Our Tankless Water Heater Experience

We bought our home in November of 2008. One of our first adventures in home ownership was installing a tankless water heater, which we did in February of 2009. What is a tankless water heater, you ask?

A tankless water heater is a sophisticated box that hooks up to your home’s electric or natural gas systems. It has these coil-y things in it. Ours happens to be natural gas. Your turn on the hot water, and the nifty heater heats up the coils and pulls water through said coils, thus creating hot water. It does this until you turn off the hot water faucet, and then shuts itself down. Simple, right? Compared to a traditional hot water tank, which constantly maintains a certain number of gallons of water at a specific temperature.

Tankless water heaters consume less energy because they are using (electricity or gas) only when you are using hot water! Whereas regular hot water tanks are on all the time, and may continually lose energy as the heat from the water slowly escapes the tank to make your hot water tank closet or your garage nice and toasty.

And the SUPER COOL thing about hot water tanks? Are you ready for this? You don’t run out of hot water. Ever. Never. Not while the tank is in proper working condition.

There was nothing wrong with our other hot water tank. It was just big, in the way, old, inefficient, and there was a tax incentive that year for upgrades. Switching the water tank seemed to be a simple, relatively inexpensive, cost-efficient thing we could do. And the idea of running hot water forever was pretty dang appealing. So we discussed, and decided to do it. I let my hubby pick the model. He spent hours researching about the technology and the different kinds and models and uses of tankless heaters (one can never blame him for being hasty, that’s how he rolls). And he chose one.  This one, in that picture... the Bosch 1600 H. Ironically, once tax time came around, this model was not one of the ones on the rebate list. Oops on us.

This particular size is supposed to allow us to run one major appliance at a time. So we can’t take a shower while the laundry is going, or someone is scrubbing the dishes in the sink. We could have gotten a bigger, more expensive one that would handle everything at once, but we have a small house and a small family, so this is sufficient.

Thankfully we have handy buddies who were willing to install the tank for us. Ta da! It took them just a few hours to switch out the old heater for the new one and replace the plumbling and venting through the roof. I sold the old heater on Craigslist. The new one worked like a charm! Except that one of the knobs kept falling off - you can see in the picture where it should be. But that’s ok. We just pick it up and stick it back on when we need it.

A couple of months later I had a parade of several different plumbers march through our house doing inspections. As they did so, I asked each one if the tank was installed correctly and if I had to get the city to come inspect it and certify it (someone had told me that I needed to do that). Most of them had no idea, and had never seen the doo-hickey before. A few of them said that it was put in wrong, and we should change this or that, or that we put in the wrong kind for our house, or that they shouldn’t go in the garage.  But the wide range of responses made it obvious to me that no one definitively knew what they were talking about; I suppose because tankless heaters were not yet common enough in OKC for local plumbers to be educated on them. I called the city to ask if it needed to be inspected, and after being bounced around on the phone a bit, they told me that it did not… but most of those people didn't know what I was talking about, either!  The most I could do was assume that the tank was working fine and my friends knew what they were doing.  It has been two years now and it still seems a safe assumption.

So now to the real questions: 

Have I had any problems with it?
Yes, just a couple. The main issue is that, since the water has only a limited time to pass through the coils and be heated up, the end temperature is heavily dependent on the ground temperature and how cold or warm the water is to begin with. This is accounted for to some extent by the design of our heater. If we slow the flow, it is in the coils for longer and gets hotter. We can also increase or decrease the size of our flame. So to make the hottest possible water, the knob for flow goes down, the knob for flame goes up, and vice-versa to make the water less hot. BUT. During the coldest part of the winter we can’t get the water extremely hot, more like pretty dang warm, and this makes taking a hot bath difficult in January. I boil a pot of water on the stove if I really want a hot soak that month. On the other hand, hot water in summer is easy to come by, and during most of our year the temperature is pretty constant.

The second winter we owned the tank (December 2009), we had a blizzard. The exposed pipes leading up to the water tank in the garage froze. We panicked a little, called my handyman uncle. Shut off the water. Slowly heated the pipes back up. Turned on the water. And it worked again. We then immediately bought insulation for the pipes and pointed a space heater at them if it got ridiculously cold outside (thankfully, in Oklahoma, not a common event). We had a second blizzard this December, and forgot to heat the garage... and they froze again. Other than those two times, it's been kosher.

