Hot Tips for Finding the Right Water Heater

buying a water heater

Few items in your home are more essential to comfortable, clean living than a water heater. A water heater is an investment, as you can expect to get 20 or more years of service from a quality model. Choosing a unit that meets your family's needs for hot water, fits your budget, and works efficiently with a minimum of hassles requires knowing your options.

Key Decisions

Before you decide to buy, answer these questions:

  • What energy source do I rely on for heating my home — electricity, natural gas, propane or solar?
  • How many people use hot water in my house each day and what do people in my house use hot water for?
  • How important are energy savings?
  • How long do I plan to keep the water heater?
  • Where do I want the water heater installed and do I have the skills to install the water heater myself?
  • How much do I want to spend initially and how much can I spend to fix the heater if it malfunctions?


Two major features describe waters heaters — energy source and storage capacity.

Gas storage water heaters use a natural gas- or propane-fueled burner to heat water in a tank. Homes that have gas stoves and central heat typically also have gas water heaters. Gas water heaters are energy efficient.

Electric storage water heaters use electricity to heat rods or coils inside a water-filled tank. This type is the easiest to install, but also uses the most energy of any water heater. You need a dedicated power outlet and circuit beaker or fuse for an electric water heater. You also need to match the heater to the outlet, as a 120-volt heater won't run off a 240-volt outlet, and vice versa.

Heat pump water heaters use electricity to circulate warmed air around a tank of water. The devices work best in areas with mild winters and often prove impractical in places that get extended freezes. These models are quite pricey. To ensure the proper circulation of air and efficient exchange of heat, you need to place a heat pump water heater in a location where it can draw from at least 1,000 cubic meters of unobstructed air.

Solar water heaters use only sunlight to warm water. A solar collector — usually installed on the roof — draws heat into a small tank or series of pipes, and the warmer water flows into a storage tank inside the home. You may need to supplement a solar water heater with a traditional or tankless water heater.

Tankless water heaters can run on gas or electricity. They contain heat exchangers that quickly raise the temperature of water right before it flows from a tap. Tankless water heaters come in whole-home models and smaller, point-of-use units, and reduce water and energy use over the long term. They also have high installation and maintenance costs. If you use a lot of hot water in places far removed from your central water heater, you may find that a small tankless water heater makes a good adjunct.


Measure the height, width and depth of the space where you want your water heater installed. The depth is the distance from the wall behind the heater and the front of the heater. You need to leave some clear space all around any water heater. Heat pump water heaters require significant clearance.


Storage water heaters have two capacity ratings, while tankless water heaters have just one. The number of gallons a water heater tank holds is the amount of hot water your family can use at any one time. The simple rule of thumb is that more people need more hot water on demand. You can figure 18 gallons of water per person per shower, 8 gallons of water for each dishwasher load and 2 gallons for each shave.

For both storage and tankless water heaters, consider the rate at which hot water flows to and out of your taps.

Energy Efficiency

Look for a water heater with an Energy Star sticker. According to the Energy Star website, you can realize the following yearly energy savings by opting for a certified model:

  • Storage, gas-powered —15 percent over an uncertified gas water heater
  • Tankless, gas-powered —30 percent over a uncertified gas storage water heater
  • Heat pump, electric —50 percent over an uncertified electric water heater
  • Solar —50 percent over an uncertified electric or gas-powered water heater


Water heaters come with standard six-, nine-, or 12-year warranties that cover replacement costs for the tank; parts such as the heating element, pilot light and outflow pipe; and, for a tankless heater, the heat exchanger. You can also purchase three- or five-year service plans that cover labor on repairs. Longer warranties and plans cost more.

Installation and Haul-away

Correctly installing a water heater requires connecting the device to your home's electrical or gas system and your home's plumbing system. Every city, town and county has its own building code requirements regarding water heaters. Unless you're a skilled home contractor, pay a professional to install your water heater.

When replacing an old water heater, consider paying a service to haul the old model away. You can't put storage or tankless water heaters out with your regular trash for collection because the heaters can contain toxic or potentially harmful materials.


Set a maximum figure for what you want to spend. You cannot find — and don't want — a truly inexpensive heater. Expect to spend at least $300 for a small-capacity gas or electric storage water heater you install yourself. Be prepared to spend as much as $1,700 if you purchase a large-capacity heat pump water heater and have it professionally installed. Consider features and compare prices online at Or visit a nearby Sears store for a wide selection and price points to ensure you make the right choice.

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