Pimp the PoP’s Garage – Part 2 – Picking A Pretty Water Heater

To catch up on our Pimp the PoP’s Garage Series, feel free to start here.


A pretty water heater? Really? We paid off all of our non-mortgage debt and now our priorities have shifted so much that we’re picking a water heater based on how pretty it is?

Go ahead, Carly Simon. Take it away. “You’re so vain…”


It’s Not Really Pretty, Per Se

20130820-192833.jpgJust to clarify, when we talk with about picking a pretty water heater, we mean one that is going to make the rest of the garage pretty. ‘Cause let’s face it, the before pictures showed a pretty ugly space.

So aesthetics and functionality are really what we mean when we’re looking at picking out a “pretty” water heater. We want to take the space that is currently occupied by this, and turn it into a clean and yes, “pretty”, and functional space. (Plus, I seem to have a thing for “P” words lately.)


Water Heater Comparison-Three Pretty Options

The way we saw it, we had three possible options in this endeavor that would be significant improvements in terms of the looks and functionality of the water heater space.

1 – (Mr PoP’s initial idea) – Move everything to the attic. We could shift the piping and electrical supplies that currently serve the water heater in the garage to the attic almost immediately over this space. We’d be left with a super clean space to use as we desired since that attic space is currently unoccupied.

2 – (Mrs. PoP’s initial idea) – Go tankless electric. We’d have to upgrade the 240V circuit to increase the amp load, and we’d end up with a box sticking out of the wall at a height where we could easily mount a functional work countertop underneath it.

3 – (What Papa PoP had done in their rental duplex) – Install a lowboy and build a cabinet around it with a counter space on top. (Lowboy is the industry term for a water heater with a short, fat tank – usually a little over 30″ tall.) The piping would have to be changed slightly, and the 240V outlet moved a little bit to accommodate the shorter tank, but no biggie. But, this would violate our goal of having NOTHING on the floor.


Then We Talked To A Professional

We talked to both a plumber as well as a friend of ours, D, who was the one that gave us the idea for the update to our ugly fluorescent lights. They both basically said the same thing.

1 – Don’t even think about moving a water heater to the attic. It’s asking for trouble. Not only would we need to move the piping and electric lines, we’d have to have a floor installed where the water heater would sit that would need to be able to hold A LOT of weight. Empty, a water heater easily weighs 100+ lbs; then fill it with 40 gallons of water and all of the sudden you’ve got something that weighs close to 450lbs.
Add to all that the additional risk that we likely wouldn’t know about any leaks until damage was done… and this is a really bad plan.

  • Cost – $1800 in parts and labor for a professional install including attic build-out (and the plumber hated even giving an estimate he thought this was such a bad idea)
  • Water Capacity – Same as what we currently have, 40 gallons, though we could increase that, too.
  • Ongoing Electric Costs – about the same as now

2 – Tankless is for folks that need to have the latest and greatest in technology, but you’re going to pay for it. Again, and again, and again. Initially, a tankless install of this Stiebel Eltron was going to be about $2K, which includes the cost of the electric work needed. (Both a certified plumber and electrician are required for this install otherwise the warranty is voided.) So it’s expensive up front.

But then you add the maintenance. Yearly descaling would be needed (the plumber charges clients $150/year for this service call), though we would likely learn how to do it ourselves and would just have the cost of about $20 in de-scaler per year as maintenance.

  • Cost – $2000 upfront in parts and installation
  • Water Capacity – Theoretically unlimited, but actually throttled and the model we were considering couldn’t have run two hot showers at once (max flow 3.5 gal/min). Not to mention, when the electricity goes out, so does the hot water.
  • Ongoing Electric CostsMax savings of ~20% over current cost to run, some sites ballpark actual electricity savings as significantly lower.  (Energy savings costs are 2010 estimated values from CA Energy Commission.)

20130820-191443.jpg3 – Lowboys are where it’s at. They’re easy, they’re effective, and they’re pretty darned cheap. Sure, they’re not pretty like the tankless variety, but build a nice little cabinet with a countertop around them and you’ll never know the difference.

  • Cost – ~$300 for us to DIY, ~$500 to have the plumber install  (warranty not affected by a DIY install)
  • Water Capacity – same as now, 40 gallons
  • Ongoing Electric Costs – about the same as now



Narrowing It Down – Break Even Analysis

With option #1 firmly out of the picture, we wanted to know what the “break even” on the cost between the tankless electric and the lowboy would be.

