We’re in Hot Water, Pt. 1 “To Tank or not to Tank”

Picture this.  I’m fifteen.  My parents leave me home alone to go watch a football game at somebody else’s house and attempt to tell me where they are going, which I quickly categorize as “unimportant” and move on.  Again, I’m fifteen!!  Fast forward a few hours and in the throes of a Michigan-Ohio State rivalry game (I have no clue who won), I hear a piercing alarm-like noise coming from somewhere in the house.  A true “Where’s Waldo?” ensues until it finally leads me to the basement’s back room where the Hot Water Tank (HWT) has blown up, spewing water everywhere!  The piercing sound?  It was a water alarm that my parents had placed down there for moments like this.  Needless to say, the entire incident ruined my Saturday afternoon as I spent much of it cleaning up water by myself and freaking out as any 15-year-old kid is wont to do.  Said freak-out occurred mostly with this thought crossing my mind, “This is going to get me in trouble!”.  Lesson learned – listen to parents even when it is “unimportant”.  The other lesson?  Hot Water TANKS hold a heckuva lotta water!!!!

Fast forward 15 years and knowing *our* HWT needed to be replaced, we began doing what any insane DIY-er does; we researched our options to see if we could skirt around this issue.  As anybody knows, you really only have two mainstream options (there are dozens of other less available models) for getting hot water into your house:

Hot Water Tanks - typically gas or electric)


Tankless Water Heater

So what’s it gonna be, punk?!?  Well, before we get into that, what the heck is the difference?  Brace yourselves, people – this could get highly technical!

A Hot Water Tank is just what it sounds like – a tank filled with hot water.  The simplest explanation is that the cold water comes in, then it is heated from the bottom within the tank – either a gas heat source or electric.  Then when you turn your hot water on, VOILA, water pressure forces the now-heated water out through another tube and onto your dishes, dirty hands, etc.

A Tankless Water System works in much the same way except there is no tank to fill.  The water only comes in touch with the heat source on an as-needed basis and it heats much faster and much hotter in order to compensate for the lack of “stored reserves,” if that makes any sense.  As a result, a tankless system does not constantly heat water throughout the day while you aren’t using it – it only switches on when you flip on the hot water.  Well, don’t take my word for it, check out this link for more information on a tankless water system here.

My Engineer PhD husband, Dr. J, put it another way – think of a HWT as a 30-mpg car.  It will get you to where you need to go, burning a fair amount of fuel along the way with a consistent power source.  The tankless, on the other hand, could be thought of as a Ballistic Missile loaded with half the amount of gasoline.  It will also get you to where you need to go, but much faster!!!  Sure, you might burn your britches along the way, but overall, you spend less energy in the long run because a short burst is all you need.  Because of this, a tankless system could save you 20% or more on energy costs to heat your water.

So given that argument, it seems like the tankless is the way to go, right?!?!  Not necessarily.  Obviously, everybody’s situation is a little bit different and even though the Federal Government provides a very generous 30% Tax Credit for purchasing a tankless water system, there are some installation issues that might be out of scope for the typical DIY-er, as it was for us:

  1. The Price – Hey, we’re not made of money!  Every tankless system is going to be a little different, but purchasing one brand new will cost you somewhere between $1,000 – $1,500 (a HWT will cost somewhere between $400-$600 depending upon make, model, size, etc.).  Not only is the price of the unit pretty pricey for us at this stage, but with the other bullet points below, we were pretty sure we might have to hire somebody to take care of this, which would have set us back even *more* greenbacks.
  2. The Installation – If you already have a HWT, and you’re replacing it with the same type (gas or electric), the installation couldn’t be much easier.  It’s pretty much plug and play.  On the other hand, a tankless system is a different shape and size, which in itself makes the installation a bit harder.  It’s also difficult to find an electric tankless system that has enough juice to run the entire house off of a normal circuit, so if you had electric before you would have to run a new gas line OR a high-capacity electric line.  Even if you had a gas HWT before, you still probably need to run some new gas pipe to reach where the tankless system would be mounted on the wall.
  3. The Venting – This is more of an installation issue for a gas tankless system.  At the very least, you will need to buy (almost) all new venting pipes, as the tankless system’s vent will be in a different place than the previous HWT.  Coming back to the missile analogy: while the tankless system uses less energy overall, it uses it all at once.  Therefore, the venting requirements are that much more stringent.  While it depends on the manufacturer, one model we were looking at required it’s own vent: meaning we would have to create a whole new chimney (or at least a hole in the wall), for it.

