Compare Gas, Electric, and Oil Water Heaters: Pros and Cons

In this comprehensive article, we will compare gas, electric, and oil water heaters, focusing specifically on the tank-type models that are commonly used in homes.

By examining the main advantages and disadvantages of each option, we aim to provide you with the crucial information needed to make an informed decision about the water heating solution that best suits your household's needs.

Exploring electric water heaters

How electric water heaters work?

Electric water heaterWestinghouse

Electric water heaters, encompassing both tank and tankless designs, efficiently heat water using electrical energy.

In tank models, water is heated by internal elements and stored until needed, with a thermostat ensuring consistent temperature by reactivating the elements as the water cools.

Tankless electric heaters, conversely, heat water directly on demand as it flows over the elements, eliminating the need for a storage tank and reducing energy consumption by heating water only when necessary.

This direct heating approach means endless hot water for as long as the tap remains open, making tankless electric heaters particularly efficient and suitable for homes prioritizing energy savings and space efficiency.

Pros of electric water heaters

  • Affordable purchase price: Electric water heaters are typically less expensive than gas models, providing a cost-effective option for those on a tight budget.
  • Simplicity in construction: Their straightforward design enhances their reliability and ease of repair.
  • Ease of installation and maintenance: Thanks to their uncomplicated structure and the ubiquity of their electrical components, these heaters are relatively easy to install and maintain. This simplicity also makes troubleshooting more straightforward, with many issues being easy to identify and resolve.
  • Convenient component replacement: Finding and replacing parts is generally hassle-free, which can help in extending the lifespan of the heater with minimal effort.
  • Flexible installation locations: Their ability to be installed in various places around the home, including unconventional spaces like under counters or in closets, is a significant advantage since they don't require venting.
  • No venting required: Unlike their gas counterparts, electric heaters don't emit combustion gases, eliminating the need for external venting systems.
  • Independent operation: They operate without needing indoor air for combustion, allowing for more versatility in placement within the home.
  • High efficiency and Energy Star models: Including heat pump water heaters, these models offer high efficiency and are often Energy Star certified, indicating top energy performance.
  • Low direct energy loss: With heating elements fully immersed in the water, nearly all the energy used is transferred directly to the water, minimizing loss.
  • Minimal impact on space heating and cooling: These heaters do not significantly affect the home’s heating and cooling systems, helping to maintain overall energy efficiency.
  • Compatibility with solar water heating systems: They can serve as reliable backup systems in solar water heating setups, ensuring a consistent hot water supply.
  • Wide range of sizes and types: The variety available means there's likely a model to fit any household's specific hot water requirements.

Cons of electric water heaters

  • Dependence on electricity: One significant downside is their reliance on electricity to operate. This means that during power outages, homes with electric water heaters will not have access to hot water, which can be a considerable inconvenience.
  • Slower hot water recovery: Electric models generally take longer to heat up water compared to gas heaters. This slower recovery rate can be a drawback in households with high hot water demand, leading to situations where hot water may run out during peak usage times.
  • Potential electrical upgrades required: Some older homes may not have electrical systems equipped to handle the high electrical demand of electric water heaters, particularly tankless models. Upgrading the electric panel and wiring to accommodate the heater can add a significant cost to the installation process.
  • Higher electricity rates in some regions: In areas where electricity is more expensive than gas or other fuel types, operating an electric water heater can be more costly over time. This can offset the lower initial purchase and installation costs, making it a less economical choice for energy consumption in the long run.

Exploring gas water heaters

How gas heaters work?

AO Smith gas water heaterAO Smith

Gas water heaters, both tank and tankless types, operate on a simple yet efficient principle using natural gas or propane as a fuel source.

For gas tank models, water is heated and stored in a large tank, allowing for a ready supply when needed. These heaters maintain water temperature by automatically igniting the burner when the water cools below a set threshold.

Tankless models, on the other hand, heat water directly on demand. When a hot water tap is opened, cold water flows through the heater, where a gas burner heats it instantly, providing continuous hot water without the need for a storage tank.

Both systems utilize gas burners and heat exchangers, but tankless heaters offer the advantage of reduced energy consumption by eliminating the need to keep a tank of water constantly heated.

Pros of gas water heaters

  • Fast water heating: Gas water heaters are known for their ability to heat water rapidly, ensuring that hot water is available quicker than with electric heaters. This efficiency is particularly valuable in households with high hot water demands, ensuring a steady supply during peak times.
  • Cost-efficiency with natural gas: Utilizing natural gas for heating water is generally more economical than using propane, oil, or electricity. The lower cost of natural gas can translate into substantial savings on utility bills over the lifespan of the heater.
  • High energy efficiency: Many gas water heaters, especially those bearing the Energy Star label, operate at high energy efficiency levels. This not only reduces operational costs but also minimizes the environmental impact by using less fuel to heat the same amount of water.
  • Advanced venting options: The flexibility in venting allows for a variety of installation locations and methods, including through the chimney, roof, or sidewall, with options for horizontal or vertical venting. This versatility makes them adaptable to different home layouts and installation requirements.
  • Operational without electricity: Some gas water heater models can operate without electricity, making them reliable options during power outages. This feature ensures that hot water is available even in emergency situations.
  • Availability of condensing technology: Condensing gas water heaters capture heat from exhaust gases that would otherwise be wasted, enhancing efficiency and reducing energy consumption. This technology represents a leap forward in water heating efficiency.
  • Integration of smart technology: Modern gas water heaters can include advanced electronics and smart technology features, facilitating easy troubleshooting, monitoring, and control. This allows for enhanced user experience and management of heating preferences.
  • Diverse options in size and efficiency: The market offers a wide range of sizes and efficiency levels for gas water heaters, making it easier for consumers to find a model that fits their specific needs and preferences, whether they prioritize capacity, space-saving, or energy savings.

