Buying a hot water heater. Is there a good way to choose one?
October 20, 2011 7:52 PM   Subscribe

Buying a hot water heater. Is there a good way to choose one?

I have a leaking hot water heater and will need to replace it in the next week or so. When I spend even a few hundred bucks on a durable good (like electronics), I hit all the reviews on the web, comparison shop, etc. Now I'm looking at several hundred bucks for a new hot water heater and I can't seem to find any good way to comparison shop. All the brands seem to be front companies for the same few manufacturers. And the various ranges of models are totally confusing and seemed designed to obfuscate. What gives? Is there some good source of information out there?

The different plumbers I have used just seem to have their own preferred manufacturer that they affiliate with, so they don't have much advice at all on different makers/models.

The one I have now is only 7 years old and is failing - I'd like to buy something more durable and perhaps more efficient the next time around.
posted by Mid to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To clarify, are you trying to replace an electric or gas water heater with the same kind? I have no experience with replacing a water heater, but I'm like you in that I would be researching online before doing so. I would normally check Consumer Reports (subscription required) for things like this. I checked Consumer Reports and they had no ratings, which is interesting since they usually have ratings of different brands. Instead, their most recent article describes the benefits of hybrid heaters and nonelectric tankless systems, which at the time (Dec 2010) were eligible for US federal tax rebates.

My assumption is that Consumer Reports doesn't consider the brand of gas or electric water heaters to make any real difference in their performance, other than to say that a longer warranty (they recommend 12 years) means better components. They do provide a free utility to determine to appropriate capacity based on your normal usage.
posted by cabingirl at 8:16 PM on October 20, 2011

Yep, that's pretty much it. There are three factors: size, operating cost, and quality (warranty length). Consumer Reports appears to have a decent getting started guide, and a link buried in there to a size calculator (based on capacity and refill/heating rates).

Really, it depends if you want to spend enough to not worry about anything for the next 20yrs, or you just want one good enough b/c you'll be moving in 5yrs. That'll dictate how much you spend.

All models/brands are mostly the same at each price level in my experience as a casual homeowner who's replaced his own water heater a few times.
posted by jpeacock at 8:32 PM on October 20, 2011

Have you regularly (or ever) replaced your sacrificial anode? 7 year life of an electric hot water heater is basically an indictment of owner neglect, rather than a credible complaint of manufacturer's design neglect.
posted by paulsc at 8:41 PM on October 20, 2011

About half way down this page there is some good info-cost comparisons vs types etc

Most lower level tanks (generally glass lined steel/non power vented for gas) are all pretty similar to be honest-when you get into higher end stuff then there are bigger differences/options (IE all stainless super high efficiency condensing etc)

One thing I will say is avoid Tank- less Water Heater systems unless you do a LOT of research-they are not the cure all save huge cost systems that many are selling them as...they are good for specific installations.So many people are selling them left and right only to have a customer replace them with something more appropriate at a later date.

Not likely BUT -if you have hot water heating and a boiler-you have options beside a standard hot water tank tank.

What type was the old tank and were you happy with the performance?
How many people will need hot water?
Do you have a high demand sometimes (5 people taking a shower in the morning)
What fuel source do you have (oil/Electricity?Nat gas or propane)?
Where is the tank going?
Is the tank near an exterior wall?
Are there any limitations to size? ie low ceiling etc ?
What type of piping is connected to the tank now?
Do you have a recirculation system?
posted by plumberonkarst at 8:59 PM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you do end up putting in a standard type tank (as opposed to tank less) make sure the installer puts heat traps on the water in and out connections (not required if you have a recirculation system)
posted by plumberonkarst at 9:01 PM on October 20, 2011

Response by poster: Replacing a gas heater. Perforcmance was fine till leak. Tank in basement. Yes recirculation system. Did not replace anode but have not owned house that long. No idea if done before. Not ready for tankless - high demand and very cold winters. Thanks
posted by Mid at 9:52 PM on October 20, 2011

Don't rule out tankless systems - they are good for high-demand situations. They do seem to cost a little more to run than systems with a tank if you have low usage, though.

There is a comparison here of storage vs instant systems that may be useful.
posted by dg at 11:26 PM on October 20, 2011

Cold winters is a positive for tankless. The colder the environment, the more heat that is lost from the tank just sitting there cooling down and reheating. I installed one for a family member, and it was a big win.

The only downside was that the bathrooms are on one side of the house, and the kitchen is on the other side. The tank heater was between the two, and the tankless is right next to the bathrooms. So it takes a little longer for the hot water to get to the kitchen. It is not a bother for her, but if it was, we could install a small $200 electric one under the sink and solve that problem.

One thing to look out for with either tankless or regular. Certain high efficiency units require EXPENSIVE stainless steel venting. Take that into consideration.

Otherwise, yeah, just buy one from a manufacturer that you believe will still be around for the duration of the warranty.

And drain the sediment out every six months, and check the anode occasionally.
posted by gjc at 7:50 AM on October 21, 2011

I disagree that the standard ones don't have things that are different. If you look at the GE ones at Lowe's, you'll notice that many of the fittings are cheap plastic. I priced a 40-gal one from Home Depot at $300. The 50-gal AO Smith I bought for the same price from a plumbing distributor has a 7 year warranty on it and should last at least 10 or more.

You have to do basic maintenance on it like draining it once a year to get sediment out and you have to replace the sacrificial anode.

Note that if you buy a new hot water heater, you probably don't need (and shouldn't use) a blanket with it. It will say in the instruction manual.
posted by SpecialK at 9:36 AM on October 21, 2011

I would stay away from AO Smith gas tank heaters. Our 4 unit condo had them installed in all units in 2003 and they all failed over the course of 2010. We decided to go tankless and it's worked out super well. Luckily, when the tank failed I was home and went into the basement about 15 or so min after the failure, so it wasn't a big mess. My neighbors weren't so lucky. I had been draining my tank of sediment every 6 months. My neighbors didn't. It seemed to make no difference.
posted by reddot at 12:08 AM on October 26, 2011

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