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Tankless vs. Traditional Water Heater Installation: A Comparison


tankless water heater

When it comes to heating your home's water, the choice between tankless and traditional water heaters is more than just about hot showers. It's a decision that affects energy bills, comfort, and the environment.


Whether you're building a new home or considering an upgrade, understanding the differences between these two types of heaters is crucial.


Key Takeaways


  • Tankless water heaters provide hot water on demand and can offer energy savings over time.

  • Traditional storage tank water heaters are less expensive upfront but can cost more in the long run.

  • Installation of a tankless heater is more complex and may require retrofitting, which adds to the cost.

  • Traditional water heaters have a simpler design, which often leads to easier and cheaper maintenance.

  • Considering your household's hot water needs and the potential long-term savings is essential when choosing between tankless and traditional water heaters.


Hot Water Essentials: Tankless vs. Traditional Heaters


Quick Snapshot: What's the Difference?

Tankless water heaters, also known as on-demand heaters, provide hot water only as it is needed. They don't store hot water but rather heat it directly with either electric elements or gas burners as the water flows through the unit.


Traditional water heaters, on the other hand, store and continually heat water in a large tank, ensuring that hot water is always on standby.


Why the Type of Water Heater Matters

Choosing the right water heater impacts not just your immediate comfort but also your long-term finances. It's not just about the initial purchase; it's about considering the operational costs, maintenance, and how your family uses hot water. That's why diving into the details is so important.


Decoding Tankless Water Heaters

How Do Tankless Water Heaters Work?

Imagine turning on a hot water tap and having a heater spring into action, heating the water on its way to you.


That's precisely how tankless water heaters operate. They use high-powered burners to quickly heat water as it runs through a heat exchanger, delivering it directly to your faucets without storing it. Because of this, they're often touted for their efficiency.


Pros of Going Tankless


  • Energy Savings: Because they heat water only when needed, tankless water heaters can be 24% to 34% more energy-efficient for homes that use 41 gallons or less of hot water daily.

  • Continuous Hot Water: Enjoy a steady stream of hot water, perfect for filling up that large bathtub or running the dishwasher while someone's in the shower.

  • Longevity: Tankless water heaters typically last longer than traditional models, with a life expectancy of more than 20 years compared to 10-15 years for storage tank heaters.

  • Space Savings: They are compact and can be installed in smaller spaces or even on walls, freeing up floor space.


Cons of Tankless Water Heaters

Despite their advantages, tankless heaters come with some drawbacks. They have a higher initial cost, and installation can be more involved, often requiring changes to your home's ventilation and piping. Plus, if you have a large family or simultaneous hot water needs, you might require a larger, more expensive unit to keep up.


Installation Considerations for Tankless Heaters

Installation is not a DIY job. You'll need a professional who can assess your home's needs, including gas lines, venting, and electrical service. It's a more complex setup than a traditional water heater, but with the right planning, it can be a smooth process.


Advantages of Traditional Water Heaters

Traditional water heaters, the ones with the big tank, are the tried-and-true option for many homes. They're less expensive to purchase and install than tankless models. Plus, their simple design makes for easy repairs.


These units are ideal for households with a high demand for hot water at peak times, as they have a large supply ready to go.


Drawbacks of Storage Tank Heaters

While traditional water heaters have their perks, they aren't without faults. They can take up a lot of space, and since they keep water hot 24/7, they can be less energy efficient. Also, once the hot water in the tank runs out, you'll have to wait for it to refill and heat up again, which can be a real inconvenience.


What to Expect During Traditional Heater Installation

Installing a traditional water heater is usually straightforward. A plumber will connect it to your existing water lines and power source, whether that's gas or electric. Most importantly, because they're so common, many plumbers know exactly how to handle them, which can mean a quicker and potentially cheaper installation.


Cost Comparison: Upfront and Long-Term

When you're deciding between tankless and traditional water heaters, cost is a big factor. Tankless units have a higher upfront cost — both for the unit itself and for installation. Traditional water heaters are more budget-friendly at the outset, but they can end up costing you more in energy bills over time.


