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Tankless Water Heater Advise for Orange County

A Tankless Water Heater Tutorial for the Homeowners of Orange County 

-Brought to you by the professionals at Bill Metzger Plumbing (Orange County, CA)

The Basics of tankless water heaters:

Tankless water heaters have been sweeping across Orange County with a huge growth over the last 10 years. These are water heaters that do not have a tank.  Many of the larger tankless companies (like Rinnai and Noritz) have seen their sales grow by hundreds of percent each year! These compact units mount on a wall either inside or even outside the house and supply hot water on demand literally without end! The Europeans have been heating water with tankless heaters for years.  Many people believe that within the next 5 to 10 years 50% or more of all American homes will have a tankless water heater in them!  Even the big tank water heater companies have tried to jump on board by partnering with larger Japanese companies to have units private labeled for them.
Bill Metzger Plumbing installs and repairs tankless water heaters that are available in electric, natural gas and propane.  The electric tankless water heaters have advantages over tank type electric models but very few provide enough capacity to serve multiple fixtures with only one unit and may require a larger electrical service to operate. In Orange County, this has kept some builders from using them in new construction.  Although 1 unit alone will work great in a smaller home, a condo or a beach house where often gas is not an option.  For the purpose of this Orange County tankless water heater tutorial we will address the gas fired tankless water heater units.
Tankless water heaters work on demand by using sensors and computer boards to monitor the flow of water and change the rate of firing to supply just the amount of hot water required for the current demand. In Orange County, they are often referred to as on demand water heaters. This means that they burn less gas to supply hot water to a sink vs. using multiple fixtures at the same time.  The modulating firing rate also makes tankless water heaters in Orange County very efficient to operate because they use the exact amount of fuel needed.

A term that should be avoided is “instantaneous“.  Tankless water heaters are not instantaneous.  It does take them about 2 seconds to go from their at rest “off” mode to producing hot water at the set point temperature.  This is not a big issue however.  The problem is if a consumer thinks by hearing the term “instantaneous” that they will get water at every outlet in the house instantly if they get a tankless heater, they will be disappointed.  Most homes have many feet of piping between the water heater and the outlets and do not have a recirculating system.  The amount of time it takes from when a faucet or other hot water fixture opens to when the set point water gets to that point is called “Lag Time”.  In the large Orange County homes with low flow fixtures, it is not uncommon to see a lag time of over 3 minutes to get hot water to remote fixtures.  Changing the type of water heater will not improve the speed of the delivery of water unless the location of the heater is altered or if a recirculating system is installed.  Because of their small size of course, many times when Bill Metzger Plumbing replaces a traditional tank-type water heater with a tankless, they recommend moving the new tankless water heater a central location or nearer to the fixtures it is to serve.  This may cut down on the lag time considerably.
Tankless Water heaters save space in a home because they take up NO floor space.  They also do not require protection from vehicles if installed in a garage and are so small they can be installed in a crawl space or attic as well.  If you really need space, many can be installed outdoors giving you all of your interior space back.  Just be sure to choose a model designed for outdoor installation and with freeze protection.

Energy Savings of tankless water heaters:
Tankless water heaters save fuel because they do not have to maintain a supply of hot water in a tank and are typically “always off”.  Tank type heaters fire on and off all the time to maintain the temperature of water in the tank within about 10 degrees of the thermostat setting.  This is called “Stand-by heat loss”.  This can result in noticeable temperature differences.  Tankless water heaters provide hot water to the set point temperature plus or minus 2 degrees.
Another thing that makes a tankless water heater more fuel-efficient, they are “fully modulating”.  They only use the fuel needed to heat the water to the set point at the current flow rate.  If you are washing your hands using under 1 gallon per minute (GPM) you will be at a lower firing rate than you would be if you are filling your tub at 3 GPM.  This works much like an automobile sitting in idle.  When you want to go or go faster, you give it more gas and when you get where you are going you turn the automobile off.  With the “always off” condition and the modulating capabilities of a tankless water heater it is common, in Orange County, to see up to a 50% reduction in fuel use when Bill Metzger Plumbing changes a customer’s home from a tank type water heater to a tankless water heater unit.

