Photograph by Jeff Morgan / Alamy
Each type of water heater has its own pros and cons. This list of green options explores the impacts of each.
Tankless Systems: Tankless, or on-demand, water heaters can cut energy use by 30 percent using one simple concept: Rather than continually heating a tank full of water, which sits unused in the basement for hours on end, tankless systems heat water only when it’s needed. And, hot water never runs out, even when your teenager takes an extra-long shower.
Tankless heaters last an average of 20 years, longer than most storage-tank systems, so they don’t end up in landfills as often. However, as with all green products, usage is a critical factor. An endless supply of hot water might tempt some owners to increase demand—and decrease their green savings.
Solar Heaters: The sun is the oldest water heating system there is—and it’s making a comeback. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that more than 1.5 million U.S. homes and businesses heat their water with the sun—and more than 94 percent of them call those systems a good investment.
Mother Earth agrees. Solar heaters produce zero greenhouse gas emissions. You could save some 50 tons of CO2 during the 20-year lifespan of a typical solar water heater.
Most Energy Star-certified solar heat systems are used with gas or electric backup, so users needn’t worry about being caught without hot water. To make the most of a solar heater, mount it on a suitable roof that faces south and receives direct sunlight during the late morning and afternoon hours. And sure, being in the Sun Belt helps efficiency—but it’s not necessary.
“Germany is a leader in solar water heating and that’s not exactly an ideal climate for it,” says Lane Burt, a building energy engineer at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Solar heaters can be expensive. Even if it cuts your annual costs in half, you may need a decade to recoup the cost. But federal and state tax incentives are making these systems more affordable. Then there’s the added bonus of showing off your rooftop tank, which is becoming a bit of a green status symbol.
More Buying Guides
Green Living Video
What's Your Water Footprint?
Photographer David Doubilet photographs stingrays, sharks, and more.
The Great Energy Challenge
An initiative to help you understand our current energy situation.
See how you measure up against others, and how changes at home could do tons to protect the planet.
Special Ad Section
The World's Water
NG's new Change the Course campaign launches. When individuals pledge to use less water in their own lives, our partners carry out restoration work in the Colorado River Basin.
A special series on how grabbing water from poor people and future generations threatens global food security, environmental sustainability, and local cultures.