Initial Costs: Tankless vs. Traditional Heaters

A tankless water heater can cost you a pretty penny upfront — think in the ballpark of $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the model and capacity. Traditional storage tank heaters, however, are usually priced between $300 and $1,000.


But don't forget to factor in installation costs, which can vary depending on whether you're doing a straightforward replacement or a full-on system change.


Energy Efficiency and Utility Bills

Energy efficiency is where tankless water heaters shine. They're designed to be more energy-efficient because they heat water as you need it. Traditional tanks keep gallons of water hot at all times, which can be a bit of a drain on your energy bill. In the long run, you might find that a tankless heater offers savings that can offset its higher initial cost.

For example, if your family uses 40 gallons of hot water per day, a tankless water heater could be 24% to 34% more energy-efficient than a traditional tank heater. That can translate to significant savings on your utility bills over time.

However, these savings will vary based on your water usage and the efficiency of the unit you choose.


Life Expectancy and Maintenance

When it comes to longevity, tankless water heaters generally last longer than their traditional counterparts. You can expect a tankless heater to serve you for around 20 years, while a traditional tank might need replacing after 10 to 15 years. This increased lifespan can make the higher upfront cost of a tankless heater worth it in the long run.


As for maintenance, tankless models do require regular service to prevent scale and ensure efficiency, but they generally have fewer issues over their lifespan. Traditional tanks, due to their simpler design, are usually easier and less expensive to repair, although they may need those repairs more frequently.


tankless water heater

Choosing the Right Heater for Your Home

Deciding on the right water heater goes beyond just cost and efficiency. You need to consider your household's specific needs, the space you have available, and whether you're prepared for the potential complexity of installing a tankless system.


Let's break down these considerations to help you make the best choice for your home.


Assessing Your Household's Hot Water Needs

The first step in choosing a water heater is to evaluate how much hot water your household uses. If you have a large family or high hot water needs, a traditional tank might be better suited to your lifestyle.


On the other hand, if your hot water usage is lower, or if you're interested in conserving energy, a tankless heater could be the way to go.


Space Requirements and Heater Placement

Space is another important consideration. Traditional water heaters take up a fair amount of room with their large tanks. Tankless heaters, however, are much smaller and can even be mounted on a wall, making them ideal for homes with limited space.


Gas vs. Electric Heaters: Which Is Best for You?

Both tankless and traditional heaters come in gas and electric models. Your choice will depend on the utilities available in your area and the existing setup in your home.


Gas heaters typically heat water faster and are more cost-effective to operate, but they require venting to the outdoors. Electric models are easier to install and maintain but can be more expensive to run.


It's also worth noting that electric tankless water heaters require a substantial amount of electrical current, which may necessitate an upgrade to your home's electrical system.


The Retrofit Factor: Switching Water Heater Types

If you're thinking about switching from a traditional to a tankless water heater, keep in mind that it's not always a straightforward swap. The retrofit can involve significant changes to plumbing, venting, and gas lines.


Therefore, it's essential to consult with a professional to understand the full scope of the work required and the associated costs.


Understanding Traditional Water Heaters

Before diving into the specifics of traditional water heaters, it's essential to grasp their fundamental role in the home. These heaters are akin to a constant, ready-to-go hot water reserve, which is a comfort many have grown accustomed to.


With a simple but effective mechanism, they have been the standard in most households for decades.


At their core, traditional water heaters are all about storage. Water is heated within an insulated tank by means of gas burners or electric elements. Once heated to a set temperature, the water is stored, ready for use.


This means that even when you're not using hot water, the tank is working to maintain the water temperature, ready for the next demand.


Now, the simplicity of this system is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the technology is well-understood and has been refined over many years, leading to a relatively hassle-free experience for homeowners.


On the other hand, it's this constant reheating that can lead to inefficiencies, especially when compared to the more modern tankless systems.


Basics of Storage Tank Water Heaters

Let's break down the basic components of a storage tank water heater:


  • An insulated tank, typically ranging from 30 to 50 gallons in capacity, holds and heats the water.

  • A thermostat monitors the water temperature and controls the heating mechanism to maintain the set temperature.

