Appliance Tips: Choosing The Right Water Heater

Shopping for a water heater can be confusing. Learn how to consider factors like capacity, efficiency and cost, as well as important differences between unit types.

Whenever you are shopping for a water heater, a little research on the front end is guaranteed to save you money in the long term. There are different types and models on the market, but the main considerations are the same across the board: capacity, efficiency and cost.

Your needs regarding capacity depend entirely upon how much hot water you use. Generally, you can estimate your needs based on the number of people in your family. The formula is simple: larger families require water heaters with larger capacities. Of course, if your family is particular zealous about water conservation, this formula may not be as relevant.

Water heater efficiency is also easy to determine since all models sold within the United States carry a yellow Energy Guide label. This label provides all kinds of useful information regarding the water heater's efficiency, including estimates for how much it will cost to operate in a typical month. Look for a high energy factor (EF), which is a good indicator of an efficient heater.

Finally, cost will be an important consideration when you are choosing a system. This factor is not as straightforward as the others. Often, a more expensive unit will save money in the long term through lower operation costs, while a cheaper unit will cost more to run on a month-to-month basis. Also, be sure to factor warranty and installation costs in your calculations.

The benefits and drawbacks of the four most common types of water heater are as follows:

1. Storage water heaters: Storage water heaters are far and away the most popular type of water heater in the United States. They work by maintaining a full tank of constantly heated water. When you use hot water in your home, it comes from the top of the storage tank, which immediately refills. Storage tanks are not the most energy-efficient water heaters available. That said, efficiency varies widely according to model and brand, so pay careful attention to the energy guide label when you are shopping.

Storage water heaters vary greatly in size; small models hold around twenty gallons, while the larger models will hold around eighty. Roughly speaking, the larger its capacity, the more expensive the heater will be.

2. Demand water heaters: In contrast to the constantly full, heated tank of storage water heaters, demand units heat water instantaneously. In other words, the main difference is that demand water heaters simply don't have tanks that hold preheated water. Instead, the water is warmed as it is needed. These systems are not the best option for large families, as they can only produce enough hot water for one faucet at a time. (In other words, you could not successfully run the dishwasher and take a shower simultaneously.)

3. Heat pump water heaters: These units have limited usefulness, since they are only effective in moderate climates. They work by using electricity to heat water, and are normally used in conjunction with a tank that stores the water. Since they cannot be installed in cold (unheated) areas, they aren't practical for some homes. Another drawback is their expense, which is relatively high. If, however, you live in a moderate climate and can install it in a relatively warm area, you will save money on energy costs over time.

4. Solar water heaters: These water heaters are not always practical, especially in cold climates. A lot of thought must go into configuration, and the equipment can be difficult to choose. Even elaborate, well-designed systems usually require some kind of backup water heating system. Additionally, the equipment and installation expenses can be prohibitive. There are decided benefits, though, including environmental soundness and cheap operating costs.

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