Is your water heater a ticking time bomb?

Hot water heaters are something we tend to take for granted until they start leaking or fail altogether. Once that happens, we are likely to grab the yellow pages or hop online to find the nearest plumber who can come right away. (Unless you are a renter, in which case you will call your landlord. There are upsides to renting.)

The life expectancy of the average, conventional water heater is 10-15 years (longer, if you make a habit of draining it annually).  So if yours is nearing the 10-year mark, you could save yourself money by researching  your options before it fails. The original installation date should be written on the outside of the tank.

There are several types of water heaters. Your options will depend somewhat on the fuel source in your home, i.e. electric, natural gas, or liquid propane gas.

Storage tank water heaters are the most common type and usually hold 30-80 gallons. The correct size depends upon the amount of space you have, the number of people living in your home and the recovery rate you require. Recovery rate refers to the number of gallons the tank can heat in an hour. No one likes a cold shower.

Before you buy, check the Energy Guide label on the tank to determine the energy efficiency rating. High efficiency tanks cost more at the outset but are designed to save you money over time and are kinder to the environment.

Tankless (aka on-demand) water heaters heat water as it is needed rather than storing hot water in a tank. Water is heated by passing through a series of coils. They are available for electric, natural gas and propane fuel sources but the electric models offer far less benefit in terms of energy efficiency and cost savings. (A better alternative for electric water heaters is to add a timer that will shut off the power to the tank at specified times when you know hot water will not be needed.)

An upside of tankless heaters is that they take up much less space. A downside is that they typically provide a lower volume of hot water — an average of 3.5 gallons per minute — so are less useful if you need hot water from more than one location, such as running the dishwasher and washing machine at the same time.

Solar hot water systems may be more common than you think. Over half a million have been installed in single-family homes in the United States alone. Solar hot water systems are typically installed on roofs and often look like skylights. Sometimes considered to be an expensive proposition, it is worth noting that the cost of installing solar panels declined by 30% between 1980-1990. Further price drops aren’t likely to be as dramatic, but the cost will surely continue to decline as demand increases.

Still inclined to ignore the condition of your current water heater? Then consider this. If your tank fails, it’s likely to cause damage to everything around it (especially flooring and dry wall), so you may end up having to replace/repair more than just the hot water tank.

How old did you say your tank is?

Note: although several links in this article are from the website for Washington Water Heaters, this is not meant as an endorsement of that company’s products or services.The links are offered as a source of general product information only.

Find Energy Star Products here.