Electric Water Heaters – The Pros and Cons

In the last couple of posts, I’ve discussed efficiency regulations that will affect new water heater installations beginning April 16, 2015. In this post, I’ll look at electric water heaters and how they might fit into your future hot water plans.

An electric water tank uses electricity to generate heat. Electric tanks have two heating elements – one in the upper portion of the tank and one in the lower portion of the tank. The upper element does most of the heavy lifting, while the lower element is used to heat the water at the bottom of the tank and maintain the overall water temperature.

Since they don’t produce exhaust, electric water heaters are incredibly efficient – 95% or better in most cases – but they draw an enormous amount of power. The larger the tank is, the more power it will need to heat and recover from heavy use. Because electric water heaters are already so efficient, the new efficiency regulations won’t impact them, but don’t assume that “efficiency” translates to low operating costs. It doesn’t. Electric water heaters are truly expensive to operate, even with their exceptionally high efficiency ratings.

Electric water tanks tend to have low standby losses, which means that only the lower heating element is used to maintain water temperature once the water has been heated. The design and insulation of the tank are often sufficient to maintain the desired water temperature.

Recovery times on electric water heaters are long. Once the tank has been used, it will take an electric water heater much longer to recover than a gas-fired one. Electric water heaters also have a noticeably higher operating cost, largely because electricity is more expensive than other fuel alternatives.

Electric water tanks are generally less expensive to purchase than their gas-fired cousins, but the capacity and life expectancy of electric water heaters are similar to those of tanks that use other heat sources. Installing a replacement electric tank can be inexpensive, but installing an electric water heater as a replacement for another fuel type can come with a high price tag!

Electric water heaters usually require a household electrical service of 200-300 amps, and your service must also supply 240 volts. Electric water heaters require dedicated, large circuit breakers and special large diameter wiring, so you may need to give your electrical service a major overhaul if you want to (or have to) install an electric water heater as a replacement for a non-electric model.

If you’re considering a replacement water heater, and you want to move to a different water heating technology, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 anytime. We can explain all of your options and let you know what modifications may be needed to install a new water heater in your home.

Winter Forecast: Boston Electric Bills Will Soar

If you get your electricity from National Grid, you may receive an unwelcome “gift” from the utility just in time for the holidays. Last week, National Grid announced that its residential electric rates would climb by more than one-third of the current price beginning in November. National Grid customers can expect to see as much as a 37% increase in their Boston electric bills. According to the utility, that will translate to an average increase of $33 per month for its customers.

So what does that mean for you? Efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to electricity, and when you consider all things, electricity just isn’t as efficient as some other fuels. For the 2014-2015 season, making changes that reduce electricity consumption will help you survive the rate increase.

If you have a hot water/boiler heat system, consider retrofitting your system with a new ECM circulator pump. Making this change alone could offset the rate increase for electricity for the entire year! The $100 instant-rebate available through Mass Save makes the cost of the pump comparable to a traditional circulator pump and enables you to start saving immediately.

You can also take advantage of some incentives to replace an inefficient electric water heater with either a qualifying high efficiency tank water heater or a qualifying tankless natural gas water heater.

If you have a natural gas, forced-air furnace, upgrade it to a high-efficiency (AFUE 95%+) model. Reducing your operating costs for a natural gas furnace can also help you offset increased electrical costs for the other appliances in your home.

If you use baseboard heat to supplement your primary heating system, replace these old-school energy hogs with a ductless mini-split heat pump. Electric baseboard heating costs about 2.5 times as much as a heat pump does. They’re also a good solution for addressing chronic cold spots in your home.

If you’re just getting ready to fire up the furnace, have Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating perform annual maintenance on your system now. Cleaning and inspecting critical system components like the heat exchanger can not only increase the operating efficiency of the system, but it can also allow you to head off serious problems that will take your system out of service when you need it most!

If you haven’t already done so, install a programmable thermostat. This type of thermostat can save you money on heating and cooling costs because it never “forgets” to adjust the temperature in your home when you leave. Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating is a certified Nest installer, and you can also take advantage of current rebates on both programmable thermostats and Wi-Fi thermostats.

Weather experts are divided on what kind of winter we’re going to have, but many think that this winter will be a repeat performance of last year. In any case, October is the beginning of the heating season, and there’s no reason to spend more of your hard earned money on heat and electricity than you have to.

For more information about ways to cut your heating and cooling costs, please call us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 for a consultation. We’ll be happy to assess your current equipment and let you know how you can save money this winter.

Test The Pressure Relief Valve On Your Water Heater

Last week, I gave you a procedure to use for draining your hot water tank. You should perform water heater maintenance annually to ensure that it operates safely and efficiently, and does not accumulate sediment that can cause your water tank to fail prematurely.

As part of your annual water heater maintenance routine, you can also test the pressure relief valve on your water heater. The pressure relief valve is a safety device that prevents the dangerous buildup of pressure in a hot water tank. If the pressure increases significantly in the tank, the relief valve is designed to let water (and pressure) escape safely. The pressure relief valve will be on or near the top of the tank and will operate in a closed position.

