Water Heater Buying Guide

Water Heater Buying Guidewater heater basics

Before you shell out hundreds of dollars for a storage-tank heater or thousands of dollars for a tankless or solar water heater, see whether your old water heater can be fixed. A corroded storage-tank model is history. But a leaky drain or pressure-relief valve or a burned-out heating element can often be fixed. Rule of thumb: Consider a repair if the labor cost (which warranties often exclude) averages less than $50 per year over the years left in the warranty. Otherwise, buy a new one, especially if the warranty has run out.

Most storage-tank water heaters look alike on the outside. But sawing open a cross-section of gas and electric storage-tank models in our lab confirmed that paying a little more typically buys a better water heater. Those with longer warranties tended to have larger heating elements, thicker insulation, and thicker or longer corrosion-fighting metal anodes.

Longer warranties were also a good indication of better quality for tankless water heaters. But their added complexity can mean more potential problems. Some tankless heater manufacturers shorten the warranty for units used with hard water and in multifamily homes. And most recommend service once a year by a qualified technician.

Hybrid heaters meld an electric storage-tank heater with a heat pump that captures warmth from the air. Those we tested provided annual savings of about 60 percent over electric-only models. You’ll also save by replacing a broken oil-fired heater with a hybrid. But if you’re replacing a heater that runs on natural gas, which is relatively inexpensive, it probably won’t pay to switch.

Solar heaters supplement an electric heater with heat from the sun’s rays. The best in our tests saved us about 80 percent over an electric storage-tank heater alone during the summer months at our Yonkers, N.Y. headquarters. But for us, those savings plummeted to about 30 percent during cold weather. How much a solar system saves you can vary widely based on where you live, your home’s sun exposure, and which system you choose.

Choosing the right capacity

Most water heaters are sold on the basis of how many gallons they hold. For example, two to four people might use 80 to 85 gallons per day–enough for about three showers, one laundry load, running the dishwasher once, and turning on the faucet nine times. But the first-hour rating (FHR) for storage-tank water heaters and the gallons-per-minute rating (GPM) on tankless water heaters are more important, because they tell you how much hot water the heater can deliver during a set period. A pro can calculate how much you’ll need.

Types of Water Heaters

Heating water accounts for up to 20 percent of the average home’s energy budget. Some gas-fired tankless water heaters are claimed to cut energy costs by up to half over regular storage heaters. But their added up-front costs mean it pays to look before you leap. Compare the types of water heaters.

Storage-Tank Water Heaters

Most of these are essentially steel cylinders fed by a cold-water inlet pipe (the dip tube) that protrudes into the tank (this line includes the shutoff valve). Water is heated in the tank, and hot water exits through a hot-water pipe atop the tank. Another pipe that emerges from the tank includes the temperature and pressure-relief valve, which opens if either exceeds a preset level. You’ll also find a drain valve near the tank bottom and a control unit outside for setting temperatures and, on gas models, controlling the pilot-light valve.
Gas is the fuel of choice if you already have natural-gas service or can run a gas line to your home economically. Gas models cost more than electrics. But on the basis of national-average fuel costs, a gas water heater will cost you about half as much to run as a comparable electric model. Thus, a gas heater might amortize the up-front difference in cost in as little as a year. While you’ll also find oil-fired storage heaters, they’re relatively expensive, because they include the tank and an oil burner. That’s why homes with oil heat typically use an electric water heater.

Tankless Water Heaters

Tankless models (a.k.a. instantaneous water heaters) are suitcase-sized units that heat water only when needed by using an electric coil (typically for low demand) or natural gas (for high demand) to heat water passing through a heat exchanger inside. They eliminate the risk of tank failure and the energy lost by constantly reheating water, though their heat exchanger can clog or fail. What’s more, they’re expensive to buy and install, and include limitations on hot-water flow rates, a possible issue in large households. And cooler incoming water in winter typically means your hot water may not be as hot as you like.

Hybrid Electric Water Heaters

These have a conventional electric storage heater paired with a heat pump that extracts heat from the surrounding air and uses it to help heat the water. Models we tested used about 60 percent less energy than standard electric heaters, which account for about half of all water heaters sold. And while hybrids cost more than electric-only models, installation is similar and payback time is short.
But hybrids also have their downsides. Because the heat pump is usually on top, they need as much as 7 feet from floor to ceiling. You’ll also need up to 1,000 cubic feet of uncooled space to capture enough heat from the air, along with a condensate pump (about $150) if there’s no drain nearby. Hybrid heaters are noisier than conventional storage-tank heaters, exhaust cool air, and can rob some heated air in winter.

Solar Water Heaters

All solar water heaters supplement an electric heater in basically the same way: A roof-mounted collector absorbs the sun’s heat and transfers it to an antifreeze-like fluid in a closed-loop system that runs to the water tank. The collector is typically a flat panel or an array of glass cylinders called evacuated tubes. The best delivered stellar savings in summer, making them an attractive option for warm, sunny areas. But savings suffered on cold and cloudy days. And even with federal and local rebates, the thousands you’ll typically spend to buy and install one can mean you’ll wait anywhere from 10 to 30 years before their savings pay for their costs.

Warranty on Water Heaters

Coverage for most heaters typically runs 3 to 12 years. While you’ll usually pay a bit more for longer-warranty models, we’ve found that they tend to have larger elements or burners that can speed up water heating, essentially increasing the hot water available, along with thicker insulation for less heat loss. We suggest choosing models with the longest warranty available.

