Conventional? On-demand? Solar? Making sense of new and old in the world of water heaters

comparing water heaters

Traditional “tanked” water heaters are fairly large, and store hot water until ready for use.

Saving on energy costs is high on every homeowner’s list of priorities. With this is mind, many people are considering tankless, also known as on-demand or instantaneous, water heaters — which come with the promise of significantly lower energy bills. Is this option right for you? Before you go tankless, consider the following facts about tankless and conventional water heaters.


Because tankless water heaters only heat up water as needed, they can save homeowners about 30 percent on their energy bills compared to water heaters with tanks. On the other hand, conventional models like the one at left cost less up front. Tankless water heaters can last longer than their traditional counterparts but may cost more to service — and it can be difficult to find someone qualified to repair them.

Water Flow

on-demand water heater

On-demand, or “tankless” water heaters are much smaller than traditional water heaters, and heat water as it’s needed throughout the house

Tankless water heaters can provide a constant flow of hot water, while conventional water heaters can “run out,” forcing users to wait for the water in the tank to heat up. However, water heaters with tanks tend to provide a more consistent water temperature when it does heat up, whereas on-demand products tend to push through any lingering cold water that is sitting in the pipes. Also, if you only use a small amount of water — to wash your hands or shave — the burner of a tankless water heater may not ignite in time to produce the hot water you need.


Conventional water heaters are considerably larger because of their tanks and take up a lot more space than rectangular tankless models, which are, as one manufacturer puts it, about the size of a medicine cabinet.

The Solar Solution

solar water heater

Those looking to slash their energy costs may also consider purchasing a solar-powered water heater, which uses heat from the sun that is stored in a solar collector throughout the day.

Active vs. Passive Solar Water Heaters

There are two kinds of solar water heaters: active and passive. Active solar water heaters use pumps to circulate water through heating systems and are particularly good for homeowners who live in warmer climates.

In cold climates, think passive. Passive water heaters do not use circulating pumps and are recommended in areas where temperatures routinely hover below freezing.

Some Things to Keep in Mind When Considering a Solar Water Heater

  • The solar resources that are available in your home’s location.
  • What size water heater that you need, because the larger the tank is, the less often the product needs to recharge from the sun.
  • The building codes that govern the safe installation of the unit.

Like any other kind of water heater, the proper maintenance of a solar-powered model is paramount. The good news is that homeowners can wait three to five years to have maintenance done on the unit — but for the best results, they should find a licensed professional who has extensive experience with solar water heaters, which are a highly specialized product.

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