Everything You Need to Know About Your Plumbing System
Almost everything you ever buy comes with a manual or set of instructions. Cars, electronics, appliances and even your mattresses all come with instructions for car and maintenance. Most have a troubleshooting section, it comes in multiple languages and gives you more information than you could possible ever want.
Why then, do major expenses like your plumbing system come with no information at all?
Sure, your water heater or water softener may have a manual. But what about your toilet? Your sewer line? You septic tank?
It makes no sense that you can spend over $100,000 on a fancy car or boat and have an abundance of literature for some light reading on care, but your house has little to no information on how to care for it.
We are PVCGuy.com have decided to make a complete owner’s guide or “manual” for your plumbing system. We wish that we could make one for your roof, electrical, siding/windows and lawn but we have neither the time nor expertise. Also note, gas lines are also exempt from this guide as anything related to flammables is not suitable for DIY projects.
After quite a bit of collaboration, we have compiled a massive amount of information for new and existing homeowners alike. Some information may be obvious or already known but just as your car explains how to change a tire, we want to make sure all information is available no matter what your experience in the plumbing field might be.
Consider this your plumbing system owner’s manual.
Overview of Plumbing systems
Domestic Water System
Domestic water systems are the meat and potatoes of your home plumbing system. It consists of a potable water source. This might be a municipal utility, a well or maybe even a rainwater harvesting system. We will further discuss each of these in detail later on.
The supply line brings water to your home and connects to your interior plumbing. From here, the line is split, where one is taken to faucets, valves, spigots, etc. and the other is sent directly to your water.
These parallel plumbing lines make up your hot and cold pipes that will lead to various appliances, showers, sinks, etc. It is a closed system, meaning it is pressurized so that water can be elevated above ground, to attics and additional floors.
This line is considered a potable water line, meaning it is safe to drink and consume.
The counterpart is your DWV (drain-waste-vent), which removes sewage water and gray water from your house.
I assume sewage water needs no explanation. Gray water is just unclean water from dishwashers, showers, washing machines and other appliances.
The DWV system is an open system, meaning it is not pressurized. It is gravity fed through an outflow that may lead to a septic tank or municipal wastewater treatment facility. To allow for proper draining, these lines are ventilated to prevent any siphons and to let gases escape.
Just in case there is any confusion, this is a NON-POTABLE line. Not that you would want to, but it is completely unsafe to drink or consume from any part of these lines.
Together, these two systems compose your domestic water system.
Your sprinkler system (if you have one) is the other major plumbing system homeowners will probably run into. These are pressurized lines (there are a few exceptions) that utilize its own pressure to engage sprinkler heads to spread water over your lawn, bushes and trees.
There is no waste line for sprinklers as it is all absorbed into the ground or evaporates.
Irrigation lines are non-potable. While many sprinkler systems run from the same source (well or municipal utility), a growing trend is utilizing reclaimed water. That is, sewage water that has been filtered and cleansed, chemically and mechanically.
Golf courses, farms and new residential developments typically use reclaimed water for irrigation. Do not drink it. Irrigation systems will be discussed later on in this guide.
Other Plumbing Systems
HVAC systems, appliances, coffee makers, rainwater catchment systems, pool filtration systems, water softeners all use various plumbing applications to do specific jobs. Some people get creative and create hydroponic systems for growing vegetables or build toys that incorporate water.
The possibilities are endless and cannot possibly be covered entirely with this guide.
This owner’s manual will predominantly focus on systems that homeowners will most likely need to troubleshoot, fix or maintain. So, let’s get started.
Plumbing comes from the Latin word plumbum, which means lead. Back in the Roman times, what few pipes found were made of lead because of how easy it was to shape.
Today, plumbing can mean any system that conveys fluids. If we are getting technical here, fluids are defined as liquids and gases, however I never suggest any DIYer ever work on gas lines so for the sake of simplicity, fluids will be defined as liquids for this guide.
We already went over the different systems you might find in your house but do you have any idea how everything works together? Let’s start at the beginning to give you an overview and we will break down the specifics later on for more information.