  • Tankless costs: $2000 upfront, $20/year in de-scaler, -20% energy savings/yr
  • Lowboy costs: $300 upfront, no energy savings

So we remember that 6th grade lesson in solving equations… Assuming that our yearly energy cost to run the water heater is about $450, we need to find y, the number of years in the equation:

$300 + $450*y = $2000 + $20*y + $450*(1-0.2)*y

For those of you that don’t want to do the algebra, y = 24.28.  (If we somehow managed to squeeze out 30% energy savings every year y=14.78.)  So assuming we do all the maintenance ourselves and get the maximum advertised energy savings, it would still take significantly longer than the expected life of the machine to come out ahead by going tankless.

Financially, the tankless doesn’t come out looking all that great.


But It’s So Sleek and Shiny!

I’m not going to lie. I really had my heart set on the financials of the tankless making more sense. So I went back through the other selling points of the tankless and see if I could justify pushing for it against advice from people we know and trust.

  • We would never run out of hot water (as long as the electricity was on). Well, in the 4 years we’ve been in this house I remember running out of hot water precisely once. That was when 4 adults took showers immediately after one another. But I remember several different power outages that lasted the whole morning or evening where we would have needed to take a cold shower had we been running a tankless water heater.
  • A tankless clears up so much space, and you could install a countertop below it quite easily for a work area. Well, the lowboy accomplishes the same thing by building a counter/cabinet unit around it.
  • A tankless water heater wouldn’t touch the ground. True. And a lowboy would. But is this really the only selling point I’ve got left?


Looks Like We’re Getting A Lowboy

Even though I REALLY wanted the tankless to make sense, it seems pretty silly to pay about $1,700 more upfront and count on the unit lasting through a 15-year break even period for the luxury of not having anything on the ground when the lowboy accomplishes all of the goals we had.

*sigh* I’ll get over it… someday. =)


What kind of water heater do you have in your place? What made you choose it?

47 comments to Pimp the PoP’s Garage – Part 2 – Picking A Pretty Water Heater

  • Great analysis Mrs. Pop. As you know, I’m an energy efficiency nerd, so I know what you mean when you say you’re sad you couldn’t pick the tankless option. Here’s a really good site from the DOE if you’re interested http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/tankless-or-demand-type-water-heaters
    The tankless water heater would look so cool, but I that cost looks quite high. After doing the math, I think everyone would make the same decision as you.

    Also, I’ve gotta say that alarms went off in my brain when you mentioned that you wanted to put the water heater in the attic. Anything that can leak, will leak! :)
    CashRebel recently posted..Driving is the worst: an experimentMy Profile

  • both of our water heaters have their own little rooms (one just off the house, one in the garage)… little water heater closets. (Our master toilet also has a water closet.)
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    • Debbie M

      Ours is also in its own little room, on the edge of the storage at the side of the house. And it has its own door, too, so it doesn’t matter if it’s ugly. Only I think the normal tall tank heaters are kind of pretty.

      Mine is the same one that was in the house when I bought it. It was already old then, and that was 17 years ago. So I should be afraid of it dying a dramatic death. Instead I am afraid of replacing a fabulously built water heater that could last forever with a crappy modern water heater that will break in 7 years or something. I suppose I should ask a plumber what I really should expect from her.

      I have thought about replacement so I can be ready when she blows. I used to like the sound of tankless on-demand water heaters but I love my plumbing just the way it is. We never run out of water. Ours is a gas heater, so the cost savings would be nothing. I used to prefer gas over electricity too because it’s cleaner and more efficient, but now with fracking, I’m not so sure. Plus now my electricity officially comes from wind.

      The alternative I’m considering is solar. (It’s so hot in the summer we could almost heat our water sufficiently just by putting it in a black tank outside.) But after extensive thought about solar panels for electricity, I decided I’d rather have shade trees. I suspect a solar water heater won’t mix well with shade trees either, though maybe something could be put on a pedestal.

      • The label on ours says it was from 1985, so that means it’s about 28 years old and it’s jut starting to fail. We could theoretically extend the life further with a new annode rod, but we had plans for the garage, so it’s not worth it to us.
        I vote for keeping your old one, but maybe grabbing a moisture sensor with an alarm to notify you early if you start to get any leakage. That’s what we’re going to do since ours will be enclosed and we won’t see it on a regular basis.