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Cons of gas water heaters

  • Complexity and installation constraints: The complexity of gas water heaters, due to their venting requirements and the need for a gas line connection, can limit installation options. The chosen location must accommodate the specific venting option and gas line placement, potentially complicating installation and limiting flexibility in unit placement.
  • Increased risk of component failure: Gas water heaters are equipped with more components than their electric counterparts, such as burners, pilot lights, and venting systems. This complexity can increase the likelihood of parts failing, leading to more frequent maintenance or repair needs.
  • Noise from power vent models: Models with a built-in electric blower, known as power vent water heaters, can generate noise during operation. The sound produced by the blower can be a nuisance, especially in quiet home environments or where the heater is located near living spaces.
  • Need for combustion air intake: Some gas water heater models require external openings for combustion air intake, which can involve creating openings in walls or doors. This requirement can affect the heater's placement and may be seen as a drawback in terms of installation and home aesthetics.
  • Potential for gas spillages: The use of natural gas or propane introduces the risk of gas spillages, which can occur if the appliance or the gas supply line is damaged or malfunctioning. Such spillages pose safety hazards, including the risk of fire or explosion.
  • Risk of carbon monoxide leakage: Improper venting or unit malfunction can lead to carbon monoxide (CO) leaking into the house, posing serious health risks. CO is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause illness or even death, necessitating the installation of CO detectors and regular maintenance checks.
  • Dependency on electricity for power vent models: While gas water heaters can operate during power outages, power vent models require electricity for the blower to function. This dependency negates one of the traditional advantages of gas heaters during power outages, limiting their utility in emergency situations.
  • Higher fuel costs compared to natural gas: Propane is typically more expensive than natural gas, making propane gas water heaters more costly to operate. This price difference can significantly affect long-term operating costs, making propane a less economical choice for those with access to natural gas.
  • Necessity of a propane storage tank: Unlike natural gas, which is delivered through pipelines, propane requires on-site storage in a tank. This need for a propane storage tank can introduce additional considerations, such as the tank's placement, which must comply with safety regulations, and the space it occupies.
  • Requirement for planned fuel delivery: Propane tanks need to be refilled, which necessitates scheduled deliveries. This requirement adds a layer of planning and potential inconvenience, as running out of propane can leave you without hot water until the next delivery. Furthermore, severe weather or logistical issues can delay deliveries, impacting the availability of hot water.

Oil-powered water heaters

How oil-powered water heaters work?

Oil-powered water heaters operate by burning home heating oil to generate heat, which is then transferred to the water within the tank.

Similar to gas water heaters, they have a burner located at the bottom of the tank, but instead of using natural gas or propane, they utilize heating oil as the fuel source.

The oil is ignited in the combustion chamber, and the heat produced is absorbed by the water in the tank through a heat exchanger.

This process efficiently heats the water to the desired temperature, which is then delivered to taps and appliances throughout the home when needed.

Oil-fired heaters often come with a storage tank for the oil, requiring regular deliveries from a supplier. They are particularly common in areas where natural gas is not readily available and can be an efficient hot water solution for homes already using oil for space heating.

Pros of oil-powered water heaters

  • Fastest recovery rate: Among all types of water heaters, oil-powered models boast the fastest recovery rate, meaning they can heat a significant volume of water more quickly than gas or electric heaters. This feature is particularly beneficial for households with high hot water demand, ensuring a steady supply even during peak usage times.
  • High input rates: Oil-fired water heaters can operate at very high input rates, allowing them to deliver a large amount of hot water in a short period. This high level of efficiency is ideal for larger families or any situation where rapid heating of water is desired.
  • Flexible venting options: These heaters offer versatile venting solutions, including the ability to vent through a chimney or directly through an exterior wall. This flexibility can simplify the installation process and make it easier to integrate an oil water heater into a variety of home layouts.
  • Sealed combustion models: Some oil-powered water heaters are designed with sealed combustion chambers, which means they do not rely on indoor air for combustion. This design enhances efficiency by preventing the loss of heated indoor air, making these models more energy-efficient and safer, as they reduce the risk of backdrafting and improve overall home air quality.

Cons of oil-powered water heaters

  • Necessity of an oil storage tank: To operate an oil-powered water heater, you must have a storage tank on your property to hold the heating oil. This requirement not only takes up space but also necessitates careful monitoring to ensure you don't run out of fuel, especially during peak usage periods or colder months.
  • Need for scheduled oil delivery: Unlike natural gas, which is supplied continuously through pipelines, heating oil must be delivered by truck. This means homeowners must plan and schedule oil deliveries in advance to avoid running out of hot water. Managing these deliveries can add an extra layer of complexity to household maintenance.
  • Limited model availability: Compared to gas and electric water heaters, there are fewer oil-powered models on the market. This reduced selection can make it harder to find a unit that fits specific needs or preferences, potentially limiting options for efficiency, size, and features.
  • Dependency on electricity: Despite being fueled by oil, these water heaters still require electricity to operate components like the burner ignition system and controls. This means that in the event of a power outage, the water heater will not function, which could be inconvenient during extreme weather conditions or other emergencies.
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