The time for the tankless?

Dec. 1, 2008
We should be on the lookout for something that we can market that will take advantage of the new trends in eco-friendly construction, adding to the bottom line at the same time. One such product is the tankless water heater.

These days it's hard to know what the next “big thing” coming at you will be. With the economy in a recession, inflation and fuel costs escalating at rates that boggle the mind, global warming being debated by politicians, “going green” becoming a trend popularized by Hollywood celebrities and other usual market forces, the construction business, especially the plumbing/HVAC industries in particular, is a very challenging industry to be in right about now. The guys who are still standing after the dust settles will be the guys who prove to be the most agile in adapting to economic market forces and trends in technology and customer demands.

New technologies and materials that impact the trade have always been resisted at first. “We've always done it this way” and “it works just fine” are the mantras of many trade professionals. Within recent memory, the past 50 years or so, there was the fight to ban 10-ft. lengths of service weight cast iron when 5-ft. lengths were the standard because it eliminated one joint, therefore, one less hand-caulked joint for the plumber. Then there was the fight over No-Hub cast iron because it was less labor intensive than lead and oakum caulking. Of course plastics, like ABS and PVC, were the next straw men to be knocked around. Likewise there was a lot of resistance to the use of copper tubing when everything at the time was done with either galvanized or brass threaded pipe for domestic water piping. Still, through it all, economics and improved materials prevailed; the shops that adopted these new technologies and materials thrived.

Today, we need to be looking for some new arrows for our quivers. We should be on the lookout for something that we can market that will take advantage of the new trends in eco-friendly construction, adding to the bottom line at the same time. One such product is the tankless water heater.

Tankless water heating has been around for some time, especially in Europe and South America. It is not an exotic technology; it is simply not the “standard” in the U.S. that it is in other countries. Available in both electric and gas fired models, tankless water heaters provide on-demand hot water by flash heating ambient water as it passes through a coil, taking water from 50°F to 110°F as it passes through the coil and into to the fixture(s) it serves. Since no water is stored to be constantly re-heated, there is no “standby loss” of energy. The tankless heaters are activated only when water passes through the coil.

There are as many pros and cons about tankless heaters as there are about storage tank heaters. That's not really the point here. The point is that tankless heaters can be sold as an adjunct to existing storage type water heaters or as stand alone systems in both residential and commercial applications.

Commercial application

For sometime now, small point-of-use tankless water heating units have been popular in the light commercial construction market. In strip centers, office complexes and anywhere individual hot water service is required, tankless water heating for lavatories is becoming the norm. By eliminating the need to provide small (6 gallons or so) storage type water heaters, temperature/pressure relief lines and the attendant piping (serving an individual restroom, breakroom, kitchenette or multiple lavatory locations), architects, engineers and owners are realizing economy and flexibility through use of the tankless units. Since most commercial buildings have more than adequate electric service available, point-of-use water heaters are an easy, cost effective way of providing on-demand hot water to restrooms and service fixtures.

Retrofit residential applications

Because of certain installation requirements, whole-house tankless heaters lend themselves to new construction with retrofitting problematic in many cases. Larger electric tankless heaters (those providing up to 7 GPM) require larger electric services. In many cases, the requirement would be cost prohibitive in a residential retrofit. Add to that the increased electric demand, and it might not make sense for the average homeowner.

Gas-fired tankless units also come with installation requirements that might be a deal breaker in the retrofit scenario. In most cases, retrofitting a gas fired tankless water heater in an existing installation requires upsizing the gas line and replacing the flue piping. In some, but certainly not all instances, these upgrading requirements are simply not cost effective when amortized against any savings that the homeowner might realize. Add to that the cost of a new whole house tankless unit (about twice the cost of an equivalent sized standard storage tank type unit), and the transition might not pencil out.

Adding a small tankless unit as an adjunct to the existing storage tank water heater makes more sense, especially when the desire to get hot water to that far away bathroom comes into play and running a recirculating line is not practical.

New residential construction

An easier sell for the tankless water heater is in new construction. Installation requirements are addressed at the inception of construction, and by doing so, those costs are mitigated. At the new construction level, there are a lot more options available for using tankless technology. Having more than one unit is advantageous in larger custom homes. In other scenarios, having storage tank water heating augmented by tankless heaters can be the answer to delivery issues. Even adding tankless heaters to solar water heating equipment has its place.

By selling tankless technology, we are proactive in the marketplace, broaden our sales profiles and provide our clients with one more thing that can be used to solve specific problems while addressing the public's desire for more eco-friendly products. Cost factors are not insurmountable. Just look at hybrid cars and other green technology. The technology is here. It is proven; it is profitable. Perhaps the time has come to advocate more forcefully for its use. Getting out in front makes a lot of sense in the difficult business climate in which we find ourselves.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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