(ARA) - When ranking household appliances that consume the most energy, no one is surprised to see heating and air conditioning units at the top of the list. On the other hand, many people are surprised to learn that their water heater ranks at No. 2.
"Monthly energy costs have become an important factor in the decision-making process for homeowners looking for a new water heater," says Ed Begley, Jr., actor and environmentalist. "That's why manufacturers are introducing new technologies that increase the energy efficiency of their products." In order to find the right water heater for your lifestyle, Begley points out that you need to consider both the performance of the machine and the monthly energy costs associated with it.
Your first option is a conventional water heater. These models typically include a glass-lined tank that holds anywhere from 30 to 120 gallons of hot water at a time. A 40-gallon tank is generally ideal for two or three people, while a larger family may need a 50- to 80-gallon tank.
A tank-type water heater can run on electricity, natural gas or propane. A natural gas model is generally the least expensive in terms of monthly energy costs, with an electric model costing up to three times as much to heat the same amount of water. Most homeowners simply select the type of water heater that matches their current fuel source.
A conventional tank-type water heater can operate at anywhere from 75 to 80 percent efficiency, depending on the brand. In other words, 75 cents of your heating dollar goes into heating the water, and the other 25 cents is lost.
Within the past 10 years, manufacturers have begun promoting another option: the tankless water heater. These models typically deliver about 82 percent energy efficiency. Compared to a conventional water heater, your savings will typically range from $30 to $75 per year.
A tankless water heater uses a very large burner to heat the water as it passes through a copper pipe on its way to your sink, washing machine or shower. These models are measured in gallons per minute.
If you don't use a lot of hot water, it can run almost indefinitely without running out. However, if you exceed the capacity of the machine, you will notice a drop in either temperature or water pressure.
A drawback to a tankless model is the initial cost. The unit typically has a price tag between $800 to $2,000, plus another $1,000 to $2,500 for installation. Compare that to a conventional water heater, which usually runs about $300 to $500 for the unit and another $300 to $500 for installation. That all adds up to a $1,200 to $3,500 difference.
The third option is a hybrid unit. As the name implies, the hybrid combines the technologies of a conventional and tankless water heater. The result is a product that performs better than both technologies with energy efficiency at 90 percent or above.
A hybrid allows you to have back-to-back showers or simultaneous showers because of the stored hot water in the hybrid design. The installation of a hybrid water heater is the same as a conventional model, however, the unit itself can cost $1,200 to $1,800.
"For the absolute 'greenest' option available today, homeowners should consider a solar thermal water heating system," Begley says. "These units include a solar thermal collector that goes on the roof of the home in order to supply up to 70 percent of the total energy needed to run the unit." A solar thermal system is typically more expensive, but right now they are eligible for a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the total installed cost in addition to other state and local utility rebates.
Homeowners looking for a conventional electric model have a new "hybrid" option to consider. "These water heaters include a heat pump that literally pulls heat out of the surrounding air, like an air conditioner in reverse," Begley says. "As a result, they are more than twice as energy efficient as a traditional electric model." This efficiency can translate to savings over $360 each year. These hybrid electric models qualify for the federal tax credit and there are also additional state and local utility rebate programs to encourage the adoption of these products.
If your current model is more than eight years old, you may even consider proactively replacing the older, less efficient model for one of the newer, more energy-efficient models and start saving right away.