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Wiser Living

Finding a natural solution

A Tale of Two Hot Water Heaters

by Laurel Kallenbach

Tags: hot water heaters, tankless hot water heaters, on demand water heater, rinnai, tankless hot water,

I had the best of intentions; it was the worst of timing.

In the laundry room, concentrated around the tank of my old water heater, I had water spreading over the linoleum and toward the carpet in the den.

I took one look and diagnosed: water heater meltdown.

I’ve experienced it before, 10 years ago. Once you’ve survived 65 gallons of water gushing from your water heater, you don’t ask questions.

I closed off the heater’s in-valve and scrambled into the crawl space to turn off the water to the whole house. Then I started mopping. Luckily, the water I cleaned up wasn’t replaced by a continual stream; I’d caught the crisis at the slow leak phase!

As I worked, I rejoiced. Just months before I’d assigned and edited an article for Natural Home’s Nuts & Bolts section about tankless, or “on-demand,” water heaters. (see "Get into Hot Water", September/October 2006) Author Dan Chiras had utterly convinced me of the benefits of going tankless, and I’d shown the article to my husband before it was even published.

“When our water heater wears out, this is what I want to get!” I’d announced. I reminded him of the cute little on-demand water heater we’d seen at the 17th century French farmhouse that his German cousins were renovating.

“How much do they cost?” Ken asked.

I explained that they’re more expensive, but they save tons of fossil fuels by not heating 65 gallons of water that just sits in storage, waiting for us to take a shower or run the dishwasher.

He agreed it sounded like a great idea—when the old one wore out. “It’ll be soon,” I predicted. “That unit is getting old.”

Just months after that conversation, my wish was granted, and I eagerly called plumbers for quotes.

When the prices trickled in, however, my bubble burst. The Rinnai unit was about $1,000 (about what I’d expected). We could live with that, especially with the $300 federal tax credit that’s applicable through the end of 2007.

However, the installation estimates were skyrocketing—$1,500…$2,000… probably more. Still hopeful, I made an appointment for a plumber to evaluate our situation. Retrofitting our 1960s tri-level house for the new water heater would be more complicated than I’d thought. First, we needed to install a high-volume gas line and extra piping.

The major impediment, though, was that our laundry/utility room wouldn't accommodate the Rinnai heater. We’d envisioned replacing our clunky water tank with the petite on-demand unit, clearing space for a laundry table. However, this brand requires through-the-wall venting (instead of through the roof), and our laundry room has a large window. You can’t safely ventilate natural gas near a window.

The plumber explained we’d have to relocate the whole kit-and-caboodle into our crawl space (we don’t have a finished basement). It would have to be placed on the only wall without windows—and that meant water would have to run through an additional 50 feet of pipes from the water heater to our upstairs bathroom. What we’d save on energy, we’d waste in water—waiting for it to arrive hot in the far-away shower.

All this work for an eco-friendly water heater carried a $5,000 to $6,000 price tag. I regret that I have but so many dollars to give to my planet.

How does the tale of two water heaters conclude? Ironically, I’m afraid. We bought a new, traditional water heater with tank ($400) which my handy dad installed for free. A day later, when I ran the dishwasher, more water showed up in the laundry room—only now we knew it wasn’t the water heater’s fault.

After all that, it turned out our problem was water backed up from the mainline drain, which was starting to clog with tree roots. We didn’t need a new water heater…we needed RotoRooter!

The moral of the story: I’m still convinced a tankless water heater is the right thing to do—especially if we ever build a new house. But I learned that what’s great in a magazine doesn’t always work for every house in every situation. It would have been better to do my research in advance.

Because when you’re standing in water, you don’t have time to debate water heater pros and cons—you just need it fixed.