Tanks for the Memories
It has been nearly 20 years, but I can still feel those wild swings from scalding hot to shocking cold. I was a teenager, living in what was then communist Yugoslavia, and the tankless water heater in the bathroom was our apartment’s major drawback. It took some fancy knob-work to keep the water temperature at a bearable mean. As my brothers used to put it, “You gotta work like Sulu from Star Trek to use that shower.”
The mark that experience left on me faded a bit during a conversation with Charles Blanque, owner of JC Services LLC in Mid-City. Blanque’s air conditioning and plumbing company has in recent years branched into tankless water heater installations. He’s become such a true believer that, following the levee failures, he outfitted his own home with two units. His formidably sized three-and-a-half-bath Mid-City dwelling runs both its hot water and its antique radiator system on tankless heaters.
With decades of experience in his craft and major commercial jobs under his belt, Blanque isn’t one to install something rinky-dink at his own house. He sings the praises of an endless flow of hot water and the space-saving that comes with replacing a standard water heater with something “the size of a carry-on suitcase.”
Blanque is also big on the energy efficiency of the units. Activated by water flow, a tankless heater doesn’t turn on until you turn on the faucet. It heats water only as it runs through. And unlike a tank unit, there’s no tank in which cold water can mix with hot as you use it.
“You’re only heating up the water you’re going to use,” Blanque says. He points to comparisons of tankless water heaters to traditional heaters, showing energy savings of $100 to $300 per year.
Tankless heaters are only now getting a foothold in this part of the industrialized world, but they’ve long dominated in Europe and Japan, where living spaces are more confined and energy efficiency is a higher priority.
Blanque installs the Japan-based Noritz brand. He says other makers,
such as Bosch and Takagi, are also solid, but he considers Noritz “the cream
of the crop.”
There’s always a downside, of course, and in this case it comes with the upfront cost. A high-quality tankless unit will cost about twice as much as a regular unit. With parts and labor, including any necessary reconfiguration of gas and electric lines, homeowners can expect to pay about $2,100 for an outdoor, mounted model. Building a recessed unit into the outer wall of the house or installing one indoors (which requires venting) will tend to run up costs further. Blanque recommends installing a gas unit instead of an electric one because the energy savings will be greater with gas.
He also recommends installing it on the outside of the house, which provides an obvious added safety benefit. Outside installation also saves space and eliminates the potential of water damage from leaks.
With those considerations in mind, Blanque advises people rebuilding their homes to weigh the benefits of tankless heaters before they rewire or replumb so that they can accommodate the units and avoid retrofitting work. “If you’re just starting to rebuild, this is the time to work on this,” Blanque says.
Blanque argues that you have to place upfront costs on the balance sheet against savings on the energy bill, the fact that the units last several times longer than traditional water heaters and a $300 tax rebate the federal government provides to encourage installation of tankless units.
The long-term benefits figured into software engineer Rob Schafer’s thinking. He installed a Bosch model when he was renovating his house on Carondelet Street in 2000. While it cost more than a tank heater, he says, “I figured over the life span of the unit, it would make more sense.”
At the time, the heaters were so foreign to the local market that he had to go online to buy his unit. He has been generally pleased and had no problems for the first five years. At the beginning, he had to play Mr. Sulu a bit as he figured out how to modulate the temperature using his basic tankless unit.
Also, because it’s a relatively new technology to New Orleans, when he needed service post-Katrina, he encountered a series of service calls by plumbers who weren’t up to the task. But the units are rapidly becoming more popular, and the plumbing community is becoming more familiar with the technology. Schafer hopes that will translate into fewer service calls.
Blanque recommends installing a valve kit to facilitate servicing. He says tankless units generally need service infrequently, in part because water doesn’t sit in the unit and cause scaling or calcification. More important, he says, homeowners will replace tankless units far less frequently than traditional units. “If it lasts for 20 years, it paid for itself,” he says.