How a Hot Water Heater Works

A hot water heater is a staple in every home. Without it, you would not be able to enjoy hot water when washing, showering, doing dishes, etc.

There are two main types of hot water heaters available: traditional hot water tanks, and modern tankless water heaters. Both types accomplish the same objective: deliver water at the temperature specified.

In this article we are going to break down the differences between the two types of water heaters as well as provide a summary of how each type of water heater functions.

The Two Main Types of Hot Water Heaters

Chances are that your home has a hot water tank in the utility room. This type of hot water has been used for decades and is a familiar sight in most homes.

Tankless hot water heaters are relatively new, becoming increasingly popular over the last several years. Tankless water heaters are smaller, generally more efficient, and can provide an endless supply of hot water.

Hot Water Tanks

A water heater that has an integrated storage tank is often referred to as simply the “hot water tank”. You can find these in various sizes, though 40 gallon tanks are the most popular.

A hot water tank uses either a gas or electric heating element to heat and store water at a set temperature. Most homes in the tri-state area use natural gas as the fuel for their hot water heater, though electric and propane units are fairly common as well.

Tankless Water Heaters

This type of water heater does not require a large storage tank, making them considerably smaller than a hot water tank. As a result, a tankless water heater has more options in terms of where it can be installed (as it does not require significant floor or wall space).

A tankless water heater heats water as it passes through it, only heating hot water that you will actually use.

The Basics of How a How Water Tank Works

A tank-style water heater has four main mechanisms at work: the gas burner/electric heating element, the storage tank, an anode rod, and built-in safety features. These four systems work seamlessly with each other and ensure the safe and reliable operation of the water heater.

  • The heating element – Most hot water tanks have a natural gas or propane-fuelled heating element, though some have an electric heating element instead. Regardless of the type of heating element used, it performs the same function: the element heats the water stored in the water tank to a specified temperature, ensuring that it is available “on demand”.
  • Hot water storage – Most water heaters are connected to a 40 gallon storage tank, though you can commonly find water heaters with larger and smaller storage tanks.
  • Anode rod – The anode rod sits inside of the hot water tank and is designed to corrode. By facilitating corrosion on the anode rode, the tank itself is spared. This extends the useful life of the water heater.
  • Safety mechanisms – All hot water heaters are equipped with several built-in safety mechanisms. Since the water in the hot water tank is heated and stored, it is kept at a certain level of pressure. The safety mechanisms are designed to engage in the event that the temperature or pressure of the hot water heater exceed predefined limits. Most water heaters have multiple layers of safety devices.

When you turn the tap to “hot”, the water heater sends heated water through your pipes as needed. Once you use the hot water that has been stored you will run out (as many people have found out halfway through their morning shower). Once you exhaust your supply of hot water, you will not have hot water again until your water heater has been able to heat the water stored in its tank.

The Basics of How a Tankless Water Heater Works

Tankless water heaters utilize a heat exchanger to heat hot water as it flows through the water heater. Because a tankless water heater does not store its supply of hot water, there is no cost associated with maintaining a large tank of stored hot water.

When hot water is requested the tankless water heater activates (either the burner engages or an electric heating element turns on), heating water as it travels through the heat exchanger.

Many tankless water heaters boast being able to provide a “limitless” supply of hot water. However, independent tests have demonstrated that excessive demand will tax most tankless water heaters as it would a traditional tank-style water heater.

Tank or Tankless- Which Type of Water Heater is Best?

The answer to this question depends on how hot water is used in your home. If you have a larger home, or if you have a big family, you may find a lot of value in a tankless water heater due to its extended supply of hot water. If you’re the last person of six to hit the shower every morning, you’ll appreciate the extra capacity a tankless water heater can provide.

However, tankless water heaters are often considerably more expensive than a traditional tank-style water heater. Most homes are sufficiently serviced by a 40 gallon hot water tank, as hot water tanks are generally inexpensive and reliable (assuming they are properly installed).

If you’re looking for a new water heater and aren’t sure about what style of water heater is best for you, give us a call! We will learn more about your home and specific needs before making a recommendation.

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