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In Southern California and throughout the country, tankless hot water heaters are increasingly seen as an attractive option for delivering hot water to all or part of a home. That’s because these units provide several key consumer advantages, including energy savings and long-term reliability. However, even the most well-designed tankless heater can develop problems that increase your operating costs or disrupt your household’s crucial hot water supply. When your heater fails to get the job done, call on the experts at Orange Coast Plumbing. With a history of service that dates back to the arrival of tankless technology, we have the expertise you need to rapidly restore your system to sound operating health.
Tankless Gas Hot Water Heaters
Most tankless gas hot water heaters are designed to produce heat by burning natural gas, although some units run on a liquefied form of propane. When you turn on a hot water tap in a house equipped with this type of heater, cold water flows into the unit and trips a sensor that sends a stream of natural gas or propane to the burner. Ignition inside the burner produces heat, which travels to a component known as a heat exchanger. This exchanger transfers the accumulating heat from the burner to the water passing through the heater, and thereby rapidly boosts that water to the temperature set at the thermostat. The heated water travels through your hot water lines to the open tap.
In a well-designed, properly installed system with a gas-burning tankless heater, very little delay occurs between the opening of your hot water taps and the actual delivery of adequately heated water. However, taps closer to the heater typically have shorter delay times that taps located in relatively distant parts of your house. In a conventional storage water heater, the limiting factor on the supply of hot water is the speed at which a unit can heat up the cold water delivered to the bottom of the reservoir tank. In a tankless heater, the limiting factor is the hot water flow rate, or the amount of hot water the heater can generate during each minute of operation. A gas-powered tankless unit not equipped with modern condensing technology can typically generate upwards of five gallons of hot water per minute.
Some tankless gas heaters are designed to provide hot water to an entire household, while others only produce enough water for part of your home. You can install a whole-house or area heater in an indoor or outdoor location. Most units are placed on a wall rather than on the floor or on the ground. The most advantageous installation locations vary according to a number of factors specific to your home.
Condensing Tankless Hot Water Heaters
Condensing heaters are the latest technological advance in gas-powered, tankless hot water production. Like their older counterparts, these units draw heat from a heat exchanger linked to the burner chamber. However, they supplement this heat production with a second exchanger, typically made out of stainless steel or copper, which pulls heat from the combustion gases being vented through the unit’s flue. This arrangement has the simultaneous effect of improving heater efficiency and reducing the amount of greenhouse gas vented into the atmosphere by natural gas or propane combustion.
While a tankless gas heater equipped with just one heat exchanger can produce a hot water flow rate of roughly five gallons per minute, a condensing heater can produce a flow rate as high as nine to 11 gallons per minute. In addition, the most efficient units currently on the market capture fully 96 percent to 98 percent of all the heat generated through the burning of propane or natural gas. Because condensing tankless heaters pull so much heat out the flue gases, most systems equipped with these units can use relatively cheap PVC venting materials instead of the heavy-duty materials needed for systems that produce hotter flue gases.
Tankless Electric Hot Water Heaters
In an electricity-powered tankless hot water heater, components called heating elements provide the energy needed to heat the water passing through the unit. These elements, each of which consists of a wire wrapped in a copper or stainless steel sheath, jut outward into the flow pathway for cold water entering the heater. When the flow sensor detects the presence of cold water, it sets off an electrical signal that leads to the activation of the heating elements, which transfer their heat output directly into the water flow. As the water travels through the heater, it passes each element in sequence before exiting the unit. In the short span of time it takes for the water to flow from the entry point to the exit point, the heating elements bring it up to the temperature set by the heater’s thermostat.
The number of heating elements on a tankless electric water heater varies. Some units have only one or two of these components, while others have three or four. In addition to heating elements, a typical tankless water heater powered by electricity features several other components not found on units powered by natural gas or propane. Examples of the most important components include solid state switches that can vary the amount of heat coming from the heating elements, as well as individual thermostats that measure each element’s heat output and signal a shutdown if the temperature rises too high. Units that can handle more than 240 volts of power also typically have a component called a control transformer, which regulates voltage flow. Other components found on certain types of tankless electric water heaters include a power distribution block and a magnetic contactor that can completely deactivate all of the heating elements in an emergency.
Like condensing and non-condensing tankless gas water heaters, tankless electric water heaters have a maximum per-minute flow rate. If your hot water consumption exceeds that rate, unheated cold water can pass through your heater and enter your hot water lines. In addition, you may experience a significant drop in overall hot water temperature in periods of heavy use, even if you don’t exceed the maximum flow rate. Many electric units fall on the low side of the average flow capacity for a tankless water heater, although some units meet this average, or even exceed it by a considerable margin. However, because of flow restrictions, many households use tankless electric units as point-source heaters that only provide water to one or two taps.
