You are here

Conventional Storage Water Heater Basics

July 30, 2013 - 3:39pm


Illustration showing the components of a storage water heater. On top of the tank are two thin pipes; one pipe is the hot water outlet, and the other is the cold water inlet. A large pipe in the middle is called a vent pipe. A pressure/temperature relief valve is also on top of the tank and is connected to an open pipe that runs down the side of the tank. Another valve near the bottom of the outside of the tank is the thermostat and gas valve. A cutout shows the parts inside the tank, which include a large tube called a flue tube/heat exchanger. Inside this tube is a jagged insert called a flue baffle. Beside the flue tube/heat exchanger is a thin tube called the anode rod. At the bottom of the tank is a gas burner, and beneath the burner are combustion air openings.Conventional storage water heaters remain the most popular type of water heating system for homes and buildings.

How Conventional Storage Water Heaters Work

A storage water heater operates by releasing hot water from the top of the tank when you turn on the hot water tap. To replace that hot water, cold water enters the bottom of the tank, ensuring that the tank is always full. A residential water heater may store from 20 to 80 gallons of hot water, while a commercial storage water heater can range from 20 to hundreds of gallons.

Conventional storage water heater fuel sources include natural gas, propane, fuel oil, and electricity. Natural gas and propane water heaters basically operate the same. A gas burner under the tank heats the water. A thermostat opens the gas valve as the water temperature falls. The valve closes when the temperature rises to the thermostat's setpoint. Oil-fired water heaters operate similarly, but they have power burners that mix oil and air in a vaporizing mist, ignited by an electric spark. Electric water heaters have one or two electric elements, each with its own thermostat. With two electric elements, a standby element at the bottom of the tank maintains the minimum thermostat setting while the upper demand element provides hot water recovery when demand heightens.

Because water is constantly heated in the tank, energy can be wasted even when a hot water tap isn't running. This is called standby heat loss. Only tankless water heaters—such as demand water heaters and tankless coil water heaters—avoid standby heat losses. However, some storage water heater models have heavily insulated tanks, which significantly reduce standby heat losses.

Gas and oil water heaters also have venting-related energy losses. Two types of water heaters—a fan-assisted gas water heater and an atmospheric sealed-combustion water heater—reduce these losses. The fan-assisted gas water heater uses a draft-induced fan that regulates the air that passes through the burner, which minimizes the amount of excess air during combustion, increasing efficiency. The atmospheric sealed-combustion water heater uses a combustion and venting system that is totally sealed from the house.

Other options include less conventional storage water heaters—heat pump water heaters and solar water heaters. These water heaters are usually more expensive but they typically have lower annual operating costs.

More Information

Visit the Energy Saver website for more information about the selection, installation, and maintenance of conventional water heaters and energy-efficient water heating strategies.