My hot water heater: 1984-2008

I think my hot water heater died today. I thought my shower seemed colder than usual today, and in the late afternoon my wife reported no hot water in the kitchen.

It could be something simple, but even if it is, it’s time.Let’s consider this. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was president. The Kansas City Royals went to the playoffs. The big name in video games was Atari. People were predicting that video game consoles had no future. The big names in personal computers were (alphabetically) Apple, Commodore, IBM, and Radio Shack. Only one is still in that business. It was the year that Chrysler popularized the minivan. It was the year Apple introduced the Macintosh, popularizing the graphical interface and the mouse. Not only did MTV still play videos, but that was all they played. Not every home had a VCR. For that matter, not every home had a microwave. It cost 20 cents to mail a letter, and on average, a gallon of gas cost $1.21. (I remember it being a lot less than that in Missouri.)

The world that built that hot water heater is a lot different from the world we live in today.

About four years ago, a plumber came out to work on it. It was giving me problems then, but under the conditions of my home warranty, he had to bubblegum it back together. I asked how long it had. He said its realistic life expectancy was about 12 years, so it was about 8 years beyond that. It could last another six months, but it could last years.

So now the question is what to replace it with. The stingy Scottish miser in me sees tankless water heaters claiming to save you $150 a year and really likes that. I went to Lowe’s this evening and tried to buy one. There were several reasons why I don’t own one right now.

First, they don’t keep very many in stock. They had exactly one, even though their website said they had two of two different models. The one they had wasn’t the model I really wanted.

Two, they don’t install them. They’ll sell one to you, but then you have to find someone to install it on your own.

Three, they cost more to install than a conventional tank heater. Sometimes as much as the heater itself.

And then I found a controversial column that did the math, and said that a tankless heater might not actually save you any money anyway. I can’t find fault with his logic.

One thing I noticed is that the tankless heaters that the big-box stores sell are 85% efficient. The tank heaters are 76% efficient. The propaganda for the tankless heaters always assumes lower efficiency than that. As best I can tell, the heater I have is 67%, a little lower than the literature assumes.

So it seems to me that if a tankless heater that’s 18% more efficient than what I have now will save me $100-$150 a year, then a conventional heater that’s 76% efficient ought to save me $50-$75 per year, right?

The tank heaters sell for around $320, and installation is about $260. By the time you pay for taxes and the nickel-and-dime extras, it’s $600-$700.

Half the savings for 1/3 the price sounds pretty good. And I can buy one pretty much anywhere and have it installed tomorrow if I make the purchase before noon.

And it will pay for itself in 8-12 years. A tankless heater would pay for itself in about 13, if all the claims are true. If I make a mistake today, either way I go I’ll be likely to be revisiting it in about 12 years anyway. By then, tankless heaters will be more common and probably cost less than they do now (adjusting for inflation of course).

I’ll call the plumber who bubblegummed my old unit back together in the morning. Depending on what he says about the cost of installing a tankless heater, I’ll make a decision. But at this point, I think I’m leaning towards buying the most energy efficient conventional heater I can find.

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  September 8, 2008

    Dave, check the electrical requirements for the tankless model. I think that when I was looking at them recently, they had some real big power draws (read: extra circuits needed). Not a terrible problem when you’re building a new place, but a potential deal-killer if you’re upgrading.

    Of course, if you’re going gas instead of electric, you can ignore this comment.

    • Anonymous

       /  September 8, 2008

      I have gas appliances. Electric actually may not have been as big of a deal, as I have extra circuits I’m not using. But with gas, you need a bigger pipe, which I didn’t have.

      I ended up going with a conventional unit. It will pay for itself too, and after it does, I can re-investigate if need be.

      I’m sure the hot water heater isn’t the only thing that’s needlessly costing me $150 a year, so I’ll spend the next 10 years finding those.

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