If you are going to change from a 50-gallon gas water heater to a tankless water heater you are probably not going to realize quite that much energy savings.  In fact, it is much less than a 50% savings, if you currently have a 50-gallon tank water heater. However a 50-gallon tank water heater can only really produce about 40 gallons of hot water per use before you begin running out of hot water in the tank.  If Bill Metzger Plumbing installs a tankless water heater in your Orange County home, it will deliver more than 300 gallons per hour for most of the year and you will never run out!

If it is an electric tank type water heater that Bill Metzger Plumbing is replacing, your savings may be higher than 50%, depending on the tank size of the water heater they are replacing. If you really want to know what your savings may be, look for the yellow “Energy Guide” sticker on your existing water heater and look for the one on the tankless water heater unit you are considering.  This will give you a good idea of what to expect.  Of course your personal use will effect this as well.  If you have a family of 6 that has never had enough hot water with a 50 gallon tank water heater, your bill might just go up because now your family will not be taking cold showers or have to shorten them.  If you have a vacation home in Orange County that is occupied only on weekends or using the tankless for something like a school locker room, the savings will be greater because the tankless unit is “always off” eliminating a lot more stand-by heat losses. Part of the decision making process is; What do you want?  Endless hot water may be worth the additional investment to you even without the energy payback.

Location. Location Location.

Location is very important when it comes to tankless water heaters. In Orange County, builders like tankless water heaters for several reasons, not the least of which is space savings.  When you charge by the square foot for a home, saving space means the home is worth more.  A tank type heater installed in an Orange County garage requires a floor stand, a pipe to protect against vehicle impact and normally venting all the way to the roof.  In a two-story home, this means more framing, drywall and paint to enclose it.  A tankless water heater is wall mounted and can be sidewall vented, keeping the cost of venting to a minimum.  It also does not take up any of the garage floor space.  Being able to install tankless heaters outside or build them into a wall gives even more options that the builder never had before.  This means even less venting cost (practically none) and even more space savings. Some builders in Orange County will locate them centrally in a crawl space to cut down on lag time.  Others will locate them near a master bath or kitchen.  Some will install them in attics or outside to free up more space.  Since there is no tank to burst, installing a tankless water heater in an attic is not as risky as installing a tank type water heater there. Even with a drain pan, a tank water heater in an attic is a catastrophe waiting to happen!  A drain pan that is 3″ deep will not do much good if the bottom blows out of a 50-gallon or larger tank water heater.  Bill Metzger Plumbing has been in business for over 50 years, they have seen it all, and this is not an uncommon occurrence!

On the larger Orange County homes, some builders have installed two tankless water heaters systems.  One will serve one part of the home and the other will serve the rest.  This way the water heaters can be located closer to the points of use and cut down on lag time without installing a recirculating system.

Outdoor Installation – tankless water heaters:

Many of the better tankless water heater companies have models that can be installed outdoors. This frees up all of the interior space and does away with venting costs or combustion air issues.  These units will have their own freeze prevention systems.  Bill Metzger Plumbing also recommends installing a self-regulating heating cable on the piping to keep it above freezing.  Outdoor units require power at all times to operate their freeze prevention system.  In the event of a power outage in freezing weather, Bill Metzger Plumbing recommends installing a “back-up” power supply or generator.
Performance of tankless water heaters:

Another reason that builders in Orange County like tankless water heaters is that they are able to provide hot water to today’s popular large tubs.  A standard bathtub holds about 35 gallons to the overflow.  The popular soaking tubs hold anywhere from 45 gallons to over 80 and just filling up the tub leaves most without any hot water with a tank type heater for a period of time.  A tankless can fill all the tubs of a home and then provide back to back showers, do the dishes, and wash the clothes.  A tank type water heater has to be very large to do all of these things without running out of hot water.  With a tankless water heater, you are only limited to the flow rate the tankless water heater unit can provide.  Choosing a tankless water heater with the proper water capacity for our house makes it possible to handle multiple hot water needs at once normally, without the worry of running out of hot water.

