Low-Maintenance Appliances: Water Heaters

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Next to your furnace, the water heater is the biggest energy user in the house. Therefore, any way you can devise to use less hot water or preheat it some cheap way, the more money you can save. Some systems have a water holding tank where water rises to room temperature before it is heated. A supplementary solar system that would preheat water to 700 or 80°F may be more practical than one built to heat water to 120°F for direct use. Such systems add their own upkeep to maintenance, however, and for the low-maintenance buff, this must be weighed shrewdly against the cost of conventional water heating. Those using conventional electric water heaters might find such solar systems well worth the management time they require, while those with gas or oil heaters or improved-efficiency electric ones would probably not.

I have to use “howevers” and “probabilities” because the price of fuels ranges widely from coast to coast, and oil prices are so volatile. Electricity in New York City costs seven times what it costs in Seattle. Natural gas is very cheap in Alaska, very expensive in Hawaii, and twice as expensive in New England as in the Plains states. And many of us don’t have natural gas lines to tap into anyway.

Electric water heaters cost twice as much to operate as do gas heaters, using average fuel prices. But the good news is that new electric heaters are getting more efficient. If you are shopping, be content with nothing less than one with an “Energy Factor” of 95 or better. Such a heater coupled with new water-saving shower heads and other economical uses of hot water can cut the cost of electricity considerably. Other economical uses? Limit showers to 5 minutes, bathtub levels to 5 inches. Wash clothes only when they are dirty, rather than when just wrinkled, and ditch the hot tub and the dishwasher. The maintenance work you would save with such unpopular measures is amazing. And I’m not just talking about the extra wear and tear on all the appliances involved; you will also not have to repair the shower and bathroom wall nearly so soon—or maybe never. Oh, yes, to learn simplicity and from that true happiness! As an unknown poet wrote in 1775: “Lost is our old simplicity of times, / The world abounds with laws—and teems with crimes.”

An even more complicated and less-efficient way to save money on heating water electrically is with the new electric heat pump water heaters. They use only half the energy of conventional electric heaters, but cost three times as much initially. Also, the heat pump process works efficiently only where winters are not so severe (see “Heat Pumps,” below). More over, to heat the water, they have to pull heat out of the house, meaning your furnace has to work that much harder. To my way of thinking, you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Natural gas water heaters (and oil as long as the price stays down) are much cheaper to operate than electric ones. But conventional gas heaters are not nearly as efficient as they should be, either—much energy is lost just keeping unused hot water hot. One solution to this problem is the combination furnace/water heater such as the Polaris (Mor-Flo Industries, 18450 South Miles Road, Cleveland, OH 44128), which heats water for the heating system and water for other uses as a sort of by-product. Of course, during the non-heating season, these appliances still need hot water, and whether the Polaris system will be any cheaper than the conventional way is doubtful.

A Little Maintenance for Longer Life

In locales that have hard water, lime scale or other minerals build up inside the tank walls and on the heating elements, even if the water is softened. This scale needs to be cleaned off about every five years or sooner. You can do it yourself, but most maintenance manuals advise calling in a serviceman; so do I. If your heater is hissing internally (rather than from a relief valve), it is probably due to scale building up. The noise does not necessarily signify a problem, but indicates a cleanup job might be in order. Periodically (twice a year or as your manual suggests), you should open the drain valve at the bottom of the tank and let water run out until it is clear. This can slow scale and sediment buildup on the elements and especially on the bottom of the tank.

Most water heaters are set at 150°F at the factory, or at least they used to be. If you want to save money with a lower setting, adjust the thermo stats. Normally there are two, one at the top of the tank and one at the bottom.

Excess water pressure causes undue strain on your plumbing system. Pressure of about 55 pounds per inch is ample. Have a plumber check yours sometime when he’s there on a call. Sometimes excessive water pressure builds up just in the heater tank when the hot water expands. This can cause the relief valve to leak. There are several solutions, but all require a serviceman.

In conventional water heaters there’s a magnesium rod extending down the middle of the tank that corrodes quicker than the tank—the theory is that it draws corrosive elements in the water to it rather than the tank and puts a rust-inhibiting coating on the tank wall so the tank or at least the heating element resists rusting longer. This rod is called in some maintenance manuals the “sacrificial anode,” which sounds to me like something out of Dante’s Inferno. Anyway, if you are confronted with some inexplicable water odor not controlled by softening, remove the sacrificial anode and throw it into the Inferno or wherever. That’s what a plumber did for us when we had a water odor problem, and it worked. Otherwise, you are supposed to replace the sacrificial anode (I love repeating that name for some odd reason) whenever it corrodes down to about the diameter of an ordinary wire. Since our heater tank seems alive and well after 13 years without one altogether, I have to wonder if the whole idea was not dreamed up by some frustrated poet in the plumbing business.

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