Hot-water heaters have come a long way

Posted Jan. 01, 2010, at 7:30 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:28 a.m.

There are a lot of options when people want to have hot water in their home.

Our first house was a handyman’s special and there was no hot-water heater in it.

It had only hot-air heat, so my first task (of many) was to install an electric hot-water heater.

As an aspiring do-it-yourselfer, I thought I could handle installing an electric hot-water heater. The job got done, and it did work. I sometimes shudder to think of what I could have done wrong. I had never been into a fuse box before, other than to look around, but had done enough messing about with radios and TVs that I thought I had a clue.

In hindsight, well, you know.

Through the years, I have had my hands into many different types of water heaters. When instantaneous (tankless) gas hot-water heaters came out, there was a manufacturer who claimed that its device would do double duty as a heating boiler. At that time, the concept of a wall-hung gas water heater was unique, and continuous, inexhaustible hot water was great — until you saw the gas bill.

These units were made in France and had a lot of mechanical bits that made them work. They were fairly decent hot-water heaters. They stunk as boilers.

I spent a lot of time on the phone with the importer trying to make the water heater work as a boiler. It never did work as a boiler. We learned so much about them that we started remanufacturing the LP gas units for the importer.

That meant that I got to see every LP gas unit that malfunctioned. That was interesting. We had to build a test facility and started to receive all the defective LP units sold in the U.S.

Some were really scary-looking, burned hulks that would never work again. Most needed minor repairs that required an odd component and a recalibration.

About 50 percent of the defective units were installer errors. The most common error was installing an LP unit with natural gas. That usually resulted in a lot of soot and occasionally a fire. That was scary, but was an interesting education in human nature and how we tend to ignore directions.

Over the years, the design of tankless water heaters has improved greatly. Japanese manufacturers have redesigned these units, the result being much greater reliability and performance. Some can work as wall-hung boilers, but there are also a whole bunch of wall-hung boilers now that are specifically designed as boilers.

In the interim, the lowly electric hot-water heater has been upgraded with foam insulation. This helps to minimize the standby loss that many people are concerned about.

I like to recommend the use of an electric tank water heater for empty nesters and small families. There is also some merit in using electric hot-water heaters in homes with teenagers. A 40-gallon electric hot-water heater is a self-limiting shower controller. An electric hot-water heater limits the shower time to the tank’s capacity. The time for the heater to recover is long enough to get someone out of the shower but still allow a civilized cleaning experience.

If you want to have limitless showers, the tankless gas unit is a great way to go, but you will have to pay the fuel bill for all that inexhaustible hot water.

If you think that a solar hot-water heating system will eliminate the use of conventional water heaters, please understand that unless you can bathe when the sun shines, you will get great solar showers in the summer and will be limited during the winter to occasional bathing. This might cut into your social life.

Solar heating systems are great backups to conventional systems. They can be installed in such a way that they can bypass the conventional systems in the months when the weather is cooperative and preheat the rest of the time.

Fifty percent solar contribution annually is a common, realistic expectation. Anyone who says a solar hot-water system without backup will yield 100 percent should be viewed with some skepticism.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html.

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