless.

How do we know so much about these alternatives? We have both. A tankless unit is perfect for our storage building and small apartment, where the water rarely gets turned on. Absolutely no energy is used unless a faucet is used.

In the house, we have a hybrid. No problem getting hot water quickly, no cold spots in the water, no pressure drop, our recirculating system (on a timer) works superbly, and we are saving energy and dollars.