    • Two water heaters! How luxurious. =). My parents’ house has a little closet that you enter from the backyard where their water heater lives, but we don’t have a good place like that in our house, sadly.

  • Once again, love the thorough analysis. You guys have such a practical approach to these kinds of things. Sounds to me like it’s a no-brainer. Sometimes it’s best not to let our goals (keeping things off the floor) interfere with what’s actually the best course of action. Knowing when to adapt is an incredible strength.
    Matt Becker recently posted..Taking the Scenic RouteMy Profile

    • Thanks, Matt. Though I still hope that by the time we’re in the market for our next water heater (hopefully many years from now) the numbers for the tankless make more sense. =)

  • We actually did install a tankless (gas though) in one home. We never liked it. Even though we installed it ourselves, the initial cost for the unit was still $1000. We didn’t notice much difference in our gas bills either. So, from now on, we’ll probably go with a traditional one, but wrap it in a jacket to make it just a bit more efficient.

    Back to the tankless. I was talking to a builder who told me that the main advantage is that they last a lot longer. However, water heaters are easy to swap out, so the cost doesn’t justify longer life. I don’t like this disposable attitude and I hope that the costs for tankless become competitive.
    Mr. 1500 recently posted..SpongeSister SpendyPantsMy Profile

    • The plumber was saying that he has yet to see evidence that the tankless really last 20+ years consistently. He’s seen a lot of breakage and warranties denied because the company claimed the units hasn’t been maintained properly. (Why he tells everyone upfront about the yearly descaling).

      • Yep, like you said, that yearly maintenance is critical.

        I questioned the longevity claims too. They infinitely more complex that a traditional heater, especially the gas versions.

        On the other hand, traditional heaters die because they corrode though eventually, not due to mechanical failure. Can’t someone sell one coated in stainless steel that lasts 40 years? I’d pay double or more for that.
        Mr. 1500 recently posted..Thursday Rant: Big Sis Amiss in Financial AbyssMy Profile

  • Ivy

    Lowboy is a cool idea. I would have never thought of it – our solution would have probably been to build a small corner closet for the regular tank heater, or maybe to stick it next to the washer/dryer in the niche you had.

    We considered tankless when we bought our house, but the previous owner left us with new uninstalled heater, so it was a non-brainer to go with the free option, and it has served us well for 8 years now. We have a small unfinished part of a large finished basement, separated with a door, so the “ugly” furnace, tank heater and some leftover construction materials are not an eyesore

    • Hadn’t even considered moving it by the W/D, but you’re right that would have been an option, too!

      Your unfinished storage area sounds great. If we had one of those, we probably wouldn’t have such a messy garage. =). Or maybe we still would…

  • Great analysis! The lowboy sounds like a good solution. My parents had their water heater between the washer and dryer in the pantry, which was off of the garage. I never really noticed it since the entire wall was taken up by these three things. The water heater was one of the taller ones, but water always took forever to get warm, and one semi-long shower was enough to make the water cold by the end. Glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore!
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    • That water heater doesn’t sound like much fun at all! Maybe your folks need a bigger one if they run out of hot water that quickly?

  • I’ve gathered that tankless are far more trouble than they’re worth.

    Our home was constructed with the water heaters (that’s right, TWO!) in the attic. Next home, who knows.

    I feel like Low Boy needs a name.

    What about Rick?
    No Waste recently posted..I Don’t Trust You, Mega CorpMy Profile

  • I really, really wanted to get a tankless heater for energy savings (I’m less interested in overall cost savings than actual usage savings). But we have all electric in our house, and the electric tankless heaters just don’t work very well – especially for the size we’d need, so we ended up with two 40 gallon tanks to replace a 50 gallon one. The insulation on the new tanks was more than the old one, so we couldn’t actually fit a 50 gallon through the utility room door, but we had the space inside it for two tanks. One tank is permanently shut off at the breaker unless we have a house full of visitors, and we switch which tank is off about twice a year to “wear” them evenly.
    Mom @ Three is Plenty recently posted..Saving Money with Baby – Baby Led WeaningMy Profile

    • We’re strictly electric, too. (Though I did call the gas company to see if it was even possible to get a gas line – it’s not.) It’s nice to know the 40 gallon fits your family pretty much all the time.

