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What's the Difference Between a Tank and Tankless Water Heater?

Cincinnati homeowners rely on hot water for various needs around the home – daily showers and baths, laundry, dishes, and general cleaning needs. Your home’s water heater makes it all possible. But, when it’s time to replace your existing equipment, you have options: a tank or tankless water heater.

Do you know the difference between a tank and tankless water heater? As the name suggests, it comes down to the tank! A tank or lack thereof creates several differences in how these hot water systems perform, how they are installed, and how much they cost, both initially and in the long run.

The Cincinnati plumbing pros at Thomas & Galbraith run you through system basics of tank and tankless water heaters as well as how they stack up, side by side. With more information about these systems, you are best able to make the right selection for your home.

How Does a Tank Water Heater Work?

A tank water heater is the type of water heater most Cincinnati homeowners are familiar with – they’ve been around for decades and are the type of water heating equipment most commonly found in residential applications. Because of this, a tank water heater may also be referred to as a traditional or conventional water heater.

As the name suggests, the main feature of a tank water heater is its water storage tank. The water heater heats water to the desired temperature using gas or electricity, and this water is stored in the tank for use whenever needed. Tank water heaters are available in a range of volumes, most commonly between 30 to 50 gallons in an average home. The right size for your Cincinnati area home depends on how many people live in your household and your hot water use habits.

Because a tank water heater stores water that’s already heated, energy is used throughout the day to keep stored water at the desired temperature. With water already warmed up and stored, it’s ready to flow through your plumbing system to taps and appliances when called for. Once it’s used up, it takes some time for the water heater to refill the tank and restore your home’s hot water supply.

How Does a Tankless Water Heater Work?

While tank water heaters have been around for over 100 years, the tankless water heater has found its way into homes at an increasing rate over the last 30 or so years. Their use has increased in popularity as public interest in energy conservation and environmentally friendly options has grown.

As the name states, a tankless water heater does not use a storage tank like a tank model does. Water is not pre-heated for use but heated as taps and appliances around the home call for hot water. Also called on-demand water heaters due to their water heating methods, a tankless water heater runs using electricity or gas heating fuel.

When a tap or appliance calls for hot water, the tankless water heater immediately starts to heat water that is sent to the application through the plumbing system. With on-demand water heating, energy is only consumed when needed.

Tank vs. Tankless Water Heater – Comparison Categories

When you need to replace the existing water heater in your Cincinnati home, there is no one right answer as to which equipment type you should choose. The decision between a tank or tankless water heater is a highly personal one. The right selection is determined by a comparison of each type of water heater regarding the factors most important to your household.

A tank and tankless water heater have great variations when it comes to cost, performance, energy efficiency, and installation needs. Below we discuss how each type of water heating system stacks up where it matters most to Cincinnati area homeowners.

Hot Water Performance of Tank vs. Tankless Water Heaters

Perhaps the most important factor to homeowners, when it’s time to choose a new water heater is hot water performance. Your new tank or tankless water heater will serve your home for many years with proper care. As such you want to ensure it is able to deliver the amount of hot water you need when you need it.

Tank Water Heater Performance

Tank model water heaters have a finite amount of hot water available for use at one time. Once you run through the amount of hot water in the storage tank, there’s no more hot water left – you must wait until new water is heated to continue using hot water applications throughout the home.

On the other hand, because there’s a large volume of already-heated water available at one time, multiple hot water applications are able to run at the same time. Enough hot water is available for two showers to run at the same time, with the right size unit installed. As long as there is hot water in the tank, every application receives hot water as needed.

Tankless Water Heater Performance

A tankless water heater starts to heat water as soon as an appliance or tap turns on. It immediately produces the hot water called for, rather than pulling it from a storage tank where it is preheated. When only one application requires hot water, the tankless water heater is able to meet this demand without issue.

When more than one application calls for hot water at the same time, you may run into output issues. With the hot water demand divided between numerous applications, not all applications may receive the same volume of hot water – this causes lower temperatures at some taps and appliances, whereas another receives ample hot water.

Hot Water Performance – Tank vs. Tankless Water Heater

Where performance is concerned, consider how many applications will demand hot water at one time to determine which type of water heater is best for your household. If only one application needs hot water at a time and you very rarely use more than one hot water application simultaneously, a tankless water heater is typically able to meet your demands.

If you have multiple applications that call for hot water at the same time, a storage-tank water heater offers better comfort due to its volume of stored water. Make sure your tank water heater is appropriately sized to meet your hot water demands to ensure you don’t run out mid-shower.

Tank vs. Tankless Water Heater Costs

Cost is another major factor homeowners evaluate when it’s time to purchase a new water heater. Not only do you need to consider upfront costs, but factor in operating and replacement costs as well to get a better picture of hot water expenses over time.

Tank vs. Tankless Water Heater Installation Costs

A tank water heater costs less to purchase and install than a tank water heater in most scenarios. Tank water heaters may run as low as under $1000, while a tankless water heater costs a few thousand for just the equipment. Equipment costs vary based on capacity and output, as well as other features each model offers. Labor for a plumber to install your new water heater is in addition to the equipment cost to make up the total price for installation of a new unit.

Retrofitting a new tankless water heater where a tank model used to be installed comes with additional installation requirements that add costs. Switching from an electric water heater to a gas water heater and vice versa also has additional needs which impact price.

Tank vs. Tankless Water Heater Operating Costs

A tankless water heater is the top option when energy conservation is your main focus. According to the Department of Energy, homeowners save about $100 each year when they use a tankless water heater instead of a tank model. The average energy savings for a home that consumes 41 or fewer gallons of hot water each day is between 24 and 34 percent.

If you decide to install a tank water heater, high-efficiency options exist. Gas water heaters are more affordable to operate in most cases, as natural gas utility costs are cheaper than electricity. Higher efficiency tank water heaters offer better insulation to retain energy and keep stored hot water warm without more energy use. These models are able to cut hot water energy use up to eight percent.

Tank vs. Tankless Water Heater Equipment Lifespan

Tank water heaters offer an average service life of 10 to 15 years; tank water heaters last 20 to 30 years. The actual service life of your new water heater greatly depends on how you care for it over the years as well as the quality of water in your home. Hard water buildup has the potential to cut years of your water heater’s service life.

Even with great maintenance, tank water heaters only last about half as long as tankless models. Hypothetically, for every one tankless water heater lifespan, you go through two tank water heaters in the same amount of time. When you consider the full installation cost of a tank water heater times two, it may make more financial sense to go with a tankless water heater.

Tank vs. Tankless Water Heater Installation Needs

A tank water heater requires more installation space than a tankless water heater due to the size of the storage tank. Your home needs several square feet of available area for installation to accommodate a tank water heater, which is typically installed in a utility room or basement.

Tankless water heaters are a great solution for homes that have limited available space. With no storage tank, their footprint is quite small. They are even able to be installed upon walls to save valuable floor space.

A tank or a tankless water heater is able to provide sufficient hot water for your Cincinnati home’s needs with the help of Thomas & Galbraith’s plumbing professionals. We evaluate your household’s hot water demands and discuss your concerns as well as your budget to help you select the right option. Contact us today to begin your water heater upgrade!

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