First things first, you need a water source. If you wanted your plumbing to be filled with soda (which would be awesome and you could definitely make it happen with enough time and money), you need an “endless” supply of soda or whatever liquid you want in your pipes to start.
Next, it needs to be pressurized. That can come in the form of municipal pumps, well pumps or gravity. Once you have established pressure in the system, which can be controlled by a pressure reducing valve, you can send your water or soda anywhere through the house.
If you have an automatic irrigation system, the source will split into both systems from first shut off valve. Some irrigation systems can also be connected to the water supply. You need to know what you have.
To protect your water or soda source, a backflow preventer is installed to ensure one person or system cannot contaminate the “endless” supply. If you want to know why, look no further than Batman Begins where the Scarecrow tries to add hallucinogens to the water of Gotham! Scary stuff. Luckily they can just break a water main and pour chemicals in, so don’t worry about that.
Now your pipes can lead to any and all appliances, faucets, showers, etc. that you need. Pipes can feed through the foundation, through that walls, attics or even be mounted on walls, if you don’t mind looking at them. The pressure needs to be strong enough to feed second story floors and light enough so your pipes don’t burst. The guys that design those systems and decide the pipe strength and pressure required are called Mechanical Engineers. I also suggest not designing any plumbing systems.
Luckily, most plumbing systems have the same pressure and same pipe ratings, so fixing existing systems is pretty easy. Just match what you have.
Faucets and valves are the end-points of your system. If you could see all of your plumbing through the walls, it might look like veins in the human body. It starts at one central location and feeds around to the faucets and valves. One of the first places your water goes is to the water heater.
From you water heater, anywhere with a hot/cold faucet will have two parallel pipe lines running to it.
Now that entire system is pressurized. The sanitary lines are gravity fed. A sink or tub catches the “grey water” where it travels through a p-trap and eventually down to a septic tank or municipal water facility.
Since they are gravity fed, they constantly have a slightly downward slope and the bends are much larger to prevent anything from getting stuck. The the sanitary line is almost the exact opposite of the water supply lines. It is non-pressurized and all start points join together for one end point. Instead of faucets and valves, sanitary have non-mechanical fittings called p-traps
Know Your Pipes!
The #1 most important thing you need to know regarding your plumbing is what type of pipes you have in your house. There are 7 types of piping materials found in most homes.
Galvanized steel pipe
PVC / CPVC pipe
Technically, PEX and copper are both tubing – not pipe even though they are used the same way as PVC and steel pipe.
If you have galvanized steel pipe in your home, you have a huge problem. In the mid 1960’s galvanized pipe was losing popularity as the material of choice in plumbing systems to copper. Considering the life expectancy of galvanized pipe is roughly 50 years, almost all galvanized pipe will be reaching the end of its useful life.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you really need to consider replacing your plumbing system even before a repair is needed.
Back when galvanized steel was being produced, lead and other heavy metals were not the concern that they are today. Galvanized steel is just plain steel, covered in a protective layer of zinc. The galvanization process had impurities like lead or cadmium that was used in its manufacture.
Over time, as the zinc coating wears down, those impurities can build up and leach into your drinking water. If you are a single adult living in an apartment with galvanized pipe, that’s one thing but if you have children or pregnant women in the home, it is definitely a cause of concern.
Because if its durability, it’s not uncommon to still find galvanized pipe used on outside spigots. Those are fine, as they are non-potable lines (more on that later). But if you want to know whether the pipes inside of your house or your drinking lines are built with galvanized steel, you can look where the water main enters your house. That could be the side of your home or through your foundation.
If it is PVC, you should be in the clear – I can’t think of one situation where the main pipes to your home were replaced and updated without the rest of your house but just to be safe, check under sinks, in the attic and anywhere else you can find pipes.
Even worse than galvanized pipe is polybutylene plumbing. This product was installed in millions of homes from 1978 – 1995. After its class action lawsuits, it was immediately shelved as a defective product.
Polybutylene is a flexible plastic product, usually a bluish gray color, though it can also be black or even white.
There is quite a bit of debate about polybutylene and how bad it actually is to have in your home. The tubing itself is not the major problem, it’s the cheap plastic fittings that were used. After a few years, the fittings become brittle and break, leaking water everywhere.