Until now, many Orange County households made “water rules” to determine who showers when, or when they could do the clothes or dishes.  This goes away with a tankless water heater. Some people in Orange County mistakenly think that they will only be able to run one fixture at a time with tankless water heater.  While this may be true of the small, portable units, this is far from accurate when speaking about the professional grade tankless water heaters from Noritz, Rinnai and Takagi.  These models have the capacity to operate 3 showers or more at the same time!

Today’s tankless water heaters provide more than enough capacity to meet any hot water need from a one-bathroom house to a hotel.  You just need to choose the correct system for your application just like any other hot water system. Here is something to consider when choosing your tankless heater. Asking it to operate three showers, the kitchen sink, the washing machine, the dishwasher and a laundry sink at the same time is not only unrealistic….your water pipes can’t carry that much water!  Most homes only have a ¾” hot water main and most are now in PEX or CPVC materials.  These piping system can not carry more than about 8 – 10 GPM total, including cold water.  Also, many new homes in Orange County typically see less than 2 GPM at a shower head due to pressure looses in the piping.  In other words if you choose a tankless water heater that can deliver between 6-8GPM in the warm months and 4+ GPM in the winter months you will be quite happy in a typical 3-1/2 bath or less home.  You should avoid the tendency of some to oversize a tankless water heater system based on unrealistic system demands. The professionals at Bill Metzger Plumbing will help you in the decision making process. They will do everything possible to save money, but also provide complete comfort with hot water flowing through the home.

Capacities of tankless water heaters have improved greatly from the first tankless models that showed up about 15 years ago in the US.  The largest of the tankless water heater companies is Noritz. They have eight models currently available in the US that range from 6.3 GPM to the largest output model available in the world at 13.2GPM.  Rennai models produce the same flow rates as the residential Noritz heaters and Takagi also has units in this range.  Noritz even has commercial grade models that can produce up to 13.2 gallons per minute (752 gallons per hour from one unit!).  Most of these products can be installed in multi-unit installations for high flow rate demands like luxury homes, large shower systems with body sprays, locker rooms or hotels.

Many tankless water heaters are also installed with a remote control unit. This makes it easy to change the set point temperature of the unit.  Noritz, has a standard remote that lets you set an alarm to the capacity of your tub.  You then set the temperature you would like and fill with just the hot water.  When the unit measures the gallons set an alarm sounds to remind you shut off the water.  Another manufacturer, Rennai, is able to provide multiple remotes to serve the same heater to provide for multiple locations to change the temperature of the hot water if you like. You still only get one water temperature at a time, you just have more locations from which to choose the temperature. These digital remote control panels also provide diagnostics for the water heater in the event there is a problem.  They flash a fault code to help service personnel find and fix any problems that may come up quickly.

The better tankless heaters by Noritz, Rennai and Takagi totally control outlet temperature so they will not be “overshot” giving you less than the set point temperature.  You always get setpoint temperature plus or minus 1 or 2 degrees (Unlike a tank type water heater which is + or – about 10 degrees) Electric water heater units and small home center models do not have this ability.  Bill Metzger Plumbing advises avoiding the home center models completely as they lack the technology and BTU’s to give you good performance.  In units that can not control their outlet flow, you will need to “throttle” the flow rate yourself at the outlet.  This also means that if you are taking a shower and someone else turns on another fixture needing hot water, you may get a big surprise as the water temperature drops considerably in your shower!

Serviceability of tankless water heaters:
The better tankless heaters are very easy, and often inexpensive to service.

How long does a tankless water heater last?

Answer: About 20 years on average. Compare that to the 10-year average of tank type water heaters.  This also contributes to the “total value” of the product since this means lower cost of ownership when factoring in replacement cost and life span of the product.  Add in the long-term energy savings and your tankless heater just might pay for itself and in some cases it’s replacement cost!

Choosing The Right Sized Tankless Water Heater:
The first thing we need to do is establish the peak hot water demand for the job.  In a home this is usually the number of showerheads, X the flow rate X 80%.  Example: 3 showers @ 2.5GPM each = 7.5GPM X 80% = 6GPM peak demand.

