Before you shell out hundreds for a storage-tank heater or thousands for a tankless or solar model, see whether your old water heater can be fixed. A corroded storage-tank model is history. But a leaky drain or pressure-relief valve or a burned-out heating element can often be fixed. Rule of thumb: Consider a repair if the labor cost (which warranties often exclude) averages less than $50 per year over the years left in the warranty. Otherwise, buy a new one, especially if the warranty has run out.
Most storage-tank water heaters look alike on the outside. But sawing open a cross-section of gas and electric storage-tank models in our lab confirmed that paying a little more typically buys a better water heater. Those with longer warranties tended to have larger heating elements, thicker insulation, and thicker or longer corrosion-fighting metal anodes.
Longer warranties were also a good indication of better quality for tankless water heaters. But their added complexity can mean more potential problems. Some tankless heater manufacturers shorten the warranty for units used with hard water and in multifamily homes. And most recommend service once a year by a qualified technician.
Hybrid heaters meld an electric storage-tank heater with a heat pump that captures warmth from the air. Those we tested provided annual savings of about 60 percent over electric-only models. You'll also save by replacing a broken oil-fired heater with a hybrid. But if you're replacing a heater that runs on natural gas, which is relatively inexpensive, it probably won't pay to switch.
Solar heaters supplement an electric heater with heat from the sun's rays. The best in our tests saved us about 80 percent over an electric storage-tank heater alone during the summer months at our Yonkers, N.Y. headquarters. But for us, those savings plummeted to about 30 percent during cold weather. How much a solar system saves you can vary widely based on where you live, your home's sun exposure, and which system you choose.
Choosing the right capacity
Most water heaters are sold on the basis of how many gallons they hold. For example, two to four people might use 80 to 85 gallons per day--enough for about three showers, one laundry load, running the dishwasher once, and turning on the faucet nine times. But the first-hour rating (FHR) for storage-tank water heaters and the gallons-per-minute rating (GPM) on tankless water heaters are more important, because they tell you how much hot water the heater can deliver during a set period. A pro can calculate how much you'll need. Our free hot water calculators at http://www.consumerreports.org/hotwater can help you determine how showering and other tasks affect your peak usage.
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