So after much rumination and thought, we finally decided that just replacing a tank for a tank was going to be our best option at this point in time.  We have decided that our “forever home” will have a tankless water heater, but who knows when we will find that diamond in the rough ;-).  So until that day comes, we are going to show you some pointers on how to replace your very own HWT should you ever need to do so as well as some setbacks you may run into when you do.  Oh, yes, there are ALWAYS setbacks.

However, if you are interested in doing more research on tankless, take a look at this article written by a friend of mine over at Remodeling Magazine.  And I would encourage anybody who is thinking of DIY-ing a tankless water system to do as much research as you possibly can.  I certainly applaud you if you can install one on your own!  We will definitely tackle it someday, just not today…

Stay tuned!


10 thoughts on “We’re in Hot Water, Pt. 1 “To Tank or not to Tank”

  1. First off, are you a doctor?!! Next, replacing a tank for tank is not that bad & of course there is setbacks but I know you can do it! Just be sure to drain all the water out either in the sink or tub if its close or if your close enough to run it outside you can water the yard, that is if you haven’t had rain in awhile. Also, don’t let the “kids” at Lowe’s or HD tell you that they don’t have the part to replace the heating element because they do & to see the look on their face when you show it to them (even better if L was the one) is priceless!! (Trust me, it happened to me twice!!) Ha!! Again, keep up the hard work & when your finished this SouthernBelle will be calling you for her next project!! Take care Dr & L!

    • I’m not a *real* doctor (as my father-in-law likes to remind me), but I went to school long enough for people to call me one if I’m in the right setting. The big thing though is that L thinks that Dr. J is a great nickname — especially because I’m horrible at basketball

      See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._J if you’re too young to remember know where it comes from 🙂

  2. Sounds like you made the right choice for your needs at the moment. The other thing to consider for your “forever home” is solar hot water, to at least pre-heat the water. We’ve got a tankless heater that we’ve had for some years now, and it’s great for us. There was a place on an outside wall where it could be placed so the venting was minimal, but they do require special venting.

    One other consideration for tankless is family size. For a larger family where hot water is getting used throughout the day for various tasks, modern tank water heaters are pretty efficient, so it may not make sense to go tankless. For us where it’s just the two of us and hot water gets used in bursts (showers, laundry), tankless was the way to go. But I’d still like to add solar hot water to the mix at some point, too.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Gene. A solar hot water heater is also a great idea! There really are a thousand ways to heat up water out there!

      You also bring up a very good point about the “family size”. We are just two people as well, but down-the-line whoever may buy this house might have more than two, so that’s also something to keep in mind.

      I guess the big point is that no system is perfect, but there is a system that’s perfect for your needs, so just do your research and be confident in your decision!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Plus a gas tankless needs a gas line about 3 times larger than a traditional gas water heater. My parents were looking to convert to a tankless but they didn’t want to dig up their LP lines and triple the size!

    • Hi, Robin –

      Good to see you again! That was another fear we had! We decided not to mess with it too much. As it was, however, we did have to move around our ventilation system….but we’ll get into that later in the week 🙂


  4. Eric and I installed a tankless water system last year. I LOVE it!!!! You never run out of hot water. I have taken a HOT shower with the dishwasher going and a load of laundry running. It’s the best thing ever. Before if one of us took too long of a shower the other was screwed – no issues now. I would highly recommend it!!!

  5. I installed a tankless in my home after the builder I work for did it when building a entirely green condo community. Or at least mostley green. Green meaning sustainable and recycleable items used. saveing the planet a little bit at a time. by the way i got the government tax credit that year for energy saving appliances. so consider this. save money over the years and maybe save lots more as it can’t blow up like a H2 O tank. I say go !

  6. Pingback: We’re in Hot Water, Pt. 2: Replacing the Hot Water Tank « Tell'er All About It

  7. Sadly I am OLD enough to remember & know who Dr J is & it is very fitting for you. I bet you get asked that a lot in public places & women shouting out at you since you are & look like a doctor!!!

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