Thursday, September 20, 2012

Going tankless

Aimee was upset the other morning to discover that the Womerlippi's propane hot water heater had gone out. Unable to take her pre-work shower, she retreated back to bed, having informed the husband, who was happily reading his morning paper online, of this most unsatisfactory situation. Doubtless she had faith that the husband would plod on down to the basement and relight the pilot, which blows out a lot in the drafty basement, and that she could then take her shower and go to work.

The husband did dutifully plod on down, and did indeed faithfully strike match after kitchen match, to no avail. The pilot wouldn't stay lit. Once the safety button was released, it went out, every time. Something was wrong, because although this pilot goes out often, and although there is a knack to relighting any pilot, I'd done this particular one so many times, I knew very well how to do it, and, well, it just wasn't working.

So the husband checked the date of manufacture and the warranty status of the tank. This unit was here in 2006 when we first bought the house, but it was a good quality, high efficiency item, and might indeed have the nine-year warranty, not six, that is routine for better-quality examples. But husband was shocked to discover that the machine had in fact been produced in 1996. You can replace the thermocouples and even the regulators on these things, but after a while this is no longer worth the effort because efficiency drops over time as a result of sedimentation, and in any case, we'd had an enormous amount of trouble with pilots in the drafty basement.

There wasn't going to be any way to avoid it. We needed a new hot water heater, and pronto. Wifey was duly informed of this fact, and grumped off to work, taking a towel and soap with her, to use the shower in the gym.

There was some urgency to the situation. In the middle of our busy work season, we just didn't have time to mess around taking showers at work and not doing laundry for a week while said husband researched heater prices and efficiency. But luckily, we'd already been thinking about replacing the hot tank, and I already knew more or less what I would do. Several times now I've collected the brochures from various outlets for on-demand propane hot water heaters, also known as "tankless" heaters. These are expensive, it's true, but I'd crunched the numbers and worked out that we probably would save money after the first couple of years. And we had the dreaded Home Depot card, and so could finance it. The college "owes" me some time for all the extra weekends and nights I've been putting in lately, so I wouldn't lose any sleep over taking the afternoon off for a household emergency.

So off to work I went, and when my first class was done at 10.20am, I checked my email one last time, then drove right to the store, quickly checked over the feasibility and cost of the various units, settled on the one I'd already picked out, a Rheem "Ecosense 180" LP gas model, checked for additional hardware needs, bought a few extra unions, connectors, and bits of pipe, came home, removed the old tank, fitted the new one, and hey presto, by 4.30 pm we had hot water again, and so I took a hot shower using the new heater, then went back to work and delivered my second class, a night class, with virtually no interruption for students and only a small pile of grading to catch up on.

It was that easy.


Actually, there is the small problem of a pressure release valve that is soldered in place the wrong way around. Duh. And there is the extra length of flue that is on back-order. And there was the strange programming trick in the small print that is needed to get the water temperature to heat above 120 degrees (F) that took half-an-hour to figure out. Go figure.

But other than that, it was that easy. Not bad, eh? That old RAF training paid off, again, the gift that keeps on giving. The flue will be here next Wednesday. Until then we are using the old chimney for the old hot tank. The re-soldering/reconfiguring of the pressure release valve can wait until Saturday.

After that the only thing left to do will be to audit the efficiency. Because of course the Womerlippi Farmers always keep data, on everything.

In this case, I run an online efficiency model using the US Department of Energy's Home Energy Saver program. I'll need to go in and switch out the base data for the old hot tank, and enter the new data for the tankless heater. I ought to be able to predict some savings here.

We'll see. The new heater cost about $700 more than a nine-year warranty replacement hot tank would have. So we need to save around $30/month to pay the additional cost of the unit off in two years, or $20/month to pay it off in three. I'm sure we'll get $20. We may even get $30. We buy around $60 a month total for gas, and the propane is only used for cooking and heating hot water. Either way, it's less than the seven years that is usually used as a profitable payback threshold.

And so we got what essentially will be a free, new hot water heater.

All's well that ends well.


  1. Hi Mick. I have been keeping up with your blog postings and thought I would send a hello. I was very disappointed to hear about the sheep that you couldn't sell. I think I am one of those people that falls in love with animals and would just find the room to keep them. Farmers seem to be a different breed. Very practical and common sense. Nice to hear that you got the water heated fixed. And I hope all is going well with the Land Rover. What a summer project. It also sounds like the garden has given you a great bounty for the upcoming winter. I am always sharing your blog posts with the people I work with (I am a librarian by profession) and we now have a new motto when things break: What would Mick do? Instead of just throwing things out, we actually try to figure things out and fix them by going online and doing some research. I am a packrat by nature so I have to be careful of not getting carried away with "stuff". But we have been able to fix a few things to get more use out of them. We are gaining confidence in our abilities and try to extend the use of things like printers, computers, and other technological marvels. It also helps us save money on an ever decreasing budget. Hope things are going well at school. Take care.

  2. Wow. Amazing to think anyone other than mys sister reads my drivel! I know Aimee refuses to. Sometimes I think that all I'm doing on this blog is a kind of harmless psychological venting. But thanks very much for the compliments! I'll tell Aimee.

    She won't believe me, of course.


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