Tankless Water Heaters
By Glenn Dunphy
Fifteen years ago, I was doing the European backpacker thing and one of the places I stayed was a Swiss youth hostel. It was your classic student traveller accommodation. Cheap dorm beds, coin laundry, and even coin operated showers. In each shower stall, there was a little unit, about as large as a hardcover book, that took coins and had a dial on it allowing you to set the water temperature. It had an intake pipe and a pipe that led to the showerhead. I didn't think much about how it worked, but that was my first experience with a 'tankless' water heater. I thought it was just a quirky European thing and then, of course, I shifted my focus to something really important like my quest to visit every pub in town.
Fast-forward ten years to when I was teaching English in Taiwan. In my little kitchen, close to the ceiling and by a window, was a larger unit that provided hot water for my whole apartment. When I turned the hot water tap on, I could hear a little whoosh of gas burners coming on. In seconds I had hot water which was basically unlimited. As long as I had natural gas and water, and kept the hot water tap running, I would not run out of hot water. It was a minor epiphany forme?it just seemed so ingenious?to run the water through this little unit, burners come on automatically, and it heats the water as you require it. Unlimited hot water and no bulky tank taking up space. I really wondered why these were not in every home in North America when they obviously have been in Europe and Asia for years. The fact that this way of heating water was a real energy saver didn?t occur to me until later.
The regular tank water heater most of us have is basically a big kettle?whether it uses electricity, natural gas, or propane, it continually reheats the water. When you use your shower, washing machine, or dishwasher, some hot water is drained from the tank and replaced with cold water. The tank's heating source turns on and heats all the water again until it reaches the set temperature.
Imagine making yourself a cup of tea and then refilling the kettle and watching it automatically bring the water to boil, then cool off, and then doing it again and again and again?you might not have your next cup for an hour or a day or a week, but it wouldn't matter. It sounds silly, but that is what most of our tank water heaters do 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Granted, the tanks are insulated and it is not going on and off all the time, but it is definitely cheaper and just makes more sense to heat the water once.
Two years ago, I asked about tankless water heaters at a "big box" home improvement store. The guy in the plumbing department told me they didn't carry them and he didn't think they would catch on in North America. His reasoning was most basic: "We are used to the way we do it over here." Of course, times change and now the big chain stores carry a number of models and can help arrange installation. That is definitely a sign that tankless water heaters are going mainstream.
Depending on your hot water needs, estimates are that you will save 20 to 50 per cent of what you pay now to heat water. Sounds good to me. The units I've looked at have ranged in price from $700 to $2,100 (plus installation) so it will take a little time before it pays for itself with the savings. But if you are paying for a rental hot water tank, that time will be much shorter. In my case, I've paid $19 per month for the last three and a half years just for the rental. That's $800 I could have paid towards a tankless.
While researching what model is appropriate for my house, I spoke with Sedat Ozturk of S.O.S. Heating and Air Conditioning in Aurora.
"People are getting educated about tankless water heaters and it's a growing market," said Ozturk. "People are increasingly energy conscious and in the long run this is a way to cut costs?and as an added bonus, they can be installed in very tight spots."
Sometimes I wish I could be spending my money to travel like I did in my younger years. It must be a sign of age that I get excited at the idea of upgrading an essential function in my home and switching to a tankless water heater.