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Getting into hot water in cold weather

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Posted by Nola Poirier

I found out the hard way – at 7 a.m., wind-driven rain, water flowing across the basement – about which appliance people tend to research the least and buy in a hurry: the hot water tank.

I thought I had done everything required with my hot water tank:

A warning missed

What I didn't do was take the hint when my visiting friend remarked on the rusty colour of the water when she ran a bath. Our water comes from a nearby creek, so I had chalked the colour up to a little extra silt from heavy rain – not the fact that the bottom of my hot water tank was about to let go.

When we moved into the house, the hot water tank was set so high, the water would send you leaping out of the tub scalded if someone used cold water anywhere else in the house while you showered.

We turned the two thermostats down – I've since learned that having the tank temperature set high increases mineral building up and corrosion – accelerating the process by which the bottom breaks and water rushes forth.

After space heating, water heating is the second biggest user of energy in most B.C. homes. That makes the decision about how you heat water a significant one. It's therefore key to make a decision, while your tank is still working, about how you want to heat your hot water after your current tank breaks.

When it's freezing outside and you're about to have a dinner party but you can't have a warm shower or run your dishwasher, it's not the time you're most likely to make the best long-term, well-researched decisions. Now is the time.

Which hot water heating option is best for you. Please read Power Smart engineer Tony Mauro's tips and considerations on buying a hot water tank, then take a closer look at each option below.

Efficient hot water tank

My own water heating options were limited by the fact that there are no natural gas pipes where I live. I knew it would have to involve electric water heating in the short term, and would include solar hot water in the (near, I hope) future.

It's not all bad news if your tank breaks. My new hot water tank is a highly-insulated, leak-proof wonder.

Like anything, water tanks are not all created equal. High efficiency electric tanks tend to come with a higher price tag up front, but a water tank is turned on all day, every day, so the energy savings, and money savings add up quickly.

Shop around, and remember the price tag on the box is only part of the cost. How long the tank will last and how efficiently it works could make it so the bigger price tag shrinks your long-term spending.

On demand

On demand hot water means that instead of expending energy to constantly keep a tank of water hot, you are only heating what you need, when you need it.

This kind of water heating has been common in parts of Europe and other areas for decades. I had it in my house in England years ago, and found it quick and efficient.

Electric on-demand technology is not nearly as effective as gas on-demand. Electric on-demand systems can cause such a surge of electricity to heat the water that they could raise peak electricity needs. In fact they exceed BC Hydro's Electric Tariff, so BC Hydro customers cannot currently use them.

However, for natural gas users, on demand can be an energy efficient way to heat water. A natural gas on-demand water heater can save up to 30% of the costs of running a natural-gas storage tank water heater. There are various options with on-demand, from having a small system just for one appliance or part of the house, to having a whole house system.

Again, do some research to ensure you get the right set up for your needs, and consider Power Smart engineer Tony Mauro's advice.

Solar hot water

Did you know that the solar potential in Vancouver is only slightly less than that of Miami, Florida? I know it doesn't feel like it some days, but over a year, we have only 8% less solar energy production on average.

Even in coastal B.C., solar hot water can be a terrific energy saving option. Solar hot water can meet up to 50% of hot water needs, and solar hot water can be connected to your existing hot water tank or even to an on demand system to make it even more efficient, as the water that needs heating is already warm.

As Power Smart engineer Mauro mentions, solar hot water systems could require structural work to the roof and piping to get the unit installed. But these systems are built to last 20 to 40 years and can pay you (and the planet) back before that time.

Solar BC has further information on systems and incentives – to warm your heart, and your water.

Avoiding water in the basement

Also, a final tip for those who don't yet need a new hot water tank.

I recently learned that for a few dollars, you can purchase a tray, with a screw-in fitting for a hose. If your tank does leak, the water will flow into your sump pump or into another designated place, instead of, like mine, into a small creek across the messy basement.

Nola Poirier is a Sunshine Coast-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Unplug This Blog!