Tankless water heaters, while having been around for some time, are gaining popularity in the U.S. Their function is pretty straightforward - to heat water on demand rather than continuously heating a large tank. This approach saves energy since it eliminates the need to periodically reheat the same water in a tank, whether it's needed soon or hours later. By reducing the amount of energy used to heat water, homeowners can save significantly on their energy bills, too.

So, how does it work? In a home with a tankless system, when you turn on the hot water tap, a flow sensor activates the heater's burner, quickly heating the water. Once the tap is off, the flow stops, and the burner shuts down. While these systems are often referred to as "hot water heaters," a more accurate term would be "cold water heaters" since they actually heat cold water.

A slight drawback of tankless systems is the longer wait for hot water compared to traditional tank systems. This can sometimes result in a 'cold water sandwich' effect when hot water is used intermittently. While a recirculating loop can mitigate this issue, it does reduce some energy savings inherent to tankless systems.

In terms of energy efficiency, tankless systems shine, especially when hot water usage is clustered around the same time, like during morning routines. Compared to tank systems, tankless heaters avoid the energy loss of heating new water constantly.

How much do tankless water heaters cost?

tankless water heater

Tankless units are more expensive upfront than traditional tank heaters, ranging from about $1,500 to $2,500 once installed. However, they typically last longer, with a life expectancy exceeding 20 years, compared to 8-12 years for tank heaters. Gas-fired tankless heaters need a larger gas supply line, but usually, the existing home’s supply is adequate.

For new homes, it's smart to consider a tankless water heater, especially if your current tank-style heater is nearing the end of its lifespan. When deciding between tank and tankless options, consulting with a licensed plumber for a cost breakdown and potential savings analysis can be helpful.

Electric tankless heaters also exist but offer less savings compared to gas or LP-fired units. This is partly due to electric heating's slower rate and recent changes in electric price caps.

Who makes tankless water heaters?

Manufacturers like Rinnai, Rheem, and Noritz offer various tankless models, differing mainly in hot water flow rates and temperature rise capabilities. In all models, maintenance is relatively low – keeping vents clear and periodically flushing the system to prevent mineral buildup.

Are tankless water heaters difficult to maintain?

No, tankless water heaters are relatively low maintenance. First and foremost, it's important to regularly check the intake and exhaust vents. These should be kept clear of any obstructions like vegetation, snow, or mulch to ensure proper airflow. Most tankless units use a concentric vent system, which requires only a single opening but is essential for both air intake and exhaust. Any blockage, if undetected, can cause the unit to shut down and display error codes. The second key maintenance task is the flushing or descaling of the system, typically recommended every 12 to 18 months. This process involves circulating a descaling solution through the heater to remove mineral buildup, like calcium and magnesium, which can accumulate inside the heater due to hard water. The frequency of this process may vary depending on the hardness of your water, the size of your household, and the manufacturer's recommendations. Additionally, cleaning the unit's inlet mesh filter regularly is necessary to prevent clogging and maintain efficient operation. While a professional plumber can perform these maintenance tasks, a knowledgeable homeowner with the right equipment can also take them on. Regular maintenance not only extends the life of your tankless water heater, but also ensures it operates at peak efficiency, saving you money.

Home inspectors are trained to visually inspect hot water heaters, whether traditional or tankless, gas or electric. This helps home buyers and homeowners ensure that they continue to get reliable hot water year-round.

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