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What old dogs and aging water heaters share

They leak

Joan Churchill

After finding puddles in my unfinished basement for several days in a row, I blamed my dog, Truman. At 10 plus years, he’s officially a senior citizen, and yes, he occasionally has accidents.

But one day when I came home from walking him I noticed that the puddle I had cleaned up before we’d left had reappeared. Was my toilet leaking, or aging foundation failing? Then it hit me. The puddle had a trail leading back to the bottom of my water heater.  

Puddles are for ducks, not your water heater

There’s no fixing a leaky water heater is what I once wrote on a brochure and now it was happening to me. During my home inspection, it was noted that the water heater was 12 years old and may not last much longer. But with all the renovations I had to do, I was hoping the old clunker would give me a few years. I got one-and-a-half.  
 

Easy fix?

Calling a plumber to replace it sounds easy enough, right?  Well, the existing, and now leaking, water heater was an electric storage tank. Heating water with electricity is efficient, but not very cost-effective. So before making my purchase decision, I looked at the options of both gas and electric water heaters to replace it with. With so many types to choose from, I ended up having to list the pros and cons of each type to find the model right for me.*

 

​Type ​Pros ​Cons
electric storage tank (replace same with same)
  • lowest installation cost 
  • heating water with electricity can be up three times more expensive than with natural gas
  • uses valuable space on electrical panel, space I wanted for my future kitchen renovation
standard natural gas storage tank (efficiency is from 0.62 to 0.66 EF)
  • ​would always have hot water during a power outage
  • cheaper to install than tankless
  • would cost more than electric to install
  • only last 10-12 years
​In addition to standard natural gas tank
ENERGY STAR® natural gas storage tank(efficiency is from 0.67 - 0.70 EF)
  • a little more efficient than a standard model
  • costs about $300 more than standard
  • limited supply of models​
non-condensing natural gas tankless 0.82 - 0.88 EF
  • more efficient than a storage tank
  • may last up to 20 years
  • water heating costs would be much less than with electric or standard natural gas tank
  • I’d never run out of hot water
  • my existing gas line was two pound pressure so I knew it could handle the demands of a tankless model
  • takes up much less space than a storage tank 
  • doesn’t need a condensation drain
  • costs about $1,000 more installed than a standard storage tank 
  • may not be able to meet the hot water demands of multiple end uses (i.e. if I had laundry, dishwasher, faucet and shower all running at same time)
  • have to wait for the hot water a few more seconds than with a storage tank
  • most models won’t work during a power outage ​
In addition to non-condensing tankless    
condensing tankless
0.91 - 0.98 EF
  • the ultimate in energy efficiency, my water heating bills would be negligible and my carbon footprint even smaller
  • requires access to a drain for condensation which would add to installation costs
  • costs about $1,000 more than a non-condensing tankless

 

 *NOTE: Since Joan replaced her water heater, one manufacturer has developed a residential condensing storage water heater rated at 0.80 EF.  They are much cheaper than commercial condensing storage tanks and are eligible for $1,000 rebate from FortisBC.  

What’s the EF?

EF, or energy factor, is a ratio that measures the efficiency of residential type natural gas water heaters. The higher the number, the better. Most gas storage tanks in homes today have an EF of about 0.50. New models have a minimum EF of 0.62. In comparison, tankless models offer an EF as high as 0.98.

And the winner is ….

Non-condensing natural gas tankless. The choice was easy once I did a little more research on all the pros and cons. I plan on staying in my house a long time and tankless models are reported to last up to 20 years. If I’d gone with the most expensive tankless, the condensing, I wouldn’t have made my money back because I don’t use much hot water, compared to a family of three or four people. If I had gone the cheapest route, an electric storage tank, I would’ve saved money at the outset, but ended up kicking myself when I saw those electrical bills year after year. Where I live, it currently costs about a third as much to heat water with natural gas as it does with electricity.
 
As well, tankless models only require a 120v plug and use just a little electricity to ignite the burner. After switching from an electric tank I had space freed up on my electrical panel for my kitchen remodel, so the fridge and dishwasher could be on their own circuits. 
 
Even though the tankless was more expensive than a natural gas storage tank, I knew I’d get the money back eventually through reduced energy costs. Plus, I’d save space in the basement. As well, tankless models don’t need a chimney as they vent sideways.

My savings journal

I had my water heater installed in September 2011.  That month and in the late spring and summer months of 2012, when the furnace wasn’t running and the only natural gas I consumed was for hot water, I used about half a gigajoule, or four dollars’ worth, a month. In comparison, my electric bill went down by about 10 dollars a month.  
 
Tanks for the memories, you old clunker! My old water heater was made ready for the recycling bin while the plumber finished installing the new tankless one.
Look! No chimney. The tankless model
vent was installed on the side of my house.
My new natural gas water heater helped me make the
kitchen remodel a little easier and more affordable.
 

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Joan Churchill spends her days writing about energy efficiency for FortisBC. In her spare time, she’s renovating her house and taking care of a houseful of fur kids.