Compared to galvanized steel pipe or copper, which starts as a slow leak and grows larger over time, you can see how catastrophic it would be to have a fitting break and flood your house. You will be hard pressed to find homeowner’s insurance on a house with polybutylene and may have trouble selling your home.
Although I would highly recommend replacing all polybutylene in your home, a complete repipe, I do recognize it can be too expensive for some people. Many people leave the tubing itself and replace all of the fittings or, if you don’t mind doing quite a bit of drywall work, replacing the fittings as they fail.
The newer fittings are much more durable and use an easy crimping system that holds the pipe onto the various joints. Any pipe that needs to be replaced can be swapped out with PEX using polybutylene-PEX transitions.
That is a band-aid fix at best. A major problem that can arise by doing this, it you will have patchwork plumbing which will be a massive headache down the road. If you are looking to buy a house and you see a variety of piping, make sure to look even closer for some of these faulty lines.
Eventually, even after the fixes, you will need to replace the entire system.
If you have copper lines, you can rest a bit easier. Copper is very durable and lasts a very long time. Eventually the pipe will develop pinhole leaks due to corrosion from the inside of the pipe. Luckily, these types of leaks aren’t going to flood your home when they arise.
New home construction does not use copper pipes anymore for two reasons:
Difficult to install
Copper is a commodity, and with all commodities it trades on an open market. There are peaks and valleys to the price of copper but it is becoming a relatively scarce resource. With all of the applications of copper, it competes with different industries that can affect its price.
But more importantly, copper takes time and skill to install. Sweating copper joints (using a torch, flux and solder) is much more time consuming for initial install and repairs. This process requires more skill, so anyone handling the install needs to have years of experience. Using a torch in close quarters can be dangerous and the results iffy for a DIYer or even an apprentice.
Let’s not even get started on repairing copper…
It is important to differentiate between flexible copper tubing, which is what you would probably find inside of your house and rigid copper pipe, which would be used as a supply line to your home.
There are 3 types of pressure rated copper, which dictate the wall thickness of the tubing/pipe:
- Type K – Thickest walls, used underground in higher stress areas, green print on side
- Type L – Used as supply lines in residential and commercial applications, blue print
- Type M – Thinnest walls, used in inside residential plumbing systems, red print
Unlike other pipe systems, copper tubing uses the CTS (Copper Tubing Sizes) system for measurements.
PEX & PVC
Most modern installs are made with PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), excluding specific instances where copper would be best. But the interior of homes are almost exclusively done with PEX and CPVC (a chemically modified PVC product) for potable water lines.
These are plastic pipes, PEX being flexible and PVC rigid, that can be found in a variety of colors, but commonly white or tan. There are different grades of PVC and different types, but if it was installed by a licensed plumber, you can be sure they used the right material.
PEX seems to be gaining ground on PVC for installs due to its convenience and time saving characteristics. PEX is flexible – it is stored on a reel, so it can be cut to whatever length is necessary, while PVC comes in a variety of rigid lengths.
As a result, PVC pipe requires more joints and connections for long runs and turns. This can result in higher expenses for the additional fittings and labor costs.
Many people, however, still prefer PVC due to the similarities PEX has to polybutylene. Also, PVC can be solvent welded, which joins fittings and pipes on a molecular level, whereas PEX fittings are crimped on, which is a weaker connection. So far, PEX has been a reliable product, but in another decade we will be able to have a more definitive answer.
Yes, there is flexible PVC tubing, but it is a different product and should not be used for interior plumbing applications.
The remaining two types of pipe are cast iron and ABS. Hopefully neither are being used in your potable water line but both are commonly found in DWV systems.
Despite what many people believe, cast iron pipes are actually great to have in your home. They will probably outlast the house itself. In fact, the oldest cast iron pipes around were built in 1600’s in the Chateau de Versailles to distribute water to the gardens. The vast majority of that 20+ miles of pipe is original.
While cast iron was used much, much more than it is today, it is still manufactured mostly for repairs on existing systems. Ductile iron pipes have replaced the majority of the municipal applications that formerly used cast iron.
