Hidden in the basement or utility closet, water heaters are among the most frequently used and least seen appliances. We tend to take our warm showers for granted until the water heater goes on the fritz and requires expensive repairs or replacement. If your unit is nearing the end of its 10- to 15-year life expectancy, it's time to research new models. There have been many advances in the warmer category in recent years, with most innovation focused on improving energy efficiency.
New tankless or "demand" water heaters are growing in popularity. Traditional warming appliances have a large tank that stores as many as 80 gallons of heated water. Maintaining a set temperature at all hours of the day, even when warm water isn't needed, is a drain on energy. Tankless models use a heating element to warm water on demand, which can cut a water-heating bill by as much as 20 percent. These smaller units also hang on the wall, which frees up floor space.
On the downside, these systems cost about twice as much as traditional units. They also slow heating times, meaning gallons of water can go wasted before the flow is warm. They can also only provide a limited amount of hot water at once, so they aren't ideal in homes where multiple people shower at the same time. Installing the heater near where it is most used can help, as can placing additional smaller units in bathrooms that are far away from the main heater.
Advancements in technology have led to a new breed of intuitive water heaters that can adjust temperatures and other features based on use patterns. It's often possible to sync these heaters with the local power company so the units run when rates are lowest. Some smart models include integrated sensors that identify problems, including leaks or freezes, and can alert owners via e-mail or smartphone app. These high-tech appliances can also be programmed to order their own replacement parts or schedule service calls.
Some manufacturers also offer smartphone apps that allow owners to control their water heaters from anywhere. These apps can also be used to run diagnostics and view usage history. Tracking every gallon of water allows owners to better understand average shower times, peak demand hours, and other usage issues so you can make adjustments that will save your family money.
Whether you choose a traditional heater, a new tankless model, or a hybrid heat-pump unit, look for the Energy Star symbol. This government-backed certification helps consumers purchase energy-efficient appliances. In addition to their environmental benefits, approved models typically promise utility-bill savings of as much as a few hundred dollars over the lifetime of the appliance.