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Theres no defending tank-less water heaters
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Editor, Manteca Bulletin

Mr. Richards’s recent comments about tank-less heaters are somewhat true; however, he has a few things unfairly compared to each other.  Any comparison of tank-less heaters to landscaping water use is ridiculous.  Tank-less heaters apply only to interior water use.  Very few homes, if any, have a 100-gallon water heater unless it is serving a multi-dwelling complex, and they are rare, and in such case, it represents the best option to serve the building. 

 With most homes, a small draw of water on a tank style heater does not cause the heater to immediately fire up, but the heater will cycle on and off throughout the day; longer periods during a heavier draw of water.  Tank-less?  A tank-less heater stands idle, constantly monitoring the plumbing system, but will run flat-out during water draws.  And if power is out, there is no hot water.

 Tank-less water heaters can, I repeat, can save some gas. That is the only saving to be had, and ironically, the savings are expensive and can be risky to get.  For the up-front investment, very few people realize any cash savings down the road. 

 Yes, a tank style heater has a continuously running pilot, which represents the bulk of the savings between the 2 different styles of heaters.  The cost to keep a pilot going is generally $5 or less per month.  Compared to a $2500 price tag for a tank-less heater? The economics are not there.

 As to the concern that a conventional tank style heater is holding 40 or 50 gallons of water?  So what!?

The 50 gallons of water in the tank is a one-time expenditure when the heater is newly installed.  After that, there is a one-for-one exchange of cold water for hot.  That gets down to simple physics, regardless if it’s a tank style heater or tank-less.  Both heaters present a one for one exchange.  In most cases, a tank-less heater will actually use more water.  A slight amount of water increase, but it is there.  All tank-less heaters have a short delay during the start-up process during which time, more water is flowing and is lost.  That doesn’t happen with a conventional tank style heater.  Again, why would you think that a tank-less heater somehow magically uses less water on a day to day basis?   People get hung up on the term “tank-less”, and confuse it with water savings.  The only savings with a tank-less heater is in gas, and it will take years to realize.

Yes, I have done the studies.  I am a 12-year veteran professional Home Inspector who has encountered tank-less heaters many times.  I have inspected and evaluated water heating systems throughout my 3,000 plus inspection career, including boilers, solar, electric and gas heaters, point of use heaters, and tank-less heaters.  Yes, every system will crash eventually.  From a time and reliability point of view, the fastest and most catastrophic failures have been with tank-less heaters.   I’ve seen over a dozen tank-less heaters that have been disconnected because they fail, and the story is always the same….high repair cost, and the family is immediately out of hot water.  Homeowners conclude (correctly) that a good, reliable tank heater is the better and cheaper way to go. That is the repair solution that each and every one of those former tank-less owners applied.  Each and every one of them was glad they went back to the long term reliability of a tank heater.

 Embrace change?  Adjust your lawn sprinkler timer and sprinkler heads; buy better kitchen appliances and laundry equipment.  Install low flow shower heads and low flow toilets. Don’t shave in the shower, and set a timer on the bathroom countertop to limit the time of teenage showers. You can have far more water saving impact in those areas than messing with water heaters.

 As I have stated before, from a water saving point of view, the best passive action is to install a hot water circulation pump in new construction.  Such a system would offer the lowest cost and the best water saving impact, and such a system also presents a sales feature on a new home.  Properly designed, installed, and set up, a pump system is cost effective, reliable, and will conserve water.  And, there happens to be a version that can be installed in existing homes without extensive plumbing modifications.

Greg Henry