In the early days of cast iron, it was a lengthy process to connect the pipes. Oakum, fibers from hemp mixed with tar, was used as a caulking material between the pipes after they were joined together. Molten lead was then poured into the joint to keep it secure.
Obviously, this method of connecting pipes could cause a health concern if it was used in potable water systems. And modern day installs of cast iron pipe is completed with rubber gaskets and clamps.
Generally speaking, if you find cast iron pipe in your home, do not panic! Chances are great that these are being used either in a waste line or more probably as a vent stack.
Most modern DWV systems now use ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene), a rigid pipe originally used in the oil and chemical industries. It is very similar to PVC and can be used in certain potable water distribution systems outside of your home.
ABS is essentially a lighter, cheaper version of PVC. It has a cellular core which means it is not rated for pressurized applications. Thus, you will only find it in an open system, such as DWV lines.
One type of pipe not included in the above is Orangeburg pipe. It is a fiber material combined with bitumen or pitch to created a paperlike waterproof material. It’s durability has had mixed results. It is supposed to last over 50 years, but since it is essentially cardboard, if subjected to any stresses it fails considerably earlier than 50 years.
It was used on drain systems up until the 1970’s. It is worth mentioning only because it is a defective product that older homes may have buried in their yard. These pipes collapse over time and will need to be replaced entirely.
Supply Lines vs. Sanitary Lines
Earlier, I mentioned that a domestic water system is composed of two separate systems, the plumbing and the DWV. Alternatively, these can be referred to as the supply lines, which supply water to appliances and valves, and sanitary lines which transfer waste away from your home.
As you know, supply lines are currently built with either PEX or PVC. In the recent past, PVC was used in cold water lines and CPVC was used in hot water lines. Now, it is generally CPVC (chlorinated polyvinyl chloride) that is used on both lines. It is thought of as a superior product in not only hot water but also in general for potable lines.
PEX is a great product for both hot and cold water applications. In the past, the same tubing was used for both hot and cold lines, which meant the same tubing color was used for both. Now, PEX is usually installed with red lines to signify hot lines and blue to signify cold, which helps when rummaging through walls for repairs.
OK – it’s a pretty obvious difference between PEX and PVC, one is flexible and the other rigid. One is white / tan and the other is colored. One is solvent welded and the other has crimped fittings.
What isn’t always obvious is the difference between PVC supply lines and PVC DWV, or sanitary lines. Generally, you can take a look at pipe sizes.
Supply lines are generally ¾” pipes with ½” branch lines, regardless of materials. They are considerably smaller than 1 ½” – 4” sanitary line sizes. You can also see at the joints that supply lines have sharp 90° angles while waste lines have more “swooping” type bends and angles.
The swooping waste bends are called “sanitary fittings” and they swoop to accommodate sewer lines that are gravity fed. Unlike pressurize systems, the DWV lines can easily be clogged with sharp angles because of solids being used in the system.
Of course, organic materials can certainly plug up the line, feminine hygiene products are notorious for creating blockages. The swooping angles help alleviate some of those problems.
So, when you go to your hardware store, you will see two different types of fittings. If you are working on a supply line, grab the smaller fittings and get to work! If it’s the DWV line, grab the larger, sanitary fittings – plug your nose and get to back to it. There is someone anxiously waiting to use the toilet again…
Know How to Shut Off Your Water!
I could never forgive myself if this was left out of this comprehensive plumbing guide. I have had the worst luck with construction specialists in our home (which is the primary motivating reason for starting PVCGuy.com).
While I have many more stories of subcontractors in my home, one in particular was an HVAC tech that was in the attic working on the air handler for our brand new A/C system that was installed only 6 short months earlier.
The service tech accidentally stepped on a ½” hot water supply line, which broke and started pouring into our ceiling and subsequently down the walls and all over the floor. By the time I got the call from my wife, the water damage was already done. Weeks later, the flood remediation was completed and our house was almost back to its original state.
I was appalled that service tech did not know how to shut off the water to the house and I want to make sure anyone reading this guide has a very clear idea as how to do that.
