A lot of people don't really think about where their hot water comes from. That is, until it's gone in the middle of a shower or a puddle in your closet suggests you need a new one. For a device that keeps your water running hot and steady, make sure you find the right water heater for your home.
Types of Water Heaters
Gas vs. electric water heaters: While a small percentage of water heaters burn propane, oil or kerosene, most models are gas or electric. Gas water heaters generally cost a little more up front, and they must be vented outdoors for safety. However, they usually cost less to operate than electric models. Electric water heaters are easy to maintain and require no venting or combustibles. They heat water quickly and offer high energy factor ratings. However, they typically have higher monthly utilities costs.
Tank vs. tankless water heaters: Conventional tank water heaters store constantly heated water and can be stored in a closet, basement or garage. The capacity usually ranges from 20 to 80 gallons, and energy efficiency varies between models, brands and fuel sources. Tankless models heat cold water with a gas burner or electric element as it passes through the water heater. They require a larger upfront investment, but they can hang on a wall, freeing up floor space. Tankless models are also more energy efficient, but they require ventilation.
Whole-house vs. point-of-use water heaters: Most water heaters are whole-house systems that send hot water from the main source through the house to the point where you want hot water. Unlike point-of-use heaters, whole-house systems can provide hot water to more than one fixture at a time. Point-of-use heaters are individual units that install directly under the sink or in a closet, delivering hot water to a specific location. They typically are in addition to a whole-house unit, as they can add instant or additional hot water as needed.
Important Water Heater Features
- Capacity: It's important that the water heater you choose can provide enough hot water for your home. An undersized water heater, while cheaper upfront, will work harder and have a shorter lifespan, costing you more in the long run. See the Water Heater Capacity Guidelines below for more information.
- Energy efficiency: Regardless of which fuel source you use, your water heater will likely be the third largest energy user in your home, so you'll want a unit that offers energy and cost savings. Almost all water heaters offer increased efficiencies today to meet modern federal standards. Look for the Energy Factor (EF) rating on the unit; the higher the rating, the more efficient the unit, so look for ratings as close to 1 as possible. Electric heaters tend to have the highest EF ratings.
- Self-cleaning: Some water heaters have this feature, which automatically fights lime and sediment buildup, lengthening tank life and maintaining peak efficiency for longer periods of time.
- Recovery speed: This is the amount of time it takes your water heater to heat a full tank of water. Look for a model with a fast recovery speed, particularly if you typically use a lot of hot water in your home.
- Automatic shutoff valve: In the case of gas water heaters, this feature will help prevent fires by shutting off the flow of gas if there's a movement in the ground or if there is a large and sudden increase in gas flow.
Water Heater Capacity Guidelines
Conventional tank water heater capacity should be determined by the number of bedrooms and bathrooms in your home. For a 1- to 1.5-bathroom home with 1 bedroom, minimum tank size is 20 gallons, 2 bedrooms is 30 gallons, and 3 bedrooms is 40 gallons. For a 2- to 2.5-bathroom home with 2 bedrooms, minimum tank size is 50, 3 to 4 bedrooms is 50, and 5 bedrooms is 60. For a 3- to 3.5-bathroom home with 3 bedrooms, minimum tank size is 50, 4 to 5 bedrooms is 60, and 6 bedrooms is 80.
Tankless water heater capacity should be determined by how much hot water you'll need at one time, which is called the flow rate, measured in gallons per minute, or gpm. The typically bathroom faucet has a 0.5 to 1.5 gpm rate. Low-flow kitchen faucets need 3 to 7 gpm, and showers use 1 to 2 gpm. Dishwashers release between 1 and 2.5 gpm, and clothes washers use 1.5 to 3 gpm. To determine the total flow rate you need, add the rate values together for the number of appliances you commonly use at the same time, such as the dishwasher and the kitchen sink.
Water Heater Cost
Buying a water heater costs between $150 and $3,500, depending on capacity, energy efficiency and type. Traditional tank systems run between $100 and $600 for electric and $250 to $1,000 for gas. Tankless models run between $200 and $1,200, depending mostly on size. Tankless models range from small under-the-sink models to ones that deliver 5 gallons per minute. Heat pump models are $600 to $2,000 or more, and solar water heaters run between $1,000 and $5,000, including installation. Monthly expenses for upkeep and electricity will add to the overall cost, so evaluate those features, as well, before making a final purchase decision.
Installation for a water heater runs between $200 and $400 for a traditional tank model, depending on size, existing setup, fit and other factors. Tankless heaters cost two to four times more than other units if the supply lines or venting need resizing, or if other significant changes are required. Heat pump water heaters cost between $300 and $700 to install, and solar systems usually have installation included in the purchase price. Replacing an old-style heater with a different system will cost more, but it can save money in the long run due to water, electricity and maintenance costs.