A water heater isn't something you buy on impulse or upgrade as new features become available. Odds are, you don't think about it at all until it breaks or dies completely. That's when virtually all replacement purchases are made. Water heaters are fairly long-lived--most are warranted for a decade or more. When they do give out, it usually happens suddenly as water leaks out through corrosion in the tank.
Most water heaters are gas or electric. Electric water heaters are far more efficient when it comes to storing water. But because electricity is relatively expensive, gas heaters are cheaper to operate. Oil-fired water heaters are also available in locales such as the Northeast and Midwest, but they are comparatively expensive and represent a small fraction of the total number installed in homes. Solar- and heat-pump-operated water heaters make up a small part of the market. These use gas or electricity as a backup heat source.
American, A.O. Smith, Bradford, Rheem, State, and White are among the major manufacturers of hot-water heaters. In major retail stores, you'll find brands such as GE, Hotpoint, and Kenmore (Sears). There is some variety in the different models, though the brands compete mainly on warranty and price. Plumbers who buy direct from wholesale suppliers may offer to install water heaters branded by one of the manufacturers. Often, these are utilitarian, no-frills units, but they too offer a range of storage capacity and warranty options. If the until breaks or needs service, your only recourse is the plumber, who may refer you to the supplier or the manufacturer for satisfaction. That may not be a problem if you deal with the same plumber for all your home's needs. Service warranties for appliances are also available through third-party repair providers such as Sears Home Central--at a price.
When you need to replace your water heater, start by determining whether your old unit is big enough for your needs now and in the future. A typical, 40-gallon until ranges from $175 to $350, depending on warranty and efficiency. That size may be fine for most families, but if yours may grow--or you're planning to install a hot tub or whirlpool bath--consider stepping up to a 50-gallon or an even larger model. While you'll pay more initially, a larger water heater costs about the same per year to operate as a smaller unit. Conversely, empty nesters probably don't need extra capacity. Opting for a smaller unit will only save a little on installation costs--and it may mean you'll run out of hot water.
In areas where the water is corrosive or has high mineral content, choosing a model with a longer warranty may make sense (most warranties are divided between service, parts, and tank). And whichever heater you buy, ask if the service warranty includes in-home repairs.
Hot tips for a better buy
See whether itís fixable.
While a corroded, leaking tank isnít salvageable, a leaky drain valve or
pressure-relief valve or a worn-out electric heating element can be repaired.
But replacing the heater may make more sense.
Find out by getting a repair estimate. Then weigh that amount against the $500 to $600 youíll pay for a new heater with installation. A rule of thumb: Consider a repair if the labor cost, which warranties often exclude, averages less than $50 per year for each remaining year of coverage. Otherwise put the roughly $100 youíll pay just for the plumberís visit toward installing a new unit, especially if yours is out of warranty.
Look past capacity. Most water heaters are sold on that basis. But a water heaterís first-hour rating (FHR) is more important, since it tells you how much hot water the heater can deliver in an hour of use.
Determine how much hot water you need based on
the busiest hour of an average day. Figure on roughly 2 gallons for shaving, 4
gallons for washing face and hands, 5 gallons for preparing food, 10 gallons for
a dishwasher, and 20 gallons each for a 10-minute shower and a load of laundry.
Factor in growing children and other issues that can increase your water needs.
Once youíve arrived at a total, be sure that the FHR on the new heaterís yellow EnergyGuide label meets or exceeds that amount.
Look for a long warranty. Most cover 6, 9, or 12 years. Heaters with the lowest and highest warranties differ by just $60 to $80 for electric models and $50 to $100 for gas units. But we found much bigger differences inside.
Electric water heaters with 9- and 12-year warranties typically had larger heating elements, thicker insulation, and thicker or longer corrosion-fighting metal rods, referred to as anodes.
Most higher-warranty gas heaters had bigger burners and better heat transfer for faster water heating, along with more anode material and thicker insulation. An exception: Whirlpoolís 40-gallon gas heaters, whose 9- and 12-year models are identical inside.
Longer coverage is especially important considering that warranties typically cover only the heater, not the $200 to $300 youíll pay a pro to install a new one. Youíll also welcome a longer warranty if you have hard water and use water softeners. These softeners can speed up the rate of anode corrosion. While anodes can be replaced if thereís enough clearance to remove them, youíll need a plumber unless youíre handy.
Measure before you buy. Last yearís tougher federal energy standards require about 10 percent higher efficiency for gas water heaters and about 5 percent for electric models. But the insulation addded to meet those standards has made some heaters up to 4 inches fatter, a potential problem for closets and other tight spots.
Consider gas. Based on national average fuel costs, gas heaters cost roughly half as much to run as electric models and can pay for their higher up-front cost in as little as a year. Factor in the cost of running a gas line to your home if you donít have one. Also consider adding insulation to hot-water pipes and the cold water pipe exiting the water heater.
You may have heard about tankless water heaters, which save energy by heating only the water you draw. Those savings can add up to some $50 per year compared with conventional heaters. But even at that rate, it will take more than 25 years for an average household to recoup the extra $1,300 or so those units cost to buy, install, and maintain.
Keep it safe. New 30-, 40-, and 50-gallon gas heaters are designed to prevent the heaterís flame from igniting flammable vapors in the room. As with any fuel-burning appliance, however, youíll still need smoke and carbon-monoxide (CO) detectors.
Also remember that heaters are generally vented through the same chimney as a furnace or boiler. If you change venting for one appliance, you might need to change it for the other.
see a model number key for electric water heaters
for a model key for gas water heaters.
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