More Dogs on Main Street
June 4, 2007
There is probably never a good time to buy a water heater. It’s not high on the list of consumer discretionary spending. If fact, a new water heater seems to be one of those things that is always bought under duress. It’s a little known fact that there is a computer chip in them that is programmed to blow the bottom out of the tank on the Sunday of a three-day weekend, when all the plumbers are unavailable. The new guy, who started working there the day before, is left on call. When responding to a water heater’s demise, he’ll stand there scratching his head. "Yep, it’s leaking," he will say authoritatively.
And just by chance, a lucky coincidence, he happens to have a replacement water heater sitting in his shop. It’s been there since the Nixon administration, but all the supply houses are closed for the holiday, so the options are cold showers and wet basements, or buying what he has on hand. The one on hand is always "special." It comes with gold plating inside, making it cost several times the price of the one you saw in the Sears ad in the paper last week. You could live without hot water for a few days and shop for the ideal water heater. Nothing encourages houseguests to leave like cold showers. I’m not above turning the water heater off when it’s time for them to go.
So it was something of a stroke of luck when I noticed that my water heater had produced a tiny, unexplained puddle in the basement. It was part of a long and complicated process of changing propane suppliers, which involves putting a new tank out in the yard, and a full inspection of all the gas-burning stuff in the house. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to go for years without looking at the water heater. But there it was, puddling up on the floor. The water heater tried to tell me the dog did it, but I’m not buying that.
The gas guy said it could just be some condensation, and maybe not a real leak. It’s cold in the basement, and kind of damp now that the furnace is off (or mostly off) for the season. He suggested leaving a door open to get a little more air circulation in there, and keeping an eye on it. But after 20 years, it could be ready to go to water heater heaven. So now I lie awake at night waiting to hear the gusher. It’s given me fair warning, and I actually get to shop for a water heater instead of bribing the plumber to steal one out of somebody else’s house on Christmas.
Shopping for a water heater is not as much fun as shopping for a new mountain bike. There is nothing very exciting about it. There are Web pages from the American Gas Appliance Manufacturer’s Association that have complicated worksheets to help you decide how big a water heater to buy. The old one was fine, so the new one should be the same size.
Where it gets interesting is the efficiency rating. Water heaters are as bad as Hummers when it comes to energy consumption. They sit there keeping 40 gallons of water piping hot, all the time. So for that 15-minute shower in the morning, and a load of laundry in the evening, it keeps the water fully heated the other 23 hours of the day. If you look around Park City, there are a whole lot of condos sitting there empty this time of year.
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There isn’t even the 15-minute shower in the morning. All of them will have a water heater (or two) faithfully keeping the water hot, for no reason, just waiting for a holiday weekend to blow a hole in the bottom of the tank.
The alternative, which the Europeans have used for years, is the tankless water heater. These are mini-boilers that are about the size of a carry-on suitcase. They sit there doing nothing until you open the hot water faucet. Then they turn on a raging flame, and instantly — and continuously — heat the water until you turn the tap off. The typical American water heater has an efficiency rating of about .60, meaning that 40 percent of the money you spend on gas goes up the flue. The tankless water heaters have an efficiency rating of about .83, meaning that only 17 percent of your energy is lost up the flue.
The cost of doing the environmentally correct thing and installing a tankless water heater is about three times what you would spend on a regular water heater. It would take a lot of time to make up that difference, even with propane prices following the cost of gasoline through the roof. pThen it got complicated. The tankless heaters will increase the temperature of the water by only so many degrees as it runs through the unit. Most will increase the temperature by about 70°. But you need to know the temperature of the water coming into the house. If the water coming into the house is very cold, a 70° increase may end up with a tepid shower, at best. Then the sales guy said something about constant pressure, and how the water heater knows it’s time to turn the burner on because the water pressure drops when you open the tap. But the water pressure also drops, then bounces up, when the well pump cycles on and off. Apparently that will confuse the water heater, and it might turn the gas on or off just for the heck of it, making for an exciting shower.
The more I heard about the high-efficiency water heaters, the more I began to like the old one that just did its inefficient thing for 20 years. After a couple of days, the basement floor is dry. Maybe it was all a false alarm. Or it could be waiting to blow on the Fourth of July. Just like with dogs, once it’s wet the floor, you just can’t trust it again.