The Village Green

A blog about how Canadians can achieve energy independence by powering down and then powering up the right way.

I was on the phone this week with my friend Valerie who told me the water heater in her basement burst the other day.  A couple of months earlier, the same thing happened to my friend Jennifer in her condominium unit.  

I decided to riff about water heating today because, according to my research, about a million water heaters currently in Ontario homes are ready to do exactly what Jennifer's and Valerie's did, costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars in damage and clean-up.  

Of all the energy used in the typical Canadian home, roughly a quarter of it is used for hot water heating – washing dishes, baths, showers, that kind of thing.  Hot water heating is a huge energy hog and it’s a huge profit centre for the utilities that rent us those tanks.  

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN), the useful life expectancy of most electric water heaters is around 13 to 15 years and about 12 years for natural gas operated systems .  

What’s more, according to NRCAN’s Survey of Household Energy Use 2003 (published in 2005), 45% of the homes in Ontario have water heaters 11 years old or older. 18% of water heaters in Ontario homes are 21 years old or older.  And, 34% of homeowners don't even know how old their water heaters are.  In other words, about a million water heaters in Ontario homes should be replaced right now!

How efficient are water heaters?  Or, does this cost me money? 

The efficiencies of traditional water heating systems vary widely depending on make and model, the fuel used (electricity or natural gas) and the age and condition of the system.  Electrical systems are generally more efficient than natural gas systems.  

According to the US Department of Energy a typical 40 gallon gas fired tank will be between 42% to 86% efficient with most being less than 65% efficient.  Electric fired tanks are around 70% efficient.  In both cases, system efficiency drops (dramatically according to some experts) over time as residue and corrosion build.   

What does this mean? 

This means three things:  

  1. The utilities that rent these systems are making a fortune renting systems well past their useful life. 

  2. The utilities make even more money selling you all that extra energy as a result of that old inefficient system.

  3. The utilities cannot be counted on to give you good energy efficiency advice or rent you the best systems because they are in a conflict of interest.  In other words, the more energy you use, the more money they make.  

Cheap trick

  1. Check the age of your water heater.  It can be found on one of the tags on the outside of the heater.  

  2. If it’s significantly older than 10 years or so in age, it likely needs to be replaced.  Not only are old tanks inefficient, they can burst as a result of corrosion like my friend Jennifer’s did, costing her hundreds of dollars in damages to her condominium. 

  3. If you can, buy your system outright and have it installed by a reputable contractor. Check out the new on-demand water heaters.

  4. If you rent another system, ignore the rep in the call centre at the utility when he tells you they don’t replace tanks that are still working.  Most utilities have open ended contracts that do not specifically state when tanks are to be replaced. 

  5. If you replace your heater with a contractor, the utility you’re renting from is required to pick up the old heater.  They will demand a service fee.  Ignore them and be persistent.  According to their rental contract (generally open-ended) they own the tank.  You’re simply   returning it. 

Gabriel Draven