  • Heating elements or gas burners provide the heat required to raise the water temperature.

  • A pressure relief valve ensures the system remains safe by releasing pressure if it becomes too high.

  • Hot water exits from the top of the tank when a faucet or appliance demands it, while cold water enters the bottom to be heated.


Advantages of Traditional Water Heaters

The benefits of traditional water heaters are straightforward and have kept them in homes for years:


  • Lower Initial Cost: They are generally cheaper to purchase and install compared to tankless models.

  • Simplicity: Their design and operation are simple, leading to lower maintenance costs and easier repairs.

  • Reliability: They provide a steady supply of hot water that's ready the moment you turn on the tap, as long as the tank isn't depleted.


Drawbacks of Storage Tank Heaters

Despite their widespread use, traditional water heaters are not without their drawbacks:


  • Space: They can be quite large and bulky, taking up valuable space in your home.

  • Energy Efficiency: They can be less energy-efficient since they maintain the water temperature even when not in use.

  • Limited Supply: Once the hot water in the tank is used up, you'll have to wait for a new batch to heat up, which can be inconvenient.

  • Lifespan: They typically have a shorter lifespan than tankless models, often requiring replacement every 10-15 years.


What to Expect During Traditional Heater Installation

Installing a traditional water heater is usually less complex than a tankless model. A professional plumber will connect the new unit to your home's water supply and power source.


The process generally takes a few hours, and once completed, you'll have access to a steady supply of hot water. Remember, regular maintenance is key to extending the life of your traditional water heater and ensuring it runs efficiently.


Cost Comparison: Upfront and Long-Term

When it comes to water heaters, the initial price tag is just one piece of the puzzle. The long-term costs associated with energy use, maintenance, and eventual replacement can significantly affect your wallet over time.


Initial Costs: Tankless vs. Traditional Heaters

The initial investment for a tankless water heater can be substantial. You're looking at a range of $1,000 to $3,000 for the unit alone, and that's before factoring in installation, which can be quite complex.


In contrast, traditional water heaters are more wallet-friendly at the start, typically costing between $300 and $1,000, plus a simpler and generally cheaper installation process.


Energy Efficiency and Utility Bills

Energy efficiency is a major selling point for tankless water heaters. They only heat water when you need it, which can lead to substantial savings on your utility bills.


Traditional tanks, however, maintain a hot water supply at all times, which can be less efficient and more costly in the long run. It's important to calculate these ongoing costs when making your decision.


For instance, if your household's daily hot water usage is around 40 gallons, opting for a tankless water heater could be 24% to 34% more energy-efficient than sticking with a traditional tank model. Over the years, this efficiency can add up to significant savings on your energy bills.

But remember, these potential savings will vary based on your specific water usage habits and the efficiency of the heater you select.


Life Expectancy and Maintenance

On the longevity front, tankless water heaters typically outlive traditional tank models, offering around 20 years of service compared to 10-15 years for storage tanks. This longer lifespan can help offset the higher upfront costs of a tankless heater over time.


Maintenance-wise, tankless units do require regular servicing to prevent scale buildup and maintain efficiency, but they tend to have fewer issues throughout their lifetime. Traditional tanks, with their simpler mechanics, are usually easier and cheaper to repair, though they may require more frequent maintenance due to sediment buildup and corrosion.


Choosing the Right Heater for Your Home

It's not just about the numbers; it's about matching a water heater to your home's specific needs. Consider your household's hot water usage, the space you have available, and the potential complexities of installation before making your choice.


Assessing Your Household's Hot Water Needs

The first step in choosing a water heater is to understand your household's hot water usage. Large families or homes with high hot water demand may be better off with a traditional tank. If your usage is lower or you're keen on saving energy, a tankless heater might be more appropriate.


Space Requirements and Heater Placement

Space is another crucial consideration. Traditional water heaters require a significant amount of room for the tank, while tankless heaters, being much smaller, can be mounted on a wall, making them ideal for homes with limited space.


Gas vs. Electric Heaters: Which Is Best for You?