A few months after that first blizzard, a part on the heater broke. Because we have a home warranty, the repair cost was paid for via insurance (hooray). We don’t know why it broke. Our technician did not know why it broke. Maybe it had something to do with the freeze? Or a manufacturing flaw? No clue. But break it did. And because the tankless heater is uncommon, the part had to be ordered, and we had to wait for it to come in. And it was installed, and we found out that a second part was broken, rinse, wash, repeat. THEN, only then our hot water worked again. But because of the insurance and the part ordering process we were out of hot water for a good month or so. It was supremely annoying. I was cursing my need to be original, I admit, because if I’d a regular tank, it would have been done within in a few days, tops.

Am I glad I made the change?
 Yes, definitely, the pros outweigh the cons. Of course having a tankless makes me feel like a good guy, because it consumes less energy and pollutes less. I save money on my gas bill, but I admit that I don’t save as much as I thought I would, and because we bought the heater two months after we moved into the house I don’t have a decent baseline comparison – I can’t tell you in numbers how much money and therms we’ve saved. Our natural gas bills are pretty conservative, and almost negligible during the summer. I am confident that we have saved some amount, but I don’t have enough data to know if the device has monetarily paid for itself yet.

The biggest practical benefit, by far, is having unlimited hot water.  We don’t have to worry about limiting our showers, timing our showers just right with our guests and each other so that no one runs out, or those drastic temperature fluctuations that happen when someone flushes while you’re showering. In fact it has been so long since I’ve had to worry about such things that it seems primitive now. I turn on the hot water tap, I get hot water. End of story. No fuss.
So, for us, tankless water heater = more money, more convenience. And that breakdown we had? One time thing, probably a fluke. It was a cheap fix ($60 out of pocket), thanks to our home warranty. Hopefully it will not happen again.

 Would I do it the same way?
No.  If we were doing it over, I would still switch to a tankless, but I would have selected a higher-capacity model even though we don’t *need* one. I think that would prevent the problems we have in the winter with not always being able to get the water as hot as we’d like it to be. I guess it’s like buying pantyhose – one size too big can’t really hurt, but might come in handy some day.

Also, I would have made double sure that we got one of the tax-incentive eligible models. I can't believe I didn't do that... what a foolish oversight!


Wonkadelica said...

Glad to be your first follower. You remind me of the enthusiasm I once had when I had a research/design position with the largest solar manufacturer in Arizona, until Reagan destroyed the alternative energy industry. I have devoted a lot of time and energy on environmental issues since then and am glad to find a local blogger with real creative intelligence.
Actually, it was your Alien Mind site that first grabbed me. Any luck yet with the UFO's? I just listed ECOhoma as a topic on Demookie, hope you get some more fans.


My Nerd scores:

Nerd 94%

Science/Math 96%
Comuter/tech 73%
Sci-fi/comic 50%
History/literature 94%
Dumb/Dork 7%

Uber Cool Nerd King (not quite God)

Mule Skinner said...

Looked at doing this ourselves a couple of times. Will probably make the jump the next time our HWH breaks.

One important drawback to mention is that if you have a lower-capacity unit you will be limited in what you can do. For instance, showering while someone else is showering in another bathroom or the washing machine is running is right out. However, if this is really a concern for you, you can add an additional unit for the other shower or washing machine. Adding extra units is no biggie since they only use resources when used.

Also, we have a teenager who falls asleep in the shower in the morning and only leaves when it gets cold. I'm afraid if I installed one of these babies he'd drown or prune to death or something...

Alien Mind Girl said...

Hi, Wonkadelica! May I call you Wonky? Teehee. Thank you for sharing my blog and for the nice comments. Mucho appreciated.

Funny that you entered through the alien site, since that's been dormant for a while. In fact, I'm impressed that this blog has been around long enough to show up on search engines. UFO thing is coming along... although these people seem to think that the Mothership is this weird planet called Tyche. HA!

You know what Mule... you could perhaps manually shut it off to get the teen out of the shower... then switch the controls back to normal before they see what you did!!

Wonkadelica said...

One way to keep the outlet water at a constant temperature, regardless of how cold the inlet gets, would be to install a thermostat valve at the exit. I'm surprised they didn't offer one. An automotive thermostat might be enough if you have the plumbing and tinkering skill to adapt it. It keeps engine coolant from going to the radiator until it is hot enough to need cooling.


Beware of "magnetic water conditioners." This is still a major scam pretending to treat hard water and calcium build-up. On Demand water heaters tend to have more calcium build up because of the more intense heat. Oklahoma doesn't have hard water problems as much as the desert southwest. I had to test them to show they didn't work before I could stop our sales people from insisting on using them. One model was nothing more than a piece of cast iron inside a pvc tube! Hard to believe they are still around 30 years later.


If you want to email me, I can tell you about a personal experience with ufo's, with witnesses. It was nothing like anything I have ever heard of. We were told in advance, and they showed up.