You want to choose a tankless unit that can meet or at least get close to this demand during the warm half of the year. (Remember it is VERY uncommon to have a demand like this actually happen in a home, plus we are not going to install a unit that can not control the flow rate anyway.)  If you are within 1 GPM of this rate you will be happy.  It is not possible for most people, even plumbers, to tell the difference between 1 GPM and 3 GPM without a direct caparison next to it.

The proper size unit for the home above would be something like the Noritz [N-R71] or the [Noritz NR98].  Rennai 2532 or Takagi [TK-3] would also be a good choice.

The Traditional Tank Type Water Heater Manufacturers

In the United States, over 9.5 MILLION tank type water heaters are sold every year!  About half of them are electric.  That is a huge market.  Every time a tankless company sells a tankless water heater, the tank companies loose a little bit of their market share.  They don’t sell a tank! It has not taken very long for this to get the attention of the big tank companies. These companies quickly looked into the market.  They had some serious questions to ask and decisions to make.  The questions would be along these lines: Is this a fad that will go away?  Do these things really do what they say they can do? How long have these products been in other parts of the world and what is their track record? How long will it take us to produce a market-viable tankless water heater unit?

These great traditional water heater companies in the United States are full of very smart people.  They got their answers and had a group “Uh-oh” moment.  They made a conscious decision that they would not roll over and let the “invaders” take over their market without a fight. They found out that over 25 years of research and development went into these products.  With estimates of 5 years before half of the market flipped to tankless, they had to act fast. These water heater experts knew they could “Reverse Engineer” the products but this takes a lot of time and they would have to be careful to keep from violating patents.

The first step by a few of them was to attempt to slow things down.  They did this by putting out letters, and articles touting the “negatives” of tankless heaters.  While this was happening on the surface, they were behind closed doors with the lawyers striking deals with the tankless companies to have units private labeled for them in an effort to slow down their shrinking market share until they could catch up with the technology.

The results so far are this: Bradford White has Rennai manufacturing its “Everhot” tankless water heater line.  It is the Rennai line with the BW name on it.  State and A. O. Smith have Noritz manufacturing theirs.

Now don’t think that the very savvy Japanese companies were putting the cart before the horse.  They know what is going on and they know that they own the technology for now.  They simply set the whole thing up so their original products still have better pricing on the street.  They knew that the tank companies would find someone willing to get the quick sale.  By doing this they at least kept them from partnering with companies making lower quality units. (That could have started a whole new problem for tankless)
One very large company even went to the trouble of taking “their” new tankless water heater and putting against their tried and true gas fired tank water heaters in a “test”.  The parameters of the test were set up to with high levels of water hardness.  They knew that the tankless would require cleaning because of it and their tanks would not. Because you can’t! One thing they did not bother to tell anyone or include in their “short term” test was that had this test been allowed to continue, the hardness would have certainly ruined the tanks and required them to be replaced a lot sooner than the tankless which could simply be cleaned.  This was done also to try to slow down the onslaught of tankless water heaters while they tried to figure out what to do next.

Most of these tank type water heater companies are still producing papers trying to slow the growth of tankless water heater sales. Even the ones with their “private labeled” products! They will sometimes make claims using the lower quality of the available units to try to show them as “point of use” or call them a “niche product” even eluding to tankless as a fad at times. They will make statements claiming that they don’t believe in tankless water heaters as “whole house” units.  These are just attempts to “stem the tide” as long as they can until  they can catch up. Some will print more than others will but it is all for the same reason. They need to get people to NOT consider tankless water heaters for as long as they can to protect their own interests.

Rumor has it (and they are just rumors) that they are all reverse engineering at this moment and will have units ready sometime in the next 5 years.  We’ll have to wait and see.  At least for now, they are trying to keep up with the private labeled Japanese units and they are participating in the market. So, the big tank companies are worried, as they should be.  They are doing what they can, and they are not going away. Tankless is to water heating what indoor toilets have been to bathrooms!  Tank type water heaters will never completely be replaced with tankless water heaters.  However, the battle lines have been drawn and it is going to be very interesting for those of us watching this market develop.

Call the tankless water heater professionals of Bill Metzger Plumbing at (949) 492-3559, and discuss your tankless water heater options in Orange County.


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