It might be easy to assume that a heating services technician gets to spend summertime relaxing -- but that's not so! Heating services -- even those rare ones who don't also do air conditioning -- stay busy during the summer months working on folks' hot water heaters. If you're thinking that it might be time to get your hot water heater replaced, let's talk a bit about what that entails.
The average hot water heater lasts about a decade and accounts for about a fifth of your utility bill. If your heater is getting older or seems to be on the fritz, you've got three rules to remember about getting a new water heater:
Only fools rush in. Seriously, though, while having an ice-cold shower can be really upsetting, buying a water heater because it's the one that will get there tomorrow is really a bad idea, because you're almost certainly going to end up paying for an entire new water heater when you realize that the quick one doesn't live up to your needs.
In order to determine what size your hot water heater should be, you first need to know how much water your family uses during the busiest hour of an average day. Do you have the dishwasher, washing machine, shower, and kitchen sink going at the same time on a regular basis? Or do you spread out your water usage wisely? Whatever you figure that amount to be, you should pick a water heater with an FHR -- First Hour Rating -- that meets or just barely exceeds it.
The FHR is the amount of water that the tank can heat up in an hour of operation (this is as opposed to capacity, which is the amount that the tank will hold.) Oil and gas water heaters generally kick electric's butt on FHR. If your family has a truly ridiculous FHR -- like 100 gallons or more -- you may want to consider an in-line heater in addition to a standard tank heater.
Probably the most important part of any major household system is its Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). The TCO of a water heater is determined largely by its energy efficiency, which is listed as a number between zero and one. Zero means "none of the energy the machine consumes turns into heat", and one means "100% of the energy the machine consumers turns into heat", which is physically impossible. A good electric water heater might have an efficiency of .8; a good gas heater's is anything over .6. That said, because gas is cheaper per unit than electricity, even though the electric heater is more efficient, the gas model will probably have a cheaper TCO in the long term.
There are other factors to consider as well, naturally -- the material the tank is made out of (stainless steel is best, but more expensive), the insulation around the tank, the manufacturer's warranties, and any rebates your municipality offers for the purchase of energy-efficient heaters can influence your decision. Just don't rush in, and think everything through -- this choice will affect you for up to another decade or beyond, so do your research, and get a professional installation from your local heating services.