The pressure relief valve has a hinged handle or stem that normally sits in a flush position against the valve cover. To test the valve, lift the handle upward (or outward) to a 90° position and allow a little water to escape. The water in the tank will be pressurized and hot, so make sure everyone (and everything) is clear of the valve before you open it.

If your pressure valve normally leaks a little water, or shows signs of leaking when the valve is closed, this could indicate a problem with pressure build-up in your hot water tank. If the valve shows signs of mineralization or cannot be opened for testing or does not close properly after testing, this could indicate that the pressure-relief valve is malfunctioning. In either case, you should consult with a licensed plumber to determine the nature of the problem.

A plumber can correct either an over-pressure situation or a bad valve easily, but since the pressure relief valve is a safety device, any problems should be corrected immediately to keep your home, family and plumbing system safe! If you have a problem with the pressure relief valve on your water heater, give us a call at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 anytime. We’ll be happy to examine your system for problems and make repairs if needed.

How To Drain Your Water Heater

Water heaters can give you years of trouble-free service, but a little water heater maintenance can help extend the life of your tank beyond its minimum rated service period. Many water tanks suffer from lack of maintenance, which can deteriorate the tank and cause it to fail prematurely.

To help keep your hot water tank operating properly, make a maintenance plan that includes draining the tank annually. This will discourage the build-up of sediment in the tank and will help extend the tank’s life. To drain the tank, you’ll need a standard garden hose and a safe place to put 40 gallons or more of hot water.

If your water heater is electric, cut the power to the tank at the breaker box before you do anything else. If your tank uses natural gas, turn the temperature control to the “pilot” setting, or to “off” depending upon how the control is marked.

Once the power/fuel is cut, attach the hose to the tank’s drain valve. The drain valve looks like a hose spigot, may be made of plastic or metal, and is threaded to accept a standard garden hose. Don’t open the drain valve yet – just get the hose attached to the valve.

Run the hose to a working floor drain, sump well or to the outside, if the tank is on the first floor of your home. Remember, the water that drains from the tank will be hot, so be sure to dispose of it safely!

Turn off the cold water supply to the tank, and open a hot water tap on one of your faucets. This will allow air to enter the tank and push the water out through the drain. Finally, open the drain valve on your hot water tank. Monitor the tank as it drains to prevent accidental flooding and to verify that the tank is draining.
When the tank is drained, open the cold water supply and begin refilling the tank. Don’t close the drain valve; the goal here is to flush any accumulated sediment out of the bottom of the tank.

When the water runs clear from the drain hose, close the open hot water tap and the drain valve. Allow the tank to refill. Once the tank is refilled, reapply power or re-ignite the gas and allow the tank to begin heating again.

Next week, I’ll discuss the pressure relief valve on your hot water heater, and show you how to test the valve for proper operation. In the mean time, if you have trouble with your water heater, or would like Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating to perform maintenance on it, please give us a call anytime at (617) 288-2911.

Will A Tankless Water Heater Fit In Your Boston Home? (Part 2)

Last week, I started a discussion about tankless water heaters. Boston homeowners are beginning to consider tankless water heaters as a green replacement for their conventional hot water systems. In last week’s post, I covered the issue of cost, since this is one of the biggest considerations for homeowners. This week, I’ll tackle energy efficiency.

The second question most homeowners have about tankless water heaters relates to the system’s efficiency. Tankless water heaters take the prize in this category; the most efficient conventional hot water heaters operate at about 60% efficiency. Tankless systems have an efficiency rating of about 80%. The story goes deeper than ratings, though. A hot water tank will lose efficiency over time because sediment, minerals, and deterioration by-products from the sacrificial anode all work to reduce the efficiency of a hot water tank. Tankless systems maintain their efficiency over time because they’re not subject to these problems.

You can save money on operational costs with a tankless water heater because you only pay for hot water when you need it, as opposed to keeping water on “hot standby.” Generally, a tankless hot water system will save between 30% and 60% over conventional hot water system operating costs. That savings may not be enough to justify the added expense of the system.

Exactly how much savings are we talking about? Your costs to operate a conventional hot water heating system will depend, of course, on how big your tank is and where you live. A good estimate for natural gas-powered 40-gallon tanks is about $350 per year. If you use propane, your 40-gallon hot water tank may take $500 out of your pocketbook annually. In comparison, a tankless hot water system that uses natural gas may cost $250-$300 to operate, meaning that you could save $50-$100 per year as long as your hot water usage doesn’t change much.

If a conventional 40- or 50-gallon tank system costs $1,000 to install and $350 per year to operate for 15 years (and you had to replace the tank once during that time), your total out of pocket expense would be $7,250. In comparison, if you spent $3,500 on a tankless hot water system with an annual operational cost of $250, your total out of pocket expense for the tankless hot water system would be (ta da!) $7,250… exactly the same.

If you’re looking to replace a larger tank – a 75-gallon model – the installed cost may be more like $1,500. If you need to replace the tank once during our theoretical 15-year period, you’ll spend $3,000 on the hardware and another $6,000 on operational costs. Your total out of pocket expense would be $9,000. If you installed a high-volume tankless system for $5,000, you’ll spend an added $3,750 on operational costs. Your total out-of-pocket expense would be $8,750 – a savings of $250 over the conventional option.

