in hot water?

So I had this post about getting a tankless water heater all written and stuff when [bing!] here's this email from The Green Building Advisor (a freakin' awesome site, btw...) with the title "Are tankless water heaters a waste of money?" And then, mere hours later, here comes an email from Beaker's Bro with links to Gary Klein who makes a pretty strong case for having (a) short and small supply lines, (b) a tanked water heater, and (c) a circulating loop. What to do, what to do...

This prompted some more research on tank v. tankless. The punch line is: hmmm.... There are lots of things to balance here: Efficiency of energy to heat, overall efficiency (including standby), cost efficiency, space efficiency, maintenance efficiency, life of product, carbon footprint, water efficiency, house design, numbers of occupants, local climate. Unfortunately, not much pulls in the same direction to where there is a clear winner. Again: hmmm....

Electric is the most efficient at converting energy to heat. Most report the efficiency at close to 100 percent if not 100 percent. Can't beat 100 percent (unless...well, hold on, we'll get to that). Standard gas-burning water heaters have efficiencies from 60 to 80 percent. Condensing gas-burning water heaters (gas heaters that harvest heat from the exhaust fumes) can approach 95 percent. Not bad, but not 100 percent. And then there are heat-pump electric water heaters that achieve (wait for it...) 150 to 250 percent efficiency! Even a standard electric can achieve a greater-than-100-percent efficiency with photovoltaics, so imagine what a heat pump water heater coupled with PV can do!

I'm vaguely head-over-heels in love with heat-pump water heaters. These heat-pump heaters harvest heat from the air around them to heat water and, as a by product, cool (and dehumidify) the air around them. That sounds good for hot ole Texas. This has prompted dreams of putting one in the pantry, opening the wall behind the refrigerator (which is also a heat pump, but is pumping heat out of it's interior and dumping it out the back), and having the water heater absorb heat (in part) from the fridge. This system heats the water and cools the room (good for the wine!).

However, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, pretty much all the experts (including the Green Building Advisor) recommend using gas if you have access to inexpensive gas. And gas these days is pretty darn inexpensive and appears to be so for the next 50 to 100 years (there's a whole lotta, whole lotta fracking going on...). So I think the recommendation for gas comes primarily from financial concerns. Heat-pump water heaters are great, but if you use up your hot water, standard electric heaters fire up and suck up the juice. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a heat-pump water heater that uses gas as a back-up (a dream device?).

The folks at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy produced this table that says electric heat pumps are the most cost-effective approach over the life of the technology:

but the table doesn't include a condensing tankless gas unit. Electricity in Austin goes for 6.02 cents per kWh over 500 kWh in the winter and 7.82 cents per kWh over 500 kWh in the summer. Gas goes for ??? Couldn't find on the interwebs...

Gary Klein is partial to tanks and loops. He's also partial to small diameter distribution lines. His point is that the more water you have stored in your lines, the longer you wait for hot water and the more water (and energy) you waste. First and foremost, when designing a house, you want your plumbing to be as close as possible to each other to centralize the hot water demand. Although this wasn't a driver for us in designing the house (and wasn't mentioned), the architects did this very thing (those sneaky green devils...). I'm assuming that  the water heater, in whatever form it takes, will be in the pantry outer-wall area, so perhaps this is how the water gets run:

Bottom line, regardless of how the lines are run, the water heater is close to the kitchen and two full baths. The laundry is more distant, but that doesn't (really) matter (too much). The powder is a ways away, but that's OK.

So.... as near as I can figure out:

If you have a choice between geothermal (i.e., you already have or are putting in a geothermal system), electric, and gas, the order of priority is (1) geothermal, (2) gas, and (3) electricity.

If you have a geothermal system, use a desuperheater.

If you have access to gas, use gas. If your primary hot water  use areas are relatively compact, consider a condensing tankless system. If your water is hard (thus impacting the life of a tanked system), consider a condensing tankless system. If your hot water areas are more distant, consider a tanked system with a circulating pump.

And that brings us to [trumpets]: A tankless system! So after all the (appropriate) handwringing, here's the original (unpublished) blog post, still relevant after all:

We are currently spec'd for a tankless water heater, which seems to be what all the cool kids are getting (unless you're really cool; in that case, you have a desuperheater!). It shows up as an allowance in the builder's budget for $950 (the architects have it at $1,200). Given that it's an allowance, which one should we get?

I'm thinking a Rinnai, specifically a RC80e (KA2530WD-US) condensing tankless water heater:

Kinda looks like something Iron Man would have at his house. It has a 97 percent thermal efficiency (as compared to the 80 percent of some of their other models). Amazon has the sucker for $1,066.91!

Rinnai recommends a cold climate kit for those of us in the cold climates. The kit auto drains the outdoor bit of the system when the power shuts off. Although we don't live in the colder climes, it does freeze down here from time to time in the winter and, with the growing unreliability of our electric grid, methinks we should get one (the bride wants a back-up generator, but those cost more...).

More stuff on water heating to confuse you::

  - Water heating.
  - Heat pump water heaters come of age.
  - Solar thermal is dead.
  - Get rid of your gas water heater!


  1. THIS is the kind of thing we worried about.

    We went through every single water heater option (except condensing, which we quickly dismissed as too expensive -- we'd heard $4k). Interesting article about solar thermal; we came to the same conclusion about PV being more cost-effective. BTW, heat pump water heaters hadn't quite come out when we were making our selections, but we came across a heat pump unit that you could retrofit onto a regular tank heater (electric or gas): http://www.airgenerate.com/retrofit.php.

    So no recirculation? And -- to go way back to the beginning of the thought process -- why did you decide against geothermal?

    1. It's confusing as hell, isn't it? There's a real need for someone to put together a decision chart with associated calculators to ultimately figure out what's "best". The fact this doesn't exist is a testament to the complexity.

      We didn't price tanked systems with condensers so we don't know what the premium is there, but tankless systems with condensers don't have much of a premium (a few hundred dollars).

      That retrofit is pretty cool! But note that it recommends disconnecting the existing water heater.

      The absence of registered designers and installers in Central Texas, the many opportunities for things to go wrong, the increasing efficiency of air-based heat pumps (that are starting to rival the SEERs of ground source heat pumps), and postings on HVAC-talk.com ultimately convinced us to go more conventional than geothermal.

  2. GET THE COLD WEATHER KIT!!! Our tankless hot water heater has frozen up on us twice in the past 4 winters.

    1. Indeed! We're on the neighborhood listserv, and when that cold winter 1.3 years ago hit and knocked out the power, folks were having all kinds of struggles. I fear there's more of that in our future...

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  4. You missed out one combination:
    Electricity from solar plus an electric tankless water heater. (We bought a Tempra, which is German/

    With 24 solar panels, we also selected electric laundry appliances and in the kitchen an electric oven, dishwasher and an induction cooktop. We don't need AC as we live on the West side of LA.

    We only use gas for our radiant floor heating.

    Our annual electricity bill is around $200.


    1. Excellent point. The Green Building Advisor folks note that it's now less expensive to do what you did (use photovoltaics to run an electric water heater) than to put in a solar water heater:


      Wished we didn't have to have AC (and could have your electric bill!).

    2. Gorgeous place, by the way! And loved your blog (devoured it months ago!).