Pictured: Solar water heaters are an efficient and environmentally friendly option. 

by David Goldstein

Of the appliances in a typical home, water heaters consume the most resources. Purchasing an efficient, durable water heater, or replacing it with an alternative, can avoid energy waste, solid waste and waste of money in the long run. Maintaining your water heater can save even more money and resources. 

One alternative, a solar water heater, is sometimes used to supplement, rather than replace, a water heater. In Ventura County, since freezing weather is so uncommon, direct circulation systems are viable. Water is simply pumped through solar collectors and heated by the sun, and can then supplement or replace a water heater. Complete replacement with a system from Sunbank Solar, for example, which specializes in online sales, features a 40-gallon solar water heating system for under $3,000.

Tankless water heating systems are another water heater replacement technology. Usually using natural gas, they heat water with intense blasts of energy when hot water is needed, rather than heating water frequently and storing it in a tank, where it gradually cools and requires more energy to re-heat.

Although these substitutes are efficient, most people use conventional water heaters. Choosing an efficient, durable water heater can save energy and reduce solid waste. When shopping for a water heater, look for Energy Star certification, indicating the device exceeds minimum standards.

Some devices offer not only efficient design for heating and storing water, but also other conservation features. For example, Ankur Maheshwari, Senior Global Product Manager for Rheem, told me his company’s new ProTerra hybrid electric water heater features two green innovations.  First, the ProTerra LeakGuard model has a built-in leak detection system, automatically shutting off to limit water loss from the tank to no more than 20 ounces. It also sends a text alert to notify the homeowner. The second, a heat pump water heater, works “like a refrigerator in reverse,” saving “nearly $500 in annual energy costs compared to standard electric water heaters.” The retail price is approximately $1,300 at Home Depot stores in Ventura County but, if performing as promised, it provides a full return on the additional investment in less than two years.

Water heater maintenance makes a big difference for efficiency and durability. Start with proper installation. Although some water heaters, including the ProTerra, allow zero-clearance installation by placing all service components in front of the unit, most require at least two feet of space for optimal operation. 

To optimally maintain any water heater, Maheshwari recommends draining about a quarter of the tank at least every six months to remove sediment and debris. Turn off the cold water supply, hook up a garden hose to the drain valve, and drain water into a bucket or out a door until water runs clear.

For gas-powered water heaters, check plumbing joints for corrosion. Check the water supply by turning on a nearby hot water tap and listening for water running. Best practices also include replacing the anode rod every three years and testing the pressure-relief valve (on the top side of the heater) by placing a bucket below the discharge pipe and gently lifting the pressure-relief valve lever. For both conservation and safety, set your water heater to less than 120 degrees. 

To recycle your old water heater, contact the company hauling your residential refuse. Contracts and service are different in each Ventura County city, and some allow refuse haulers to charge for large items. For example, the county’s unincorporated area refuse haulers offer free collections twice per calendar year for bulky items unable to fit into curbside carts. Haulers are allowed to charge, however, for items over six feet in dimension or weighing over 80 pounds.