How hard is a DIY water heater installation going to be?
May 10, 2013 6:53 PM   Subscribe

Have any of you replaced your water heater yourself? Have any of you attempted to do so and failed, only to hire someone else to do it? Are any of you plumbers with opinions about a non-plumber's likelihood of success? Any thoughts on cost of professional installation vs. costs to purchase the necessary equipment?

As you can probably surmise from my question, I'm both stubborn and cheap and my water heater is leaking. Right now I am diverting the leak via a drain in the floor, but I need to replace it as soon as possible. I really, really do not want to pay for installation. I do not have that sort of money on hand and would prefer it being done sooner than later. That being said, I do not want to kill myself by playing amateur electrician. I understand some minor electrical work is needed.

I have been looking at some step-by-step installation instructions on various sites, and they make it look quite easy (because they are professionals, I suppose). As stated above, do any of you have experience with a DIY water heater replacement?

I'm planning to purchase a 30-gallon electrical model (this is what my house currently uses, so why not?). I've heard good things about "on demand" or "tankless" water heaters, but I have also heard that the only good ones are gas-operated. Any thoughts on this as well?

I've also seen portable, gas-powered portable water heaters that seem to be popular amongst camping enthusiasts and those living off the grid -- any idea how I could rig one of those up for indoor use?

Sorry this is so all over the place. I would get a great deal of personal pride from being able to complete this job myself (my husband is available to help, too -- I realize this could be a two-person job.)
posted by nohaybanda to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Installing an electric water heater should be really pretty easy. No gas plumbing to deal with. By far the easiest way to go.

Obviously, converting to gas will cost a decent chunk of change running a gas line where it's needed, if it's not already available.

I have no actual experience with on demand systems. They look to cost significantly more than my own gas water heater that I replaced about a year and a half ago, and would have needed an upgrade to the gas line. So I never really considered one.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:59 PM on May 10, 2013

I looked at a gas-powered tankless water heater and my plumber (who I trust) told me to run away from them. He also mentioned that I'd have to have a new, larger gas line run to it (and possibly an upgraded meter to boot).

About the only thing that might get you during a self-install might be bringing new plumbing up to code. In an old house we owned, our new water heater we got also required a backflow preventer to pass muster.
posted by jquinby at 7:23 PM on May 10, 2013

Check this How To video.
posted by JayRwv at 7:23 PM on May 10, 2013

I have no experience with on demand systems, so I won't comment on those, but I have done a diy water heater replacement.

Mine was a gas heater, but it is still fairly simple. If you have ever done any electrical work that party should be easy. If you haven't, please read up on the electrical party before you start. If you are uncomfortable with the electrical don't even try.

Depending on what type of pipes you have will determine how difficult the plumbing will be. I would caution against using Sharkbite connectors, one of mine failed about 6 months in. Other than that I have nit had any problems in the 6 years since I installed it.

tl;dr - Non-plumber installed his own water heater without problem.
posted by Broken Ankle at 7:27 PM on May 10, 2013

I love my gas tankless water heater.
posted by JaneL at 7:45 PM on May 10, 2013

We are very happy with our gas tankless hot water system, 3 years of good service. If you go tankless go gas.
posted by N-stoff at 7:50 PM on May 10, 2013

I installed a high-efficiency 50gal gas water heater to replace a low-efficiency one. I'm not much of a plumber (and certainly not trained as one) but it wasn't too hard. (My project was complicated because I was simultaneously putting in a radiant-heat floor, run off the same heater, and because I always overengineer stuff, but it still wasn't rocket science.)

If you're replacing a leaky water heater with a new one of the same type, and you know where your water shut-off valves and breaker panels are, I wouldn't expect you to run into much trouble. But be SURE you know where the shut-off and breakers are!
posted by spacewrench at 8:10 PM on May 10, 2013

It is definitely something you and your husband can do yourself, providing your existing plumbing and wiring is decent. Watch some videos, read the manual, and you should be good. That being said. If you get going and find all sorts of extra wires in your walls or discover that your plumbing is sketchy, call some backup.
posted by checkitnice at 8:13 PM on May 10, 2013

Conversion to demand (tankless) hot water or either the electric or gas variety is not a first time DIY job. Electric will require running a significantly larger wire from your panel and gas will require running a gas line.

If you have ever replaced a faucet and replaced a light fixture you can probably replace your hot water tank. It'll be a lot easier for you if your current tank has flexible connectors or if you install flexible connectors now.

If your existing plumbing to the tank is galvanized steel then you should call a plumber as you could make the job much more expensive.
posted by Mitheral at 8:15 PM on May 10, 2013

In some places you need a permit. Make sure you don't live in one of those places before installation. Part of the price of the install may be dealing with the city.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:20 PM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had a new electric tank heater installed a few months ago, and I hung out and watched while it was being installed. The hardest part appeared to be the basic physics of moving around big, heavy things. The installer guy cut the old pipes and then attached the new water heater with something like these, which he said were more expensive than custom-cut pipes, but saved a lot of time. So there's my tip for you.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:42 PM on May 10, 2013

I got a tankless gas heater when my old water heater went tits up. I was able to put the unit on an outside wall (it's about the size of a carry-on bag), and I converted the former tank space into a closet adjunct, which we use for storing canned goods.

This was about three years ago. My utility bill dropped by about $30 dollars a month (electric), and my gas bill didn't go up appreciably. Now, there are just the two of us, so I suppose a household with several members who love to take long, hot showers with unlimited hot water would have different results.

The gas line feed from the street to most residences will accommodate most of these units. Your plumber will install the appropriate line "downstream" from your gas meter to the unit. This is a tinker-toy project that any plumber can do. The only issues involved are topographic. You can put this unit on any outside wall. If you put it indoors, it must be ventilated, just as any gas appliance must be ventilated. When the unit operates, the gas burner makes a sound that sort of reminds me of the gas burner on a hot-air balloon. It's not all that noisy, but I wouldn't but it in my bedroom closet if I wanted to sleep while RedBud showers.

When you buy this type of unit, you are looking, not for capacity, but for gal/minute at X temperature. The smaller units (such as I have) can provide 130 degree water for our shower, dishwasher, and both the kitchen a bathroom sinks. If we ran two showers and three sinks plus the dishwasher, it might cause the temperature to drop by maybe three or four degrees. Simple plug-in tines come with the unit, which allows me to select from among several temperatures.

My plumber tells me that the electronic versions are not quite up to snuff, so to speak, but I haven't had any experience with them. I love my tankless gas water heater.
posted by mule98J at 12:14 PM on May 11, 2013

Unless you have some experience with home wiring, or with plumbing with natural gas and a little carpentry for the flue, I'd stick with the straight-over replacement of the old heater with a new heater. It will be more efficient than the old one (better insulation), and there will be hot water at the end of the single day that you spend on the job.

With a little extra study (measurements of water heater size, the size of the location for the heater), you might be able to increase the capacity of your electric heater (in gallons) without incurring greater operating costs over your old one.

An tankless electric demand water heater with the same apparent performance as your 30 gallon heater will likely require much more power, and you are likely to have to upgrade the electrical circuit that you are using.

A gas water heater, tankless demand or conventional, will require you to plumb natural gas to the location of the heater, as well as add a properly constructed flue or vent for the exhaust gasses.

I've installed both electric and gas water heaters with permits and inspections, and plumbed both water and fuel for demand gas heaters, but I'm not a pro.
posted by the Real Dan at 2:40 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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