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How Does a Hot Water Heater Work?

by Carrie / September 21, 2020

Most people can't imagine life without their hot water heater, yet don't think much about them. Hot water heaters are essential to any household, working around the clock to make sure showers are hot and people don't have to wash their hands in icy water. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, water heaters are responsible for about 17% of a home's entire energy consumption. That's more than the total of all other household appliances combined!

Because hot water heaters work in the background, they are literally out of sight, out of mind. But there’s no question that your water heater is busy at all hours - typical American households in the U.S. use 64 gallons of water every day! Unfortunately, many people don't know the red flags to watch for or what to do if their water heater needs to be repaired. However, getting the basics of how hot water heaters function is straightforward.

Hot Water Heaters 101

Although there are several types of hot water heaters, they all work on the same basic principles. A fuel source, such as natural gas or propane, heats water and then distributes it to water fixtures in your home. This can include the sink, bathtub, dishwasher, and/or washing machine.

While water heaters are now aided by modern technology, similar concepts have been in place for centuries. Some of the earliest water heaters simply involved heating water in a bucket over a wood fire. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the first automatic water heaters were invented. Today, one of two types of hot water heaters can be found in most homes:


1. Storage Water Heaters

This is the most common kind of water heater, largely because they have low operating costs and there are a number of choices in terms of size and fuel source. Storage water heaters all work the same way — by storing the water in a tank and maintaining a set temperature. If the water in the tank drops below that set temperature, the water heater automatically warms it back up. Gas-powered water heaters use a fuel and burner system to do this, while electric heaters use thermostat-powered heating elements and then conduct heat into the water.

Whether you have a gas or electric water heater, cold water generally enters the tank from the top and travels down to the bottom for storage. The burner or thermostat heats the water as needed from the bottom, then sends it back up through the top of the tank and to your home's water fixtures. Storage water heaters are also usually covered in thick, heavy layers of insulation to retain heat and prevent it from escaping externally.

 

2. Tankless Water Heaters

Also commonly referred to as “on-demand water heaters,” tankless water heaters are a modern solution that use heat exchangers to warm water. As their name implies, they don't store water at all. Flow sensors detect water approaching the heating unit when you turn on a hot water faucet inside your home, then they activate the heat exchanger to warm the water as it passes through. As soon as the hot water faucet has been turned off, tankless water heaters automatically stop heating the water.

Like traditional storage water heaters, tankless hot water heaters are available in gas or electric versions. Some models use recirculation pumps or condensers to provide hot water faster, essentially preheating the incoming cold water.

White hot water heater tank
At Ultimate Heating & Cooling in Denver, we recommend having your water heater inspected regularly to ensure it's working properly, and doing it before winter arrives is smart so you have plenty of time to address any issues that do arise. Our family-owned business has proudly served the Denver area for more than 20 years! Contact us today to schedule your furnace/heating system service appointment.
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