Dear Angie: What are the key questions to ask for installing a water heater? We are replacing our 40- gallon gas water heater with a new one. The old one is still working, but it is about 15 years old. We are contacting three or four plumbers for prices and want to ask the appropriate questions and get the work done that we need done. — Ron K., Asheville, N.C.
Answer: Most tank water heaters last eight to 12 years on average before they start to wear out — typically that's indicated by them leaking — so it's great that you're proactive in replacing yours before it breaks down and causes water damage or leaves you stranded in a cold shower.
Before you shop around, you first should ask yourself a couple of questions: How well did your previous water heater perform? Do you often run out of hot water if it's getting a lot of use (for example someone takes a shower, someone simultaneously does the dishes and the next person ready to take a shower ends up with a cold one halfway through)?
If water temperature has been a problem, one question you definitely want to ask your provider is whether your tank is properly sized to meet your family's needs. You might need a larger capacity water heater.
Conversely, if you once had more people in the house but now you're an empty nester, for example, you might be able to scale down the size of the heater.
That's a question a qualified plumber can help answer. By having the unit properly sized, you'll ensure you meet your family's needs while maximizing your heater's efficiency. After all, water heaters account for 15 percent to 25 percent of your home's energy usage, on average, so you don't want to waste money heating water in one that's oversized.
It's also important to look at the estimated annual operating costs of the unit and its energy efficiency rating. The more efficient it is, the less fuel it will use, thus lowering your energy costs.
Be sure to get in writing the details of the job from each plumber you talk to, so you can fully understand the costs associated with installation of the new unit and compare apples to apples. Ask the company if it charges to remove and dispose of the old water heater. Also, ask how the company will vent the water heater. Check that the company you hire is properly licensed and carries worker's compensation and liability insurance.
A qualified plumber will help guide you to make the best purchase for you, rather than the product that offers the highest profit margins. Your plumber also should be able to provide information on which water heaters qualify for federal tax credits. If you haven't used the credit since 2006 and buy a qualifying water heater by Dec. 31, you could get a credit of up to $300 on your taxes. Solar water heaters are another efficient option and offer up to a 30 percent credit through 2016.
A good plumber also will have information on rebates available through your utility providers for upgrading your water heater to a more efficient unit, if any are available.
Another thing to consider is a tankless water heater. These units cost more than a traditional tank heater, but they don't leak, last twice as long on average, are much more efficient and deliver almost non-stop hot water on demand. Your plumber should educate you on what type of water heater would be best for you.