Anti-scale devices

Some brands–notably, Kenmore, State Industries, and Rheem–advertise features that are supposed to reduce buildup of mineral scale at the bottom of the tank by swirling the water. While scale can shorten the life of the heating element inside an electric water heater, you don‘t need to invest in fancy features to get a long-lived model. Simply look for a heater with a 12-year warranty, which typically includes a longer or thicker element.

Brass vs. plastic drain valves

These valves are situated near the base of the unit to accept a garden hose for draining the heater. Look for brass drain valves, which tend to be more durable than plastic.

Glass-lined tanks

A glass-lined tank is another feature designed to reduce corrosion. During manufacturing, a coating is applied to the inside of the steel tank and heated to form a protective, porcelain glass-like layer.

Digital displays

Found mostly on hybrid and solar heaters, these help you monitor levels and customize operation. Some electric/heat-pump hybrid models let you digitally set a “vacation mode” that uses just the heat pump for added efficiency when you’re away. Displays on solar heaters often show tank and collector temperatures, along with pressure readings and other helpful data.

Space requirements

A top-mounted heat pump on hybrid water heaters typically makes them taller than conventional models. Tougher federal standards have also spurred companies to beef up the insulation on regular storage-tank heaters, adding about four inches of width over earlier versions–a potential problem in tight spots. (Hint: Adding insulation to hot-water pipes that exit the heater can add efficiency to any water heater.)

Safety concerns

Residential tank-type gas heaters typically include flammable-vapor ignition resistance (FVIR) to prevent flashback fires when vapors from a flammable liquid such as gasoline contact the burner or pilot light. Also be sure your home has carbon-monoxide alarms if you have a fuel-fired water heater or any fuel-burning device, including a fireplace. And because heaters are generally vented through the same chimney as a furnace or boiler, if you change venting for one appliance, you might need to change it for the other. Considering a tankless water heater? If you run a vent pipe to the outside of your house, you’ll need to use Category 3 stainless-steel venting to resist corrosion from any condensation that forms in the pipe.

Seven Leading Manufacturers of Water Heaters


General Electric makes gas and electric water heaters. GE tank water heaters are available in multiple sizes, with energy-efficiency claims that vary by size and multiple levels of warranty coverage. The company’s tank water heaters are available exclusively at Home Depot. General Electric recently introduced a line of tankless water heaters.
When it comes to water heaters, there are thousands of different models to choose from, and just as many manufacturers. Ideal for people who use hot water regularly but can’t afford astronomic utility bills, Energy Star devices are perfect for keeping monthly expenses down with great savings on local and state taxes. The GE GeoSpring Hybrid Water Heater is part of the next generation of GE water heaters, with an Energy Star rating and claiming to consume as much as 62% less energy as standard models.

This is a hybrid water heater. What this means is it uses a combination of technologies to heat the water. The first technology is the traditional electric element – eletricity heats up some metal which heats up your water. Like a kettle, but bigger. The second is a heat pump. This draws in ambient heat from the surrounding air and transfers this to the water.
GE claim this results in up to 62% extra efficiency. This is huge, putting it on a par with a tankless water heater in energy efficiency.

This unit allows you to make significant savings without having to cut the amount of hot water you would normally use. Although it is by far one of the most expensive models on the market, the amount of energy saved makes this unit well worth its price.


Kenmore makes gas and electric water heaters. Kenmore water heaters are available in multiple sizes, Power Miser, and Hydrosense electronic-temperature-control configurations. Kenmore water heaters are available at Sears.


Rheem manufactures and markets gas and electric water heaters. Rheem makes residential water heaters in tank, tankless, and point-of-use configurations and units that work with solar water-heater systems. Rheem water heaters are available in multiple sizes and warranties, with energy-efficiency claims that vary by size. Rheem tankless water heaters are available at Home Depot. Its tank water heaters are available online and through a network of dealers.


Whirlpool manufactures and markets gas and electric water heaters. Whirlpool tank water heaters are available in multiple sizes, and standard and power vent configurations. Whirlpool water heaters are available at Lowe’s.

AO Smith

A. O. Smith Corporation is a manufacturer of both residential and commercial water heaters and boilers. It is the largest manufacturer and marketer of water heaters in North


Everybody loves a hot shower. We all appreciate the convenience of clean clothes and dishes. And what can be more enjoyable than a relaxing dip in a hot tub or whirlpool? There’s nothing like hot water, and one company has been delivering the world’s hot water for more than 70 years – A. O. Smith. But today’s A. O. Smith is about more than hot water. A.O. Smith has recently entered the water purification industry to deliver clean water to consumers. It’s all about water, and A. O. Smith has a singular focus on becoming a global leader in water technology.

Bradford White

Bradford White’s expertise in residential water heaters includes gas, electric, oil, solar and indirectly powered models. The configurations include atmospheric and power vented models, point-of-use and tankless models, and other specialty models as well. In all, Bradford White offers an incredible variety of residential products for water heating, combination heating and storage applications. The next time you need your Bradford Water Heater repaired, replaced or installed, give us a call.

Residential water heating represents the second largest consumption of energy in the home, right behind heating and cooling. For many years, there was no official ENERGY STAR® program for water heaters. But, beginning on January 1st, 2009 the DOE released their final requirement and established the ENERGY STAR® program for Residential water heaters.

ENERGY STAR® is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. Their goal for developing this program is to assist the residential water heater manufacturers in promoting high efficiency products that save money, use less energy, and deliver the same or better performance as comparable products.

For all your water heater needs, contact the pre-screened plumbing professionals at Best Plumbers®.

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