Sorry, No Tanks: A Brief Introduction to Tankless Water Heaters

Tom Soter in Building Operations on August 30, 2012

New York City

State Water Heaters' Aurora™ on-demand tankless gas water heater model GAX19400

Aug. 30, 2012 — With co-op boards and condo associations constantly on the lookout for money savings and energy conservation — which often amount to the same thing — many boards are wondering if they should install a relatively new technology known as "tankless" water heaters. What are they, and do they really provide energy savings?

Tankless water heaters work by heating water with either a gas burner or an electric element, and delivering water as a constant supply. Heat loss is effectively avoided because of the instantaneous nature of the system. But here comes problem No. 1: The flow rate of hot water can decrease as demand increases.

Indeed, tankless water heaters — which are being marketed to smaller co-ops and condos in addition to their primary user, owners of single-family homes — seem at first glance to be a big plus: They are, on average, 24 to 34 percent more efficient than traditional heaters. They require less energy and last twice as long as their more conventional counterparts. They can also run on electricity, gas, propane, or solar power.

From the New Products Archive 

But professionals like engineer Eric Cowley, a principal of Cowley Engineering, say that despite those pluses, the system is impractical for larger buildings. Since the flow rate is limited, a tankless system will not be able to keep up with hot water demands. “What happens when a great number of people are taking a shower?” asks Nick Orozco, a superintendent on the Upper West Side. “The system can’t handle it.” 

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