Every home should have at least 2 shut off valves to stop the water supply: a source valve and service valve
Whether you have city water or a well, both sources will have a valve that prevents water flow beyond the immediate vicinity of the water main or pump. For utility-supplied water, the valve is commonly referred to as a curb stop. Usually, in warm environments, they are located inside of a concrete or metallic box near the ground’s surface that also contains your water meter.
A curb stop is a ball valve that allows you to shut off the pressure to your water meter. Many times they can be locked on vacant homes to prevent water theft. These handle-less valves can be easily turned on/off with a “curb key”, a long T-shaped wrench that allows people to reach far down.
In warmer climates any wrench will work, but in colder climates, where the curb stop valve is buried beneath the frost line, a long curb key is quite helpful. The problem with using these valves to shut off the water to your house is you will need a tool to turn it off. Unless you have the grip strength of Zeus or have a wrench nearby, you will need to find a ball valve with a handle.
Ball valves are typically found on the side of your house, in the basement or maybe under a sink, depending on your location, age of house and climate. Find that valve and memorize its exact location. Label it if you are so inclined so that family members and anyone working on the house can identify it easily in the case of a broken pipe.
Just be aware that you won’t want to make it extremely obvious or you may become the victim of pranks from the neighborhood kids.
Go ahead and test it. When we first bought our house, the handle had completely rusted off. We knew that thing wasn’t going to work so we made it a priority to replace when we moved in. Luckily, we had a curb stop that we could use to turn off the pressure for the fix.
But aside from a rusted off handle, valves can go bad.
Test your valve and make sure it is not leaking outside or inside the body of the valve itself. If you turn it clockwise to stop water pressure and drain your faucets and tubs, water should not continue flowing out. Sometimes draining the system can take 20 minutes or even longer but once the water heater is completely drained, close all but one faucet and look at how much water drains for that faucet.
You will have this service valve regardless if you have a well or municipal water and it is typically the easiest to shut off when working on your plumbing system or if you have sprung a leak.
Aside from the service valve, you should also know how and where to turn off the water pressure from the source. If you have municipal water, you can typically find a box housing under ground or at the surface on your lawn or possibly at the sidewalk. These boxes, typically concrete, tend to fill up with dirt and debris over time so don’t be surprised if you open it and find nothing but dirt. Carefully dig out the dirt with a shovel or by hand and you will find a small valve, called a curb stop valve.
For first timers, you may not know what this valve looks like. Usually it is a brass or black metal knob with a reverse flat-head screw. You can either use a curb key or grab some pliers from the garage and twist it shut. The easiest way to know when it is shut off is to look at the holes on the side and to turn it until they align – these are used to lock the valve by the water company when the house is vacant or if you stop paying your water bills.
Wells can be a little more tricky. There are so many different designs for well systems that it would be impossible to say exactly where your water source valve is located. The first place you should look is around the well itself. These will probably be some form of ball valve or even a gate valve. If it is not there, look for a service box in the ground.
Another place you can look is near the pressure tank. These could be outside or in your home if you live in a cold climate. Check in the basement or in a closet, somewhere near your water softener or hot water heater. If it is actually inside you need to hire a plumber to locate or install a valve outside of your home in case you are digging and accidentally break a pipe.
If you cannot still locate it, you can trace your water lines all the way back to the well and I can promise you it will be there, somewhere. If you still aren’t having any luck, hire a plumber to locate it for you.
Pipe Sizes and Types
Sadly, pipe sizes are one of the biggest headaches for DIYers. Many people starting on a project go straight to the hardware store, find the pipe size they need and return only to discover it doesn’t fit. It’s OK, I am going to set you straight.
It’s frustrating because you can find pipe materials manufactured in different size systems but for the sake of sanity, I am going to stick to generalizations of what a homeowner can expect from the typical hardware store.
Warning: This can be very confusing and not all pipe is manufactured universally. Be sure to ask what the pipe sizing is before buying and confirm it is the same sizing method used in your home.
First, let’s go over a few definitions.
Nominal Size – the named size of a pipe. Ex: ½”, ¾”, 1”, 2”, etc.
Outside Diameter (OD) – The outside diameter of the pipe, measured from the end of the pipe to the other end, width-wise. Most fittings are made using the outside diameter.
