Tankless Water Heater, Without the Burn


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burn

By Max Havins

I thought my tankless water heater would be saving me money each month on my energy bill.  I did not expect to be facing repairs of more than $2,000.

A great guest post on Sierra Club Green Home recently described how to save money and reduce your carbon footprint with a tankless water heater. I thought I was doing exactly that when I bought a townhome last summer with a tankless water heater. It turns out there was a lot I did not know.

Last month I had a plumber in my garage assessing a separate issue that was already a homeowner’s nightmare (a leak coming from my neighbor’s busted water heater).  He pulled me aside and said, “You’re probably not going to want to hear this, but…”

What followed was a long list of problems with my own water heater. Apparently the original installer made several big mistakes. I nodded my way to the end of the plumber’s list and then asked, “Ok, so how much to fix all that?” His answer: between $2,000-$3,000.

I had two other plumbers look at my water heater and each of them gave similar estimates. They recognized the problems almost immediately. Here is what I learned:

  • The natural gas line feeding into water heater was undersized. It was set up for a traditional storage tank water heater and simply was not delivering enough gas to allow the unit to operate as efficiently as it was designed to work. I would need to find a way of connecting the water heater to the larger gas line on the opposite side of my garage.
  • The ventilation duct feeding up and out of the roof needs to be made of stainless steel. It was not. Left unaddressed, this was going to be a problem as the duct would begin corroding and leaking.
  • The unit did not have any access points to complete routine maintenance. This maintenance, I found out, needs to be done twice a year and is critical for tankless water heaters.
  • The water heater itself came from a manufacturer that only one of the three plumbers had ever heard of before. It was certainly not a model known for quality or reliability.

I thought I would be reaping the benefits of a tankless water heater, but instead I had been burned. It was frustrating none of this came up in the home inspection report when I was purchasing the townhome six months earlier. The plumbers I spoke with said it is common for home inspectors to overlook these types of installation issues—especially if they are not familiar with tankless water heaters.

Each of the plumbers recommended replacing the tankless water heater with a traditional storage tank. The size of the closest gas line really limited my options. It would be considerably cheaper, even over the long-term, to replace the tankless water heater with a high efficiency storage tank unit. Reluctantly, I took their advice.

I am not giving up on tankless water heaters. Someday I hope to have one again. When I do, I will be sure to confirm a few things:

Is the connecting gas line the appropriate size? My townhome is only 15 years old, so not exactly ancient. I expect other homes that predate tankless water heating might have similar issues with gas lines sized for traditional storage tank water heaters.

Does the water heater have proper ventilation? I am not interested in taking any chances with exhaust that is corrosive over time.

What exactly needs to be done to maintain the water heater? Apparently, many tankless water heaters need routine maintenance every six months. I will need to know what to do and how to do it.

Is the manufacturer known and trusted? I am going to want to be confident that I am investing in a high-quality, reliable water heater. Any payback with energy and water cost savings will not add up if the water heater breaks down in two years.

Do I have the right person doing the installation (or inspection)? Finding the right contractor goes a long way to addressing all the priorities above. I will want the person installing or inspecting my water heater to be familiar with tankless water heaters. Ideally it would be someone who has already installed dozens of them in other homes.

I learned some hard lessons this past month, but I will be a little smarter when I look again for a tankless water heater. I offer my story with the hope others will be able to ask the right questions and get all the energy and water savings, without the headaches.

As a homeowner trying to save energy, water and money, I am always learning. If there are experts out there who want to add or clarify anything here, please feel free. This to me is what Sierra Club Green Home is all about.

For related article, see:
Two Home Improvements to Save Money, Conserve Energy and Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Save Energy with Water Heaters

© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

One Response

  1. Richard L April 18, 2012

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