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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - June 24, 2011


Water heaters have come a long way

by Forrest Linebarger

Hot water heaters are not sexy. They are primitive, hulking creatures. They heat 50 to 100 gallons of water 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We use them briefly in the morning or evening to take showers or wash our clothes — the rest of the time they heat water that nobody is using.

Water-heater inefficiency is evident in the numbers: Water heaters make up 14 to 25 percent of our household energy bill. When they are located in the house, they also heat our house all day long. In the summer, we pay to heat our water then we pay to cool the house.

There is a revolution afoot in water heating. Tankless water heaters have taken the market by storm. They are, well, a little sexy.

They work by only heating water when you turn on the hot-water faucet. They heat water rapidly as it passes though a highly efficient burner. They never run out of hot water. That's right, invite the whole extended family to stay at Christmas and no one will get a cold shower.

When tankless first came to the American market, they were underpowered by our standards. They had been used for years in Europe but Europeans apparently liked wimpy showers. Now they have enough capacity to run two or more showers simultaneously, while saving 50 percent on energy costs.

They also used to be expensive. Prices have dropped so low that you can now buy a quality tankless water heater for around $700.

Another nice feature about tankless water heaters is they can open up floor space. The units are amazingly small, about the size of a computer box. They hang on an interior or exterior wall or are placed in the attic. Many people with water-heater closets have relocated their unit and converted the water heater area into storage.

Their flexibility in location also means you can put the unit closer to your bathrooms, reducing the time you need to flush cold water down the drain.

Traditional tank water heaters, especially when located in the garage or near storage areas, are significant causes of household fires. On-demand water systems, however, do not typically have pilot lights and they are usually located high above flammables.

Tankless water heaters are not all sunshine and flowers, however. They often require a bigger gas supply line be installed, which can add another $1,000 to the price tag. They can also reduce the speed of water delivery, so that a shower might not provide hot water as fast as the old tank used to do. Proper placement of the tankless water heater or the installation of a hot-water heater demand system ( — a neat piece of water-saving technology — can make hot water near instantaneous.

When it comes time to replace your water heater, consider this small sexy appliance for the job.

Forrest Linebarger is CEO of VOX Design Group Inc. in Mountain View, which specializes in designing green homes in the Bay Area. He can be reached at or at 650-694-6200, ext. 11.


Like this comment
Posted by LindaR
a resident of Los Altos
on Jun 26, 2011 at 5:18 pm


Loved the piece. How do I find out more about the " hot-water heater demand system ( — a neat piece of water-saving technology "? doesn't directly link to a " hot-water heater demand system "



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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 26, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

The bigger gas line can be problem, but then the heater location is more flexible; some can even be installed outside. My next heater will be instant.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jun 26, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Careful what you wish for . . . we used to have one and it certainly had its trade-offs. You have to wait FOREVER for the water to get hot. You also have to learn the trick to getting them to work as the one we had possesed some safety logic in it so some little kid just turning them on full would cause them not to activate and burn them. Then sometimes you would turn them on starting at medium flow, come back in five minutes and they would still be full-on cold! I wondered if I was saving any money on wasting all that water waiting for them to heat up.

Next time, I'll wait for the technology to advance whereby there would smaller ones located closer to the usage area so you wouldn't have to run so much water. I tell ya, sometimes we could never get it to work right after like 10 minutes of trying, definetely an black art IMHO.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 26, 2011 at 8:22 pm

We have solar hot water panels connected to a very well 100 gallon insulated solar hot water storage tank and then to our 50 gallon gas water heater with a full house low amp recycle pump. 90% of the time all the heating is done by the sun and the gas only kicks in when the temperature drops below 110 deg (or lower if you so wish). Water at every outlet is always hot.

Like this comment
Posted by Here's the link
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 26, 2011 at 8:40 pm

I think he meant this one (

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by all that glitters
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 27, 2011 at 10:57 am

Other downsides of a tankless heater:
1. You either have a recirculation pump running so have the heater "on" all the time or have to wait a long time for the hot water to come through, heating/wasting a lot of water.
You can put to a timer on the recirculation pump but it will still be "on" while the pump is on.
2. The pressure drops dramatically if you are running more than one appliance. On a basic model, you can probably run two appliances with OK pressure. You can only reasonably run two appliances, or run a high-flow point like a bath depending on the heater.
3. There is actually little energy saving. The upsides include unlimited hot-water and space saving.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 27, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Circulating pumps downgrade the installation. Best is to centrally locate and run pipes direct. PEX is preferable to copper.

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Sadly, for me, the cost of the tankless water heater paled in comparison to the cost of running a new 1 inch gas line from where the gas line came onto my property to the closest place I could mount a tankless hot water heater. It would have required tunneling under a slab etc etc. Too bad it is not feasible for all of us.

Unless the tankless hot water heater is near where you need the hot water, you waste a lot of water getting the hot water. I don't know how to calculate net savings - which will be more scarce in the future, natural gas or water?

As with most new technology, there is no perfect solution for everyone.

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