Inside Diameter or Bore – The diameter of the inside of the pipe. This measurement controls the flow or amount of water that can travel through the pipe in a given time.
Nominal Pipe Size (NPS) uses the pipe schedule system. You have probably heard about schedule 40 and schedule 80 PVC pipe. This sizing system was developed in 1927 based off of the previously used iron pipe size (IPS). This is a standard used for PVC pipe and what you find in hardware stores. Some manufacturers still rate their PVC in IPS, however.
The single most important factor when using NPS is the inside diameter of the pipe is the same across all pipe types using the NPS system. 1” PVC will have the same inside diameter, or bore, as CPVC or other pipe. Schedule 40 and schedule 80 will have the same inside diameter. Frustratingly, neither pipe will have 1” inside diameter or outside diameter. It appears that 1” is just an arbitrary number for the pipe, but it has only evolved away from that 1” over time. I won’t go over its evolution to save on any further confusion.
Now the schedule of the pipe dictates the wall thickness of the pipe. You can not use schedule 80 and schedule 40 fittings interchangeably. If the inside diameter stays constant but the wall thickness changes, the the outside diameter will be different.
The higher the pipe schedule, the larger the outside pipe diameter will be.
The pipe schedule tells you how strong the pipe is both structurally and when pressurized. For high pressure applications, schedule 80 PVC pipe is used but for the majority of all residential applications you will find schedule 40 pipe.
Copper Tubing Size
Copper Tubing Size (CTS) is the opposite of NPS in that it has a constant outside diameter. All pipe rated in CTS can use the same fittings, but it is still not a good idea to mix the types because it will restrict water flow and ultimately cause problems in the future.
There are three main strengths (for residential applications) of CTS pipe in the United States: Type K, Type L and Type M, with Type K being the strongest and Type M being the weakest. You can easily determine which strength copper tubing you are looking at, as Type K has green print, Type L has blue print and Type M has red print. Keep that in mind when shopping for replacement parts and to know what you currently have.
Generally speaking, you copper piping will be either Type L or more probably Type M.
In Europe, Types X, Y and Z are most commonly used with Y being the strongest and Z as the weakest. Type X is most commonly used in homes.
Australia uses Type A, Type B, Type C and Type D. They are the only place that the outside diameter actually matches the nominal size. For example, 1” copper tubing will measure out to be 1”. (Makes sense, huh? Why do that when us Americans and Europeans can just make things more complicated.)
CPVC and copper tubing is generally sold using CTS.
Other Sizing Standards
I doubt it will become a problem for anyone reading this, but there is also Ductile Iron Pipe Standard (DIPS) and Iron Pipe Size (IPS). For now, let’s just ignore these types.
Another source of frustration for DIYers is the various pipe thread standards. Before we get started, we should go over more definitions:
Male End – The end of the pipe that is inserted into the female end. If you have a bolt and nut, the bolt would be considered the male end.
Female End – The receiver of the male end. If you have a bolt and nut, the nut would be considered the female end.
Straight Threads – Exactly as it sounds, the male and female ends are the same diameter from the start to end of the thread. Usually requires pipe tape to complete seal, offers more rigidity than tapered threads.
Tapered Threads – Male end is smaller diameter at the end of the pipe and gradually increases the further away from the end. Female ends have a larger diameter at the end and gradually become smaller.
These are even more confusing so we are going to focus on the two main types found in the United States with an explanation of British Standard Pipe. Here we go!
National Pipe Thread
National Pipe Thread (NPT) is a standard tapered connection. This type of thread makes the connection tighter and tighter the more it is threaded into the female. It is watertight without the use of pipe putty or pipe tape.
National Pipe Straight
National Pipe Straight (NPS) uses straight threads when connecting. Pipe putty or tape is required to ensure a watertight connection. You can screw the male end all the way into the female end. In some cases you can use a rubber washer or o-ring to seal the connection once the male end is entirely seated into the female end.
British Standard Pipe
Used outside of the US, British Standard Pipe (BSP) is broken down into the two categories above between tapered (British Standard Pipe Taper thread abbreviated as BSPT) and straight threads (British Standard Pipe Parallel thread abbreviated BSPP).
