Water Heater? Not for You!

April 7th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Word is that the standard water heater in Europe is on-demand. I lost a second time in my effort to get one.

Heater Naysayer

forbidden signSeven years ago, when our water heater dumped 40 gallons on the basement floor, I tried, as I did at the end of last week when the replacement tank was leaking heavily.

Plumbers think of water heaters as commodities. They break and you just replace them. When the tank’s glass liner goes, you can’t fix it. Around here, the new unit is $250 to $600, plus $150 to $400 for labor, extra valves and such, and in Boston fees for an inspection permit, an electrical permit and other occult documents.

Tank heaters are like a car’s muffler and exhaust system. You’re supposed to use them and just pay big labor and parts bills when they fail. Of course, there’s the additional joke with mufflers. They are under the car, exposed to moisture, corrosives and things that can puncture them. Sure, they fail.

As with auto mechanics and exhausts, plumbers shrug. What are you going to do? You need to take showers and wash dishes. With a pool around the heater and only cold water on tap, I was again at the mercy of plumbers.

I think they definitely do not want to install a water heater designed to last 20 or more years. They really don’t care how much energy you’d save.

Tempus Fugit (Lente)

Seven years ago, the game was supply. There were damned few plumbers who could get any on-demand heater. After numerous calls, I went back to the overlords of Boston plumbing, Trethewey Brothers. They brushed us off with no-can-do/no-can-get.

They are an amazing bunch over there. Behind their very plain storefront on Washington Street in Roslindale Square, they are a veritable SWAT team of pipes and toilets. When you absolutely need someone over quickly, they’ll do it and you’ll pay a healthy premium. Their work is solid, but pricey. They rescued us before when another pair of plumbers just disappeared halfway through a bathroom rehab.

The last time our water heater ridiculed us, other plumbers say they had no way to get an on-demand heater and had not installed them. TBros, as they self-lovingly call themselves, said they could get one…in three weeks. I imagined heading to the Y for 21 days for showers and shaves, and heating water on the range to wash dishes with, and taking the boys on a second personal hygiene trip in the evenings.

Bosch water heaterThis time, they had refined theater for me. Armed with availability and prices from the internet, I knew that even the local home centers now stocked these wonder boxes. Granted, they were $800 to $1,300 for the heater, roughly twice the price of a lame tank unit. So, I naively figured I had a shot at getting the 21st Century version.

What a fool I was, again.

This time, it was whining, moaning and poisoning the pot with installation woes and charges. Bob told me:

  • Each installation is unique (code for this is really gonna cost ya)
  • You’re certain to need an electrician and maybe a 240-volt special line…at extra cost
  • You’re certain to need a larger capacity, separate, new gas line run from the meter…at extra cost
  • You’re almost certain to need new gas and water lines run to the unit on a distant exterior wall (not the chimney) to vent
  • Oh, and you’ll need mounts and a hole through that outside wall…at extra cost

The cheapest the installation could possibly run was $2,400 and it might be a lot higher.

A couple of things became clear:

  1. TBros truly didn’t want to install this type of unit
  2. The Boston market is nowhere near mature enough to make this easy for consumers

Like a Funeral

The right times to do this are when you are building a home or rehabbing one. If everything is torn up or not installed, the incremental cost should be pretty low. The wrong times to do this are when you need the damned hot water or when you have a good tank system, which may last another three or six or eight years…you just don’t know.

Tankless is definitely the place to end up for water heaters. I ran across several comparisons. One that is biased because the company is selling on-demand units is here.

If installation was commonplace and the units popular enough to make plumbers savvy and eager for the business, the ROI might be fast enough to encourage getting one. As it is, I’m harrumphing again. The heater went on Thursday. I could have called more than the four plumbing contractors and gotten several in for estimates into this week, and done without hot water for a week or two. If I lived alone instead of with a wife and two kids, I might well have been cantankerous enough to do so.

I feel like I’ve been had again. If you have a tank water heater coming up on the end of its warranty period, this might be a good time to have a couple of plumbers over for estimates.

There are electrical units that are not as energy efficient and do require the high-power lines. Instead, if you have a newer home than ours, you might already have big enough gas lines. You may even have a boiler close enough to an outside wall to avoid the big costs of lots of water and gas lines.

Keep in mind, when your basement has a couple of inches of water on the floor is probably not the time to think about your options. I think this is what the morticians refer to as pre-need planning.

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