Some people choose to install electricity-powered tankless water heaters because these units don’t require the venting systems that gas-powered heaters use to safely expel their combustion gases. The lack of a need for venting makes it possible to place electric units in locations not suitable for the placement of gas units. In addition, an electricity-powered tankless heater typically provides you with more precise temperature control than a natural gas- or propane-powered heater.
Maintaining a Tankless Hot Water Heater
Whether it’s powered by natural gas, propane or electricity, your tankless water heater must receive routine maintenance in order to function well and retain its advantage as an energy-saving method of heating your household water. A key maintenance concern in all tankless units is the potential buildup of minerals such as lime, magnesium or calcium inside the heater. In a conventional heater with a storage reservoir, minerals settle at the bottom of the tank. However, in a tankless system, minerals travel right through the heart of the heater along with the incoming flow of cold water. In a condensing or non-condensing gas-powered heater, mineral accumulations on the heat exchanger(s) can lead to a serious drop in efficiency. In an electricity-powered heater, accumulations on the heating elements can cause the same problem.
The rate of mineral accumulation in your tankless heater depends on the hardness (average mineral content) of the water entering your household. A heater installed in an area with hard water — i.e., water that contains lots of minerals — will develop problems more quickly than a heater installed in an area with softer water. This variability means that it can be difficult to create a maintenance schedule that keeps mineral buildup at bay without incurring unnecessary servicing costs.
At Orange Coast Plumbing, we have the training and practical experience needed to determine the proper maintenance schedule for your tankless heater. After creating a schedule that makes sense for your home, we can also carry out the required maintenance when the time comes. In addition to checking for mineral accumulations, we’ll take servicing steps that are specific to the type of tankless heater you have installed. If you have a gas-powered unit, these steps will include an inspection of all components involved in burning and venting natural gas or propane. If you have an electricity-powered unit, they will include an inspection of the wiring and electrical components.
Signs That Your Tankless Hot Water Heater Needs a Repair
Although tankless hot water heaters often last longer than conventional storage heaters, sooner or later the unit installed in your home will require some sort of repair in order to retain its efficiency or basic ability to function. Relatively common signs of trouble in both gas-powered and electricity-powered units include a failure to produce adequate amounts of hot water or any hot water at all, inadequate water flow, overheating and water temperatures that rise and fall instead of remaining steady. Potential problems unique to gas-powered heaters include burner ignition failure and a burner flame that won’t stay lit during use. Potential problems unique to electricity-powered heaters include a lack of power flow to the heating elements and heating element failure.
Diagnosis and Repair
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to identify all of the potential underlying causes of the problems affecting your tankless water heater. Virtually all of the most serious issues have multiple possible sources. For example, the diagnostic checklist for a lack of adequate hot water production in a gas-powered unit includes everything from low pressure in the gas lines to clogs or debris in the venting system. In an electricity-powered unit, the checklist for the same issue includes wiring problems and damage in a component called a flow transducer.
Some modern tankless water heaters come equipped with a digital readout that issues a series of error codes in response to various problems that occur. If your unit has an error code function, a plumbing professional can use the indicated code(s) as a starting point for addressing the problems you’re experiencing. However, if your heater model doesn’t include this function, the professional performing the repair must rely on time-tested diagnostic methods to determine the source of the problem. Even if your system does produce error codes, the service you call on for repairs must have the expertise required to respond properly to each code and precisely follow the indicated follow-up procedures.
The professionals at Orange Coast Plumbing have been working with tankless hot water heaters since tankless technology first arrived on the scene in Southern California. Whether you have a non-condensing gas unit, a condensing gas unit or an electricity-powered unit, we have the training and practical know-how required to identify the underlying problem affecting your water heater and develop a repair plan that addresses that problem in a prompt and direct manner. After making our repair plan, we’ll review the particulars with you and get your approval before work proceeds. Next, we’ll carry out the required repair with parts specifically designed for the make and model of your tankless water heater. Before you know it, we’ll have your unit delivering the reliable hot water supply that your household depends on.
Replacing Your Heater
There are times when it simply makes more sense to replace your malfunctioning tankless water heater than to attempt a repair. You might want to consider a replacement if the expected cost of a repair equals a significant portion of your heater’s total value, or if you find yourself requesting frequent repairs on an older unit. Orange Coast Plumbing’s technicians can help you decide when the time is right for a new tankless hot water heater. In addition to installing a replacement for your existing system, we can install a heater as part of new home construction or a home remodeling job.
Trust the Experts
Orange Coast Plumbing has served the residents and communities of Orange County and Los Angeles County since 1977. From the very beginning, we have built our professional reputation on cost-effective, full-spectrum plumbing services that combine value with a constant emphasis on quality and reliability. All of our technicians are factory-trained, certified and insured experts who know the ins and outs of tankless hot water systems. No matter the time of day or night, we’ll respond promptly to all emergencies in our vast service area and help minimize any potential disruptions to your busy daily routine.