It is also worth mentioning garden hoses have their own standard known as Garden Hose Thread (GHT). Outside of the US it is still BSP but it is important to note that the two are not compatible. Do not use European hoses in the US or American made hoses in Europe.
If you aren’t sure which type of thread is currently on a piece of pipe, you can generally determine which kind it is by looking at the thread itself. Tapered thread has a more rounded edge to it, as required to screw onto male ends. Straight threads have more sharp edges that aid in completing a seal.
It really doesn’t matter which type you use as long as you know what it is and when you need to use pipe putty or tape.
In other applications like gas lines or in piping, you may hear about flare fittings. These are tapered threads but still require pipe putty or tape. On the other-hand, compression fittings are straight threads that do not require putty or tape because of an internal mechanism that provides the seal.
You can see why there is so much confusion with threaded pipe. This is a simplified rundown on pipe threads that homeowners may run into. Certain appliances and other applications may have completely different types that we haven’t even touched on so when in doubt, seek professional help.
Hot Water Heaters
Sounds a bit redundant, right? Who needs to heat hot water? Let that sink in for a moment.
Water heaters (more appropriate name) are changing and changing quickly. Thirty years ago you had the option of gas or electric, storage water heaters. Now instant water heaters, solar water heaters and tankless water heaters are pretty common in homes. There are so many different types on the market, even those can be broken down into sub-categories.
On average, electric water heaters use up to 20% of a home’s electricity usage. That’s a staggering amount considering all the electronics people use on a daily basis.
As a result, new water heaters are increasingly being built to be more energy efficient. Don’t kid yourself, this isn’t manufacturers giving their consumers better products, they now have to comply with Department of Energy regulations and standards.
Clearly, it depends on the type of water heater you own, but in general, if you get 15 years out of a water heater, it did its job. Hard water is the #1 reason why water heaters fail and trust me, you will want to replace your water heater before it fails.
You can find water heaters on the internet for less than $500. That’s $34 dollars per year or $2.78 per month. That’s an incredible deal to to insure against flooding, considering the average cost of flood insurance is roughly $60/month and hot water heaters are one of the top 5 causes for indoor flooding problems. It’s even more important to regularly inspect and replace old water heaters if they are located in the attic or on ground level near carpet or hardwood floors.
So, let’s start by discussing the different types of water heaters:
Storage Water Heaters
Storage water heaters are still the most common types of water heaters. You can think of them as a large pot of water always sitting on the stove. They are insulated tanks with a heating element that is installed in the inside of the tank which constantly heats up a large quantity of water supplied by your potable water system. While these might be the least energy efficient of all water heaters, it’s nice to take a shower and know you have a large supply of water waiting for you – especially if you are running a dishwasher and showering at the same time.
They also are the cheapest types of water heaters, though that is slowly changing.
Storage water heaters are commonly sold for use with gas or electricity, so you have some flexibility. The biggest drawback from storage water heaters (aside from energy useage) is their bulkiness. The more hot water your family requires, the bigger they get. For some people, it’s not an issue but at my house, space is a precious commodity.
Solar Water Heaters
Solar water heaters are a really cool concept. If you live in the southern U.S. or anywhere with a warm climate and plenty of sunny days, these are something you could use.in your home. These are quite expensive to purchase, particularly the install. Even with federal and local tax credits for installation, it takes many, many years for the energy savings to pay for itself. Make sure to do a cost analysis and due diligence before getting suckered into buying something that will cost more than it’s worth.
In the winter and fall is a real drawback for solar water heaters. If the sun ain’t shinin’, you ain’t heatin’. Most of these systems come with backup up systems that allow you to heat in the dead of winter, which pretty much defeats the purpose of them – at least for half of the year.
Contrary to what many believe / assume, these are not outfitted with solar panels. Instead, they operate like a reverse vehicle radiator. Instead of anti-freeze which carries thermal heat away from your engine, the solar fluids flow through pipes in the sun and transfer the heat back to your water. The good news is, they last longer than your average solar panel.
Don’t be fooled into thinking solar water heaters are useless. On a hot summer day, these things can reach extreme temperatures. So much so that they are typically equipped with a controller that can actually cool the water back down to a useable temperature (and to protect the system itself.)
