Consumers hold key to keeping water heaters working properly

Understanding how appliance functions will help maintain it


If you could pin an award on the appliance with the lowest profile, the water heater would be the likely winner. It's rarely even seen, because it's usually tucked in a closet or in a dark corner of the basement.

But wait until something goes awry. That's when you know the water heater is indispensable. Plumbers who provide 24-hour repair and replacement service can attest to that.

Many experts say the water heater should get more attention from consumers. Some time and thought can forestall a replacement, save money and ensure that the heater provides an adequate supply of hot water.

"People who take the time picking and maintaining a water heater are going to be better off," said Adriene Koett-Cronn, a staffer with the Iowa Energy Center, a state-funded group that promotes energy efficiency.

Such attention can pay off in unexpected ways. A recent Kansas City Star story discovered that thousands of consumers have water heaters with a defective dip tube, which is a plastic pipe. The flawed pipes are disintegrating inside the tanks, leaving plastic chips that plug up faucets and dishwashers and reduce the water heaters' ability to provide hot water.

Consumers who are discovering the problem and having it fixed are getting part of their costs reimbursed by the water heater companies.

Consumers could not have known they were buying a water heater with a defective dip tube. But with extra knowledge, you can choose a proper water heater and maintain it to avoid other problems.

First, a quick course in water-heater mechanics.

The most popular type of heater in the United States is a storage water heater. A storage water heater stores the water that has been heated by a gas burner or electric element. The water is kept hot by insulation that has been wrapped around the tank.

A storage water heater works this way: Cold water enters at the top of the tank and flows through the dip tube, which shoots the water to the bottom of the tank, where it is heated.

The heated water then rises to the top of the tank, where it flows out when needed. As the hot water flows out, more water comes in to be heated. It's recommended that the heater's thermostat be set at no higher than 120 degrees to avoid scalding.

Also on the market are tankless water heaters that heat water instantly when hot water is needed. Tankless heaters, while popular in Europe, have made few inroads in the American market because they usually are more expensive.

Tankless heaters for residential use typically work best when hot water is in limited demand or hot water is needed for just one appliance.

Plumbers say the one question typically asked by consumers is how much hot water the water heater will provide. The answer: It depends.

The traditional measure of a water heater's capability to provide hot water is storage capacity. Because cooler water is being brought in to heat, a water heater can provide about 70 percent of its capacity in hot water. Thus, a 40-gallon tank can provide about 28 gallons of stored hot water.

But that rule of thumb doesn't give an accurate picture of a water heater's capability.

A more reliable measure is the "first hour rating" that is found on the upper left corner of the yellow EnergyGuide sticker that must be on new water heaters.

The first hour rating combines the amount of stored hot water that can be delivered, plus the amount of additional hot water that can be produced in an hour.

"The first hour rating can be very helpful for residential use," said Bill Hagen, a salesman for W. T. Leonard & Associates in Olathe, Kan., a manufacturer's representative for a company that makes water heaters.

Here's why the rating is important: Most households have a period when there is a peak demand for hot water, such as in the morning when showers are taken. You need to buy the size of water heater that will serve that peak demand.

A 40-gallon gas heater can create about 40 gallons of additional hot water an hour, or about double the amount of an electric water heater. But not all 40-gallon gas water heaters are alike. A bigger or more efficient burner can deliver more hot water and increase the first hour rating.

The same thing can happen with electric water heaters. An additional heating element can increase the amount of hot water produced. Because of the slower recovery, compared with gas water heaters, storage capacity is more important for electric heaters in the first hour rating.

What's left is to calculate your peak demand. Figures supplied by the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association show that showers and baths are the biggest part of peak demand.

On average, 15 gallons of hot water are used per shower and 20 gallons per bath.

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