  • You could always just lie and say you put a tankless water heater in, but it’s so small and sleek and fits into the space so seamlessly, that you can no longer find it.

    I love the lowboy idea. Would the cabinet itself add costs, or is it going in regardless? Just want to give you another piece of data in case you want to still go with the tankless…
    Done by Forty recently posted..Football, Persistence, and Television FailureMy Profile

    • haha, I’m not sure it’s worth lying about. Who the heck is going to judge me for it? =)

      As for the countertop, extending and building out more flat workspace for Mr PoP was a big goal of the reno, and this is going to be part of that. So the counter would have been purchased/constructed regardless. The cabinet to hide the ugly is probably a small additional expense, but probably not enough to make a dent in those break-even numbers. But thanks for trying!

  • I was always fascinated by tankless but I never realized they had yearly maintenance. Good to know!
    Tara @ Streets Ahead Living recently posted..Working Vacations: Wanderlusting on the CheapMy Profile

    • The harder your water, the more maintenance you’ll need. What happens is that when the water gets heated up it goes through thin little pipes, but the heat causes scale, which can plug up a thin little pipe much quicker than a big pipe. The more minerals in your water, the quicker this process happens.

  • I am shocked at the price of the tankless option. I don’t know how you shower after your runs but I like to have a cold shower so having a tank keeping the water warm for nothing would not be economical. We have an add on straight on the shower head that warms the water and cost about $100 but don’t have hot water to wash hands or dishes.
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    • I could be very spoiled, but I love a steaming hot shower, and hot water for dishes, the dishwasher, the washing machine, etc.
      Also, if I remember the set-up of your shower you posted on your blog once, I’m not actually convinced that would be up to building safety codes around here. =)

  • Funny! We just replaced our hot water heater as well and I was SO fired up about going tankless until we did the math and realized that it wasn’t going to be the pretty tankless future I’d hoped for. We now have another old school high capacity tank sitting in the place of the old one.

  • Awww, so how long did it take you to get over the disappointment of not getting the tankless?

  • The low boy does look good after all that, doesn’t it? I too was romanced by the tankless option once but the up front cost quickly ruled that out. While your heart maybe broken, your wallet will sing your praises.
    Lindsey @ Sense & Sensibility recently posted..Weekly Update: August 12 – 18My Profile

  • We looked at getting a tankless water heater the last time ours went out. It didn’t make sense for us either. We just went with another ugly one!
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  • I’m sure my thought process would’ve been about the same as yours. A lowboy sounds perfect for you guys. Good luck with the install!
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  • I love the idea of things like tankless water heaters or even solar options. We actually got a bid to add solar to our house when the rebates were really good, and it too would have taken longer to pay off than the life of the panels. I do wish environmentally friendly technology was more cost effective.
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  • Hm. Lowboy, eh? I’ll definitely look into that the next time the water heater has to be replaced, which I expect will be fairly soon, since I’m totally ignorant about cleaning it out and am scared to death of turning off and (more to the point) trying to turn on the gas.

    When we were in England we had little tankless water heaters in the flat. Hateful. The one in the bathroom dispensed enough to fill the bathtub about three inches, so you sat there and shivered while you tried to wash yourself and get your hair clean. No wonder the Brits don’t take very many baths…never been soooo cold in my life!!!

    Surely the technology must be better these days. But after that experience, you couldn’t give me one.
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  • Wassermeister

    I think that you had another option that was not considered. Garages are perfect to upgrade to a heat pump water heater. Normal electric water heaters consumer $350-$450 worth of electricity at 10 cents per kWh. Heat pump water heaters save between $150-$250 electric in operating costs annually depending on climate and how much water you use. There is a $300 federal tax credit though 2013 and oftentimes local utility rebates. We can get these water heaters for free in Oregon (after rebates and tax credits).

    Here are a few models that qualify. They must be ENERGY STAR qualified.

    Here is the link to the ENERGY STAR Program’s website:

    • admin

      We did look into heat pumps (our utility does not offer any rebates for them), but we dismissed them since we were really looking for a space saving design and these were all as tall if not taller than the old fashioned tank water heater that we began with. We really wanted to get more space into the garage and these would not have helped with that.