Whether you go tankless or traditional, you'll have the option of gas or electric models. Your choice will depend on the utilities available in your area and what's already set up in your home.


Gas heaters generally heat water faster and are more cost-effective to operate but require proper venting. Electric models are easier to install and maintain but may cost more to run.


Electric tankless water heaters, in particular, require a significant amount of electrical current, which could mean an upgrade to your home's electrical system is necessary.


The Retrofit Factor: Switching Water Heater Types

If you're considering switching from a traditional to a tankless water heater, be prepared for the process to be more than a simple exchange. Retrofitting can involve extensive changes to plumbing, venting, and gas lines, so it's crucial to consult with a professional to understand the full scope of work required and the associated costs.


Switching from a traditional water heater to a tankless model is not as simple as swapping out the units. The retrofit process can involve extensive changes to your home's plumbing system, gas lines, and possibly electrical work.


This is especially true if you're switching from an electric to a gas model, or vice versa. The layout of your home, the location of existing pipes and vents, and local building codes all play a role in determining the complexity and cost of the retrofit.


Gas vs. Electric Heaters: Which Is Best for You?

Choosing between gas and electric water heaters depends on several factors, including availability of utilities, cost of operation, and installation requirements. Gas heaters are typically more cost-effective and heat water faster, but they require a vent to the outside.


Electric heaters are generally more expensive to run but are easier to install, as they don't need a vent. Both types come in tankless and traditional models, so you can choose based on your home's needs and preferences.


The Retrofit Factor: Switching Water Heater Types

When you switch from a traditional to a tankless water heater, or vice versa, the process often involves more than just replacing the unit. You might need to update your home's plumbing, install new gas lines, or increase your electrical system's capacity.


These changes can add to the installation cost and should be factored into your decision. It's important to consult with a professional plumber or contractor who can provide a detailed assessment and quote before you proceed.


Real World Scenarios: Finding Your Fit

Choosing the right water heater for your home depends on your specific needs and circumstances. Whether you live in a small apartment or a large house with a big family, your hot water requirements will dictate the best type of water heater for you.


Small Apartments and Tankless Water Heaters

For those living in small apartments, space is often at a premium. A tankless water heater can be a great space-saving solution. These units can be mounted on a wall and don't require a large tank, freeing up valuable floor space.


Additionally, if your hot water usage is low, a tankless heater can provide sufficient hot water on demand without the energy costs associated with keeping a large tank of water heated at all times.


Large Families and the Need for High Water Demand

Large families with high hot water demand may benefit from a traditional water heater with a large storage tank. These units can provide a steady supply of hot water to multiple bathrooms and appliances simultaneously.


While tankless heaters can also serve large families, they may require a higher capacity model, which can be more expensive. It's essential to assess your family's hot water usage patterns to determine the most cost-effective and efficient solution.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Homeowners often have questions about the differences between tankless and traditional water heaters, especially when it comes to installation and maintenance. Here are some answers to the most common questions.


Can I install a tankless water heater in the same spot as my old tank?

While it's possible to install a tankless water heater in the same general area as your old tank, it won't be a direct swap. Tankless heaters have different venting and gas or electrical requirements.


You'll need to ensure that the new location meets these requirements and complies with local building codes.


How long does a tankless water heater installation take compared to a traditional one?

Installing a tankless water heater typically takes longer than a traditional one because of the additional work involved, such as upgrading gas lines or electrical systems and installing new venting.


While a traditional water heater can often be installed in a few hours, a tankless installation might take a full day or more, depending on the complexity of the job.


Will a tankless water heater work in a home with low water pressure?

Tankless water heaters require a certain amount of water pressure to operate effectively. If your home has low water pressure, you may need to address this issue before installing a tankless unit.


In some cases, a water pressure booster pump can be installed to increase the pressure to the required level.


Do tankless water heaters require more maintenance than traditional ones?

Tankless water heaters do require maintenance to prevent scale buildup and ensure efficient operation. This typically involves flushing the system with a descaling solution once a year.


Traditional water heaters also require maintenance, such as checking the anode rod and draining the tank to remove sediment. While both types require maintenance, the nature of the tasks may differ.


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