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Handyman: Tank versus tankless hot water heater

Glenn Haege
Special to The Detroit News

The debate regarding tank vs. tankless hot water heaters has heated up because the price gap between the two has gotten slimmer. So if you are in the market for a new water heater, it is time to consider the pros and cons of both before you buy.

“The price of the standard 40 gallon water heaters has increased in part due to the new government regulations that mandated increased energy efficiency,” said Dan McClary, vice president of Balfrey & Johnston Inc., who represents Navien tankless water heaters,

“As a result, tankless water heaters are closer in price than in the past and have become more of an affordable luxury item,” McClary added.

The government mandate McClary is talking about is the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA) that went into effect in April 2015 and requires gas water heaters to include additional insulation, new flue baffling technologies and the incorporation of electronic ignition instead of a pilot light. While the act has made the gas water heaters safer and more energy efficient, it has also made them 3 inches wider due to the added insulation. As a result, the new water heaters may not be able to fit through a standard 24-inch wide door anymore, which can also drive people towards the tankless option.

McClary said the price of a top-of-the-line 50 gallon power vent water heater would run between $1,500 and $2,000 installed, while the Navien tankless version he represents would cost between $2,500 and $4,000, depending on the model and installation requirements.

Whole-home gas tankless water heaters apply the same principle to heat water as standard gas water heaters, but without a storage tank. So when you open a hot water tap anywhere in the house, a flow sensor activates the gas burner on the tankless water heater, which warms the heat exchanger. Cold water is then warmed by the heat exchanger and flows at the pre-set temperature to your faucet, shower, washing machine or dishwasher. Instead of maintaining a full tank of hot water like a standard water heater, the tankless unit heats water only when needed, making it more energy efficient while supplying an endless stream of hot water.

While a tankless system is more efficient, it isn’t going to save the homeowner a lot on their gas bills. “The savings would be $10 to $12 a month for typical hot water usage.” McClary said.

While tankless systems provide continual hot water, one negative is that the rate of hot-water flow will slow if you are using more than one hot water tap at a time.

“A tank hot water heater will always provide the same amount of flow from the hot water tap, but once it runs out of hot water in the tank you will get cold water,” he said. “Most standard hot water heaters will give you around eight minutes of hot water before they run out if you are using two showers at the same time.”

“The tankless unit will always deliver hot water, but the difference is the flow rate will slow if you are running two showers at the same time,” he added.

The difference in warranties is another factor to consider when making a hot water heater purchase decision. McClary said most hot water heaters with tanks have a three-year warranty, while tankless systems like the Navien have 10 or 15 year warranties.

“While it may be cheaper to buy a standard hot water heater in the short term, the limited warranty means you will probably need to buy another one long before the warranty on a tankless model runs out, so that should be factored into the buying decision,” McClary said.

In addition to Navien, other manufacturers of tankless systems include Rinnai,, and Takagi, Popular manufacturers of tank based hot water heaters include A.O.Smith,; Bradford White,; Rheem,; State,; and Whirlpool,

If you don’t use much hot water throughout the day, a standard 40 or 50 gallon hot water heater may serve your needs and budget. However, if you are a family of four with teenagers who take long showers and a washing machine and dishwasher that always seems to be running, then the tankless water heater may not be an affordable luxury. It may be a necessity. So do your homework before you buy a water heater to make the right decision for your particular situation.

For more home improvement advice, call “The Handyman Show With Glenn Haege" on WJR-AM (760) at (866) ASK GLENN, (866) 275-4536 between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Sunday. “The Handyman Show” can also be heard on more than 135 radio stations nationwide.