Kiss that hot water heater goodbye

28 Sep

That white box behind the washtub is actually a tankless hot water heater. It’s smaller than a briefcase and heats water on demand, in a split-second.

September 28, 2009

By Geoff Meeker 

What’s the most common – and obsolete – form of technology in your house?

It has to be the hot water heater. Unless you happen to own an old wringer washer, there is nothing quite so outdated and pointless as this giant contraption. Yes, it would have been quite the breakthrough in its day – imagine, hot water out of the tap, rather than heating it on the stove or over a fire – but it has been overtaken by something better.

Last year, a friend was showing me around his newly renovated house, when he pointed at a small box on the wall. “That’s my hot water heater,” said David, who requested anonymity.

“No way,” said I. “That couldn’t hold more than a litre of water.”

He removed the cover to reveal a tiny heating unit, connected to electrical contacts.

“It’s tankless,” he said. “It uses electricity to heat the water on demand, instantly.”

It was the Eemax tankless electric hot water heater, a device that uses a surge of electricity to heat water in a split-second, in real time, as it flows through the pipe.

It was my first exposure to such a concept, and it fairly boggled my mind. Imagine it – a basement devoid of that bulky hot water heater. What would you do with that extra space?

And then there’s the energy savings. All day, every day, we pay to keep 40 or more gallons of water steaming hot, even on days when we use it sparingly. Is it really necessary to have all that hot water on reserve, all the time?

David could not comment specifically on energy savings, since he converted from oil to electric heat in his renovation. “But I do know that I am saving money, I’m just not sure how much,” he said.

According to the web site, a test comparison found it would cost $458 per year to use 64 gallons of water daily, with a standard hot water heater, and $266 per year with the tankless – a saving of $192. Actual results will vary, but, based on that, the initial investment will be recovered eventually through energy savings.

Finally, there’s the flood factor. While writing this article, I tossed out a question to my friends on Facebook: “Has anybody ever had their basement flooded by a failed hot water heater?”

I received several replies in the affirmative, including one from a former insurance adjustor who had seen hundreds of damage claims resulting from failed tanks.

It’s a no-brainer. Tankless makes perfect sense. So what would it cost to install such a system?

For answers, I spoke with Jim Sweetapple of JDS Sales, the exclusive rep for Eemax in this province (the product retails at Smith Stockley, Emco Supply and James G. Crawford).

Units are available in a range of sizes, Sweetapple explained, with most purchases starting in the $900 range for the 19 KW model. However, installation can be expensive, depending on whether you are retrofitting or building a new home.

“Installation is more of an electrical job,” Sweetapple said. “The new tankless heaters are a lot more intricate on the electrical side than on the plumbing side. A do-it-yourselfer could easily do the plumbing connections. But when you get into the electrical, it uses a heavier gauge of wire than a standard hot water tank. The 19 KW model draws about 72 amps, and has to go on an 80 amp breaker, which is more than the typical 30 amp breaker on your existing water heater.”

This means that, for all installations, a new 80 amp breaker has to run from the electrical panel, entailing a rewiring process that can be expensive in a finished house.

“In most retrofits we’ve done, it’s actually simpler to move the heating unit nearer to the panel, than to run the wiring to where the existing heater is, especially when the interior walls are finished,” Sweetapple said.

The ideal time to install the unit is during new home construction, when you can easily run the wiring and position the unit as you please.

In the meantime, if you own a standard hot water tank, there is a simple operation you can perform to double, even triple, its life expectancy (and prevent a nasty flood). Ask your plumbing supply store about an ‘anode rod’. It is made of magnesium or aluminum and will rust before the metal in your tank. However, once the rod is exhausted, your tank starts to rust. The rods are simple to replace – find out how at any reputable plumbing supply company. Shown below is the old anode rod from my heater, next to the new one that’s about to replace it. As you can see, the old rod has been completely consumed by minerals in the water.

Short term, I’m going to protect the old heater. Long term, I’ve got my eye on that tankless model.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at


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