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Time to go tankless? Water heater woes raise questions

Joan Fieldstone

February 25, 2014

By: Joan Fieldstone, Home Improv Advocate

In: PlumbingAppliances

BFF must have been feeling festive on Friday. She blew some big bucks and treated us both to an Italian feast. On Saturday morning she expected a slight hangover. What she didn't expect was a cold shower.

Instead of spending Saturday afternoon as planned helping me with some small home improvement projects, she was disassembling her water heater controller and researching what might have gone wrong. (Have I mentioned she's an electronics whiz, too?)

After a couple hours of testing, toying with, and otherwise studying the controller and the manufacturer's website, the conclusion? It was toast.

We bought our adjoining homes less than three years ago. Our water heaters were installed at the same time, so I am dreading that the next time I go to take a shower, the water will be ice. She raised the question of whether this particular water heater was worth repairing or whether she should replace it with an Energy Star water heater. I countered with, "How about going tankless?"

The thing about BFF is that once an interesting alternative is presented, she won't rest until she researches it to death. She spent the rest of the day weighing all the possibilities, including a tankless water heater. Here are some of the questions she pondered, which you might also want to consider when the time comes -- and it will.

  • How long can a water heater last? They may be warranted for anywhere from six to 12 years, depending on what you buy. Like death and taxes, a cold shower is inevitable if you are not proactive.
  • Is the unit and/or its parts still under warranty? In this case the controller was, and it would not cost a penny to replace it, but the labor to install the free replacement was not covered.
  • Have you been maintaining the water heater by draining it annually, or is it likely to be full of hard-water sediment? If you're almost at the end of the warranty, and you've never drained it, you might save yourself the cold shower by replacing it now -- or at least draining it to see how much sludge is in there. Many water heaters rust and leak before you realize anything's wrong.
  • How about getting a more energy-efficient model? It might make the yearly cost-savings worth your while, but that depends on your household usage of hot water. According to Consumer Reports, water heaters can account for about 30 percent of an average home's energy costs. However, if the water heater you buy is $1,400, you eat up most of your savings.
  • Finally, wouldn't it make more sense to put in a tankless water heater? Why store hot water when you can have it on demand without paying to heat it all day and night? Well, for one thing the water doesn't always heat consistently to the same temperature. Then there are hard-water issues requiring frequent maintenance or a water softening device to prevent calcium build-up from constricting and blocking water flow. Tankless water heaters are also considerably more expensive than conventional water heaters, and so is the installation. According to Consumer Reports' tests, they save you nothing. They wear out before the savings would pay for your investment.

Based on all the evidence, BFF took advantage of the free replacement part and paid only $93 for installation labor. The plumber told her the model we both have has a superior tank that should last at least another six years.

Taking no chances, I accepted her offer to drain mine. If the controller holds, I have nothing to worry about for a while.

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