What’s All This Hullabaloo About Water Heaters?

Water heaters are one of those appliances most of us don’t think much about until a cold shower reminds us that it is, in fact, our favorite appliance. When your water heater goes out, or when its warranty is coming to its end (guaranteeing it will soon go out), it is wise to review your options rather than simply to replace the existing appliance with another of the same type.

Water heaters come in two varieties with two main options: tankless and conventional, either gas-powered or electric. And getting the right one can make a big difference in your utility bill and your family harmony. Let me explain with a personal story.

Earlier in my life, I lived under one roof with my family of six that included two adults and four children who all needed to get ready for school and work at the same time. It was a race each morning to see who would get in the shower early enough to avoid running out of hot water. Having been the odd man out on more than one occasion, I decided to purchase a tankless (also called “on-demand”) water heater whose claim to fame was never to run out of hot water.

I was so proud of my water heater, knowing I would never again hear my wife’s scream as the icy water hit her in the shower. What I did not consider was my 12-year-old’s system for determining when his shower was over, and that was when the hot water ran out. His showers went from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, and I once found him asleep in the shower (not joking). So, the advantage of an on-demand water heater is that it never runs out of hot water. The disadvantage of an on-demand water heater is also that it never runs out of hot water—an expensive proposition if you have a 12-year-old like I did.

What I should have done was replace the water heater at the other end of the house, the one that supplied the kitchen where the only hot water needs were the dishwasher and sink. Instead of keeping 50 gallons of water hot at all times, we could have simply heated the water necessary to wash dishes.

If your family members take reasonably short showers, a tankless water heater can be a great choice. Also, if you have a vacation home that is only used periodically, this on-demand system can save you money. Be aware, the cost to purchase and install the tankless water heater is more expensive than a conventional water heater, but depending on hot water usage, it can save you money over time. If, on the other hand, your family members need a visceral reminder that it’s time to get out of the shower, a conventional water heater might be better.

The next question is whether to choose a gas-powered or electric water heater. Gas is more common and cheaper, especially for on-demand heaters (but be sure to have a battery back-up for power outages because the gas-powered water heater’s electric start mechanism needs power). However, if you can get electricity powered by renewable resources, the electric water heater is a more environmentally friendly choice. I’ve heard that in the future, houses will not be allowed to hook up to gas, so this whole line of discussion may become moot.

In the meantime, as with most big purchases, I recommend buying the best you can afford. If you buy the cheap one with the five-year warranty, you’ll pay the installation fee every five years, which will end up costing you as much as the better water heater—and with the better one you won’t have the inconvenience of calling a repairman every few years.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.

Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 45 years.


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