At this rate, you can see why your savings may not justify the added initial cost of the system if you don’t need a heavy-duty hot water system.

Next week, I’ll close out this series on tankless water heaters. Boston homeowners may find reasons other than cost to go tankless after all! In the mean time, if you have questions about water heating, or a problem with your water heater, contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911. We offer 24-hour emergency service for all plumbing, heating and cooling needs.

Will A Tankless Water Heater Fit In Your Boston Home? (Part 1)

Many homeowners are looking for ways to conserve energy and reduce their “carbon footprint.” One idea that has been gaining traction is the tankless water heater. Boston homeowners who are considering the move to a tankless hot water system should consider the move carefully before they make the decision to throw out the old hot water tank.

The first question most homeowners have about tankless systems is the cost. A tankless system does cost more than a conventional hot water heater, but the tradeoff is that the system lasts longer. A conventional residential hot water heating system will last between 6 and 12 years. Tankless hot water systems last about twice as long. Even so, the up-front cost of a tankless water heating system may leave you with a case of sticker shock! Generally, the system (with installation) will run between about $2,000 and $5,000, depending upon the system you choose.

If you have natural gas or propane in your home already, you’re in good shape for a tankless water heating system. If you need to bring gas or propane in, you’ll need to factor this additional cost into your calculations.

You can find electric tankless water heating systems. They’re generally less expensive to purchase and install, and their efficiency is higher, too. The problem is one of cost. Natural gas costs less per BTU than electricity does. In areas where both energy sources are readily available, you’ll spend 10%-15% less on a gas-fired tankless water system.

Here’s another consideration for electric tankless water systems; your house will likely require a 200-amp, 220V electrical service. Some electric tankless systems operate on smaller services, but you may incur additional expense if you have to upgrade your household electrical system to accommodate a tankless electric water heater.

With a conventional system, you’ll pay your equipment costs over time, in the form of tank replacement and tank maintenance, whereas with a tankless system, you’ll pay all system costs up front. The big question for most homeowners is (and will continue to be): “Can I recover the cost of the system?” Depending upon your hot water usage, you may not be able to recover the cost through normal operation, but your house may command a better price on the market if you have a tankless system installed.

Don’t fall for the myth that the tankless hot water system provides an infinite supply of hot water. Depending upon the size of the system you buy, a tankless system may be able to handle 1-2 showers simultaneously or a combination of a shower and a hot-water appliance, like a dishwasher or washing machine. Also, don’t plan on having “instant” hot water. The system will still require a little time to heat the water and deliver it to your tap.

Finally, if you use a significant amount of hot water (in other words, you have a 60-80 gallon tank), you may come out ahead on a tankless water heating system. I’ll show you why next week. If you get by just fine with a 40- or 50-gallon tank, I’ll show you why going the tankless route may come down to a coin toss.

If you have questions about water heaters, Boston Standard Plumbing has the answers. We offer 24-hour emergency service for all plumbing, heating and cooling systems. Contact us at (617) 288-2911.

New Water Heater? Boston Homeowners Get A Tax Credit For That

As I mentioned last week, the federal government has extended the tax credit available for the installation of non-solar water heaters in Boston homes. The credit, which applies only to certain high-efficiency water heaters will put as much as $300 back in your pocket, if you claim the credit by December 31, 2011. What qualifies? Any gas, propane, or oil-fired water heater with an energy factor of at least .82 or a thermal efficiency of at least 90% (including tankless models) qualifies for the break. Electric heat pump water heaters with an energy factor of at least 2.0 also qualify. This program falls under the federal cap of $500 for energy efficient improvements made between 2006 and 2011, so if you’ve already claimed certain expenses under this program, your credit may be reduced or eliminated.

Note that standard electric water heaters and solar water heaters are specifically excluded from this program, so check the rules at before you buy. As with last year’s tax credit program, even highly efficient electric water heaters don’t generate enough energy savings to qualify for the credit. Solar water heaters are also exempt for the same reason, but if you want to install a solar water heater and you can go without the tax credit, contact us and we’ll be happy to talk about your options.

To claim your credit, you’ll need to put the device in service in 2011 in your primary residence. New construction, rental properties and second homes don’t qualify. You’ll also need to file IRS Form 5695 when you prepare your taxes next April. Don’t forget to save your receipt(s) and the Manufacturers’ Certification Statement with your records!

If you’re ready for more tax-friendly home improvements, consider adding a natural gas, propane or oil furnace. You can claim a tax credit of $150 if the furnace you install has an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rating of 95 or better. If your home uses a boiler, you can get the same $150 credit for any gas, propane or oil boiler with an AFUE rating of 95 or better.

Of course, the experts at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating are ready to help with any repair, installation or maintenance issues you may encounter with your home heating, cooling or plumbing systems. Whether you need an emergency repair or just some good advice, contact us at (617) 288-2911 and we’ll be happy to help.