Environmentally conscious families should definitely consider this type of water heater an option.
If you go this route, you need to go big or go home. The extra costs to get actively pumped systems are well worth the money to prevent freezing or overheating. The cheaper models use a “passive” system which relies on the heat of the fluid to cause circulation throughout the system. It is certainly more energy efficient but less efficient in terms of water heating capabilities.
Tankless Water Heaters
These water heaters are used mostly for gas systems, although they can be fitted to be used on electric as well. They draw an enormous amount of electricity when in use but it only draws when required. They are much more energy efficient than the tank systems but are greatly limited in the amount of hot water available at one time. Don’t run your washer while you take take a shower or you will be in for an unpleasant surprise.
The systems are becoming more and more popular. They are great for vacation homes that do not need constant hot water. The smaller size is also a huge plus for smaller home, if it’s not already obvious these are the only water heaters that do not have a tank and store hot water.
Other Types of Water Heaters
There are a few other types of water heaters that rely on either exhaust gases or ambient air for heating supplementation. They offer a lot of potential as the technology increases but at this time I would not recommend them to anyone. They are expensive and are quite bulky. They also require more maintenance.
Shopping for Water Heaters
The first step in your water heater replacement is determining what you need. If you can fork out the initial investment for a tankless water heater, you can recoup the costs later in its life. How long you ask? That depends on frequency and volume of hot water you will be using.
You can can calculate your water usage using the estimated water needs below.
Shower ~ 10 – 25 gal
Dishwasher ~ 3 – 7 gal
Washing Machine ~ 5 – 45 gal
Washing Hands or Dishes in Sink ~ 2 gal/minute
Bath ~ 15+ gal
As you can see these are HUGE ranges. The amount of hot water your appliances require greatly depend on your appliances and their age. For example, some of the ultra-efficient washing machines can even use less than 5 gallons per cycle while older machines can use even more than 45 gal per cycle. Of course, all of this depends on if you even use your hot water during a cycle.
The easiest way to determine an accurate usage of hot water is to consult the hot water requirements in your manuals or online searching for the model and year of the appliance, and to also take a look at your habits. Do you take shorter showers or longer showers? Or do you enjoy a nice bubble bath after a hard day’s work?
The next step is to determine how many of these hot watering using appliances are used simultaneously. Are you the type of person that with run the dishwasher, clothes washer and take a shower at the same time? I know in our household, after dinner comes the “clean up” hour where we could be doing all three at the same time.
Keep in mind, if you need heavy volumes around the same general time, you should look into storage water heaters. If not, tankless might be a better option, assuming you can afford the initial investment. Not sure? Look into the hybrids.
Water Heater Capacities
You can estimate your needs of hot water for storage water heaters based only on your family size (or number of roommates.) According to Home Depot:
|Household Size||Gallon Capacity|
|1 – 2||23 – 36|
|2 – 4||36 – 46|
|3 – 5||46 – 56|
|5 or more||56 or higher|
For a tankless water heater you need to mainly focus on hot water flow rates and compare to your expected needs at any given time. Also from Home Depot:
|Fixture/Appliance||Typical Flow Rates|
|Bathroom Faucet||0.5 – 1.5 GPM|
|Kitchen Faucet||3.0 – 7.0 GPM|
|Shower||1.0 – 2.0 GPM|
|Dishwasher||1.0 – 2.5 GPM|
|Clothes Washer||1.5 – 3.0 GPM|
Water Heater Efficiencies
All water heaters will come with an Energy Factor (EF) rating. If you are looking to save on your electricity bill you need to be wary of this factor when deciding to make a purchase. The closer the rating is to 1, the more energy efficient the appliance will be.
On average, electric water heaters are more efficient that other forms of energy use to heat. And tankless is generally more efficient than storage water heaters.
If you are really trying to pinch pennies, you can look storage water heaters and install a water heater timer. Timers only heat water certain times of the day or whenever you specify it to do so. Not many people need hot water at 2 am, but you may regret your choice on a cold winter night when you are sick! These are all things to take into consideration when making your purchase.