Hot Water

Water Tank Solid State Inspections

Our modern lives are full of conveniences that we didn’t have 100 years ago. Today, we just expect in our homes that we can flip on a light in the dark, get a glass of water from the tap, or take a hot shower 24/7. 

When our water heating system works correctly, there is never a second thought to how the hot water arrives to us in our shower or to wash our dishes. Unfortunately, hot water heaters have one of the shortest service lives of any system in our home so it is important that we understand these systems and their role in our home.

Types of Water Heaters

  • Conventional Hot Water Tank - Most houses in Canada have a storage tank based hot water system. These tanks heat water from gas or electric energy sources heating cold water from the municipal supply.  Tanks are available in various capacities and energy efficiency rating depending on the needs of the home occupants. Hot water tanks have a 10-12 year life expectancy but are also relatively inexpensive for a basic model.
  • Tankless hot water systems - Tankless systems have been growing in popularity thanks to the potential energy savings compared to a stored tank of hot water. Tankless systems may employ smaller heaters near the demand point (like under the kitchen sink) or may be located as central whole home tankless water heater. The downsides of tankless systems are they are more expensive initially, there is a longer delay in getting initial hot water to the user than a tank system, and there is a limit to the ‘flow rate’ of hot water at a time (e.g. showers may not be as hot when the clothes washer is filling).
  • Combination hot water systems - Homes that use a boiler with hot water for heating can also use the boiler to heat water for plumbing use as well. There are many configurations for this but the main idea is to use heat from the boiler water to heat the plumbing water. You cannot mix the heating and plumbing water so this is done through water-to-water heat exchangers. The advantages of a combination system are in energy savings from using heated water for both purposes. The disadvantage is that in the summer, the boiler needs to continue to operate for only the hot water system adding wear and tear and it may be over-powered (energy inefficient) for just hot water heating purposes.
  • Alternative Hot Water Systems - There are other methods of generating hot water such as solar and geothermal. These systems are very rare and require specialist knowledge to inspect and maintain.

How Can I Tell If My Water Tank is About to Fail?

Hot water tanks are constantly under attack from rust and minerals, both of which cause damage faster in hot water. There is some maintenance that can be done on hot water tanks such as draining out sediment and replacing the anodizing rod (a rod of material in the tank which slows the effects of rust on the tank) but life spans of tank systems are still relatively short even with maintenance.

Hot Water tanks typically fail by rusting through in the main body of the tank and this damage is not visible from the outside which makes failure unpredictable and visual inspection inconclusive. The best practice is to replace your hot water tank at the end of the manufactures warranty to avoid tank failure and the expensive water damages that can result.

Is a Tankless Water Heater More Efficient to Buy?

When looking at the total lifecycle cost/benefit analysis of installing a tankless system, including purchase costs, there are many people who believe it is less expensive long term to use a tank based system. Tankless systems are much more expensive than tank based systems and early indications are that the life spans are similar. 

Energy efficiency is also variable based on use. For a quick washing of hands, the on-demand system can take an enormous amount of energy to heat water for only 10 seconds of use. Efficiency increases for longer running uses like showers. There is an ongoing debate about total efficiency of the tankless systems by hot water experts and it will take more years of mass market experience with these systems for the benefits to be truly understood. Marketers of hot water systems are always interested in increasing sales so we are seeing increased advertising on these systems touting energy savings.

What Does A Home Inspector Look For With Water Heaters?

Home inspectors are required to identify and inspect hot water systems in a home inspection. In a tank system, the home inspector will be checking things such as equipment age, safety devices, cold/hot water connections, fuel sources, and gas venting. Tankless systems and combination systems will have different characteristics but home inspectors are still looking for age, correct function, safety concerns, and connections. Home inspectors should be advising you if your system is nearing the end of its expected service life so you can budget for replacement.

I live in a Condo, Where is My Hot Water Tank?

Some condo’s have hot water tanks in the suite but many use a central commercial boiler system to provide hot water for all the suites. This hot water is usually circulated through the building using pumps so hot water is available at the taps very quickly after being turned on. This circulation of water does cause piping to erode in condo buildings which is why piping is typically replaced about every twenty years. Overall, having many people all sharing one boiler for hot water is more energy efficient than each condo unit having stored water locally.

Final Thoughts

Hot water systems are a luxury in our homes but they can fail without warning and cause thousands of dollars in damages. It is important to know the age of your hot water equipment and if it is over 10 years to have it serviced and possibly replaced by an expert. If you don’t know the age of your equipment, an expert in the industry or your local home inspector can help.

By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.