Homeowner's Guide To Water Heaters

by Joseph Truini

Are you in the market for a new water heater? Before answering, check on the age of your current water heater. Most water heaters have a lifespan of eight to 12 years. If your water heater is 10 or 11 years old, now’s the time to start thinking about replacing it. Don’t wait until it finally succumbs to old age, because then you won’t have much time to research and identify the best new water heater for you and your family.

There are four basic types of residential water heaters: tank, tankless, electric hybrid, and point-of-use. Tank water heaters are by far the most popular, although the use of tankless water heaters is growing exponentially each year. Electric hybrid models are relatively new, but worth considering, especially for those with an electric platform seeking maximum energy efficiency. Point-of-use heaters are ideal for quickly delivering hot water to faucets and appliances located far from the home’s main water heater. Here, I’ll explain each of these four types.

Tank Water Heaters

A vast majority of homes have conventional tank water heaters, which are powered by either gas or electricity. Generally speaking, gas water heaters are more expensive to buy than electric models, but they cost less to operate because gas is cheaper than electricity. Conversely, electric water heaters cost less to buy but more to operate. Electric water heaters, however, are more efficient than gas models and have higher energy-factor ratings. Regardless of the pros and cons of gas or electric, old water heaters are almost always replaced with the same type of heater—gas for gas, electric for electric—because it greatly simplifies the installation.

Tank water heaters come in various sizes, ranging from about 20 to 80 gallons, but a 40- or 50-gallon tank is sufficient for most households. They also come in a wide range of prices, averaging between $400 and $900. As with most products, price is a good indicator of quality. The most affordable water heaters are seldom a bargain: They cost more to operate, have weaker warranties and shorter life spans. Buy the best heater you can afford and you’ll save money in the long run with lower utility bills, fewer repairs, and many years of trouble-free hot water.    

Tank-type heaters are popular because they’re affordable, easy to install, and readily available in a wide range of sizes and prices. But there are a few drawbacks to consider. First, the storage tank holds a limited supply of hot water, so if there are two people showering while someone else is washing dishes and doing laundry, there may not be enough hot water for everyone.

In addition, tank-type heaters burn energy (gas or electricity) day and night to maintain the water temperature, regardless of whether anyone is using hot water—an inefficiency known as standby heat loss. Lastly, the large storage tank takes up quite a bit of room, which isn’t a problem in a spacious basement, but  could be an issue if you’re installing the water heater in a utility closet, laundry room, or crowded garage.

Tankless Water Heaters

Tankless water heaters are relatively new, but they’re growing in popularity with both plumbing contractors and homeowners. These compact, wall-hung units provide hot water for the entire house without the bulky storage tank.

Tankless water heaters provide an unlimited supply of hot water, which is a real bonus for large families with teenagers. Other benefits include space-saving design, low operating costs, and no standby heat loss. Tankless heaters also last up to 20 years, nearly twice as long as standard tank-type water heaters. Finally, tankless models provide additional safety benefits. Because they don’t hold gallons of water at a time, they present less of a risk for leaking and flooding and are less prone to cause extensive water damage.

Although these models cost more to purchase (price tags range from $500 to $1200) and are more expensive to install and repair, most homeowners recoup these additional costs within a few years through lower utility bills.  

Electric Hybrid Water Heaters

A hybrid water heater is a tank heater that’s equipped with an electric heat pump. The heat pump is mounted on top of the water-storage tank, and it uses a compact compressor and evaporator coil to capture heat from the room air and then transfer it to the incoming cold water. As a result, a hybrid model uses 60 percent less energy than a conventional water heater, resulting in an average lifespan savings of over $4,400.

A hybrid water heater can easily cost twice as much as a standard water heater, but most families recoup that added expense within three to four years through lower electric bills. State and local energy rebates, if available, can help you recoup the cost even faster.

Point-of-Use Water Heaters

Unlike the previously mentioned whole-house water heaters, which provide hot water for an entire household, point-of-use water heaters are compact, tankless models that deliver hot water almost instantaneously to one specific location, such as a bathroom sink or shower.

This type of electric heater is most often installed at fixtures located far from the main water heater. Its biggest selling point is that it eliminates the all-too-common annoyance of opening the tap and then waiting, waiting, waiting for hot water. Such an inconvenience wastes not only time, but also an immense amount of water and energy.

Most point-of-use units measure only about 10 x 13 inches, so they easily fit inside of vanity cabinets and closets. Point-of-use water heaters are extremely reliable and can easily last up to 25 years. Because there’s no standby heat loss with point-of-use water heaters, all the energy consumed is delivered at the tap.

Proper Installation Is Critical
Once you’ve decided which type of water heater to install, it’s critically important to hire a plumbing and heating contractor experienced in installing the make and model of heater you’ve chosen. The unit must be installed in precise accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations and with all applicable plumbing codes. Failing to do so will void all warranties and make the water heater run less efficiently and shorten its lifespan. Worst of all, improper installation can cause leakage, flooding, and costly water damage. An experienced professional can help you avoid these issues down the line.

Check with the manufacturer for a certified installer in your area, or stop by your local home improvement store. Most stores offer water heater installation services by licensed, insured contractors. 

Joseph Truini is a home improvement expert who writes about do-it-yourself home remodeling and repair, woodworking projects, tools, and techniques. He has authored six books, including the best-selling "Building a Shed.” Joe also writes for The Home Depot about choosing water heaters and other home improvement topics. If you’re considering purchasing a new water heater for your home, visit The Home Depot’s website for installation options.