February 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

THE BACK HALL – It’s hard to get too excited about a hot water heater until you step into the shower in the dead of winter and let out a loud, “AGGGGG!” because you are being drowned in water at 4 degrees below Iceland. At that point, you get terribly interested in that obscure tank hidden in the laundry room.
Not everyone has a car, or color TV or matching Russian wolfhounds, but virtually all Americans have a hot water heater, or live in an apartment or Motel 6 that pipes in the hot water. Since the device has no moving parts and doesn’t need much if any servicing, we really don’t pay attention to it like we do our 58-inch TVs, riding lawnmower and pets. But when it stops working and/or explodes in a ball of fire, then we get interested.
I had a 12-year-old heater which worked quite well but, in the back bathroom when I turned on the hot water, the heater groaned like an Al-Quida leader being water-boarded. (I wonder if the CIA used hot water?) Then the tank made menacing noises — it popped, gurgled, hiccupped. My wife decided we needed a new heater. I noted that the guy who came around twice a year to inspect and service our heating and a/c units had said we needed a new heater and a/c desperately. That was five years ago, and the units continue to work perfectly. Nevertheless, each time Mister Fixit came around, he repeated his sales pitch. We switched companies. That led me to suggest to my wife that, if the heater did blow, we follow the lead of our pioneer forefathers and boil water in a pot hung over the fireplace. “Less is more,” I explained. Do you know that sleeping on a den couch is bad for your back?
So we got a heater, and here it is, brand-spanking new, ready to turn out gallons of scalding water. It is also the ugliest thing I ever saw. My old tank was sleek and white, if noisy. This new one is an evil dark-gray like a camouflaged battleship, with more ugly metal pipes, plugs and valves running in and out than a moonshiner’s Erector Set. How can such a simple device look so ghastly? Is this the new look in house decorating – gnarly-busy? Covering much of the gray tank are instructions pasted on so securely that they are impossible to peel off. Actually, the instructions are more like warnings, obviously not written by a plumber but by a personal injury lawyer. I have no idea what they warn me about, but they were probably dreamed up by the same geniuses that warn us not to use our electric hairdryer in the bathtub – even when using hot water.
Where is your heater located? Earlier I mentioned the laundry room but for some of you “laundry room” might mean the creek behind the trailer park. There are those who put their heater in the garage so that it takes 40 minutes for the hot water to reach the back shower. It makes sense to put the contraption close to where it is used – in that wing of the house next to the various bathrooms and, if you’re smart, that’s also where the clothes washer and dryer are located. When you think of it, why drag all your dirty laundry through the house to the back hallway where you put your washer, wringer and clothes line? Then my plumber told me about the household that did exactly that, put the tank upstairs and in back. While the family was out of town, boom. Upstairs and downstairs looked like they had been visited by Katrina.
After hearing that sad story, a good spot for my new gadget seemed to be in my neighbor’s backyard. He wouldn’t mind a flooded cesspool. But that would be too far away, so I decided to cover the tank with a sheet, but it might catch fire. I could just call it the NBC fall TV schedule, and no one would see it. Finally I decided build a wall around it. I won’t need to tear down the wall to replace the tank for another 12 years, and by then we won’t even be using hot water heaters. Just put a full bucket in the yard and global warming will do the rest.
Next question: What kind of hot water heater do you have? Is it too big, too little or just right? (Some claim their product is “about as big as a carry-on suitcase.”) Is it pretty or ugly? Does it use natural gas, liquid propane gas or electricity? Is it a hybrid, select California gas or eco-smart self-modulating? Do you really care? Does it have a tank or is it tankless? Until I looked into the matter, I had no idea there were so many types, and by then it was too late. Further investigation led me to Consumer Reports. It said heating water accounts for up to 30 percent of the average home’s energy budget. Some makers of gas-fired tankless water heaters claim their products can cut your energy costs up to half over regular storage heaters.
The elves in the CR lab determined that the tankless varieties are 22 percent more energy efficient on average, which means a savings of around $70 to $80 per year in energy costs. But overall, Consumer Reports didn’t care much for the tankless types. Research showed they cost much more to buy than storage water heaters and cost more to install, so it can take up to 22 years before you break even which is “longer than the 20-year life of many models.” Wait a minute. A lifetime of 20 years? Mine was supposedly on its last drop after 12 years. Maybe I should have kept the old water heater, but I got tired of sleeping on the couch.

Ashby is in hot water at

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