Boilers vs. Water Heaters, Which Do You Need?
A water heater is an appliance designed to heat water for use in a home or business. There are several types of water heaters, each suitable for different uses and needs.
Water heaters range from small tankless designs to large storage tanks capable of heating enough hot water to last the entire home or business through the winter. A standard electric water heater can be used almost anywhere and is easy to install and replace if necessary.
At the same time, a boiler is a heating appliance that turns burning natural gas, propane, oil, or wood into hot water to heat a home or kiln. The boiler is placed in the basement or crawlspace of most homes. A small box with a flue pipe runs from the boiler to the outside of the house, where it connects to one of several other pipes running through the attic and down into the laundry room. Another pipe carries hot water from where it is heated to all required rooms on different floors in your home.
The Differences Between a Boiler and a Water Heater
A water heater is a gas-fired furnace with a flame, meaning it doesn't require any energy to operate. The energy to heat the water comes from taking advantage of the difference between the temperature of your cold water and hot water to boil water and create steam. The more efficient boilers are designed with an entirely different way of heating water.
Boilers use far less heat than electric systems because they work differently but can still produce hot water for all uses in and around a home or business. Boiler systems replace old electric systems by eliminating the need for an electric tank instead of a boiler. Boilers produce hot water almost instantly, while electric systems often take 15 to 20 minutes to get hot water flowing.
Efficiency and Controls
Boiler systems have a high-efficiency rating. The higher the rating, the more efficient the system is at converting charcoal or fuel into heat for your home. Electric water heaters are not as efficient as boilers but are much better than tanks with no insulation. You can find electric water heaters as high as 25% efficient, but most only hold about 10 gallons of hot water.
It's best to look for a 55% efficient or higher electric water heater. If you have more than one water heater in your home, ensure they are as efficient as possible by finding the most efficient on the market.
Electric water heaters come with one temperature setting. They can only be adjusted for different temperatures, so taking care of your family and home is more challenging when you're away during winter. Boiler systems come with a thermostat setting that allows a more precise adjustment than an electric unit to adjust heating capacity to suit all yearly needs.
Boiler systems require professional installation, including a gas line and flue pipe that connect to an outside wall of your home where the chimney exits. Boilers are also harder to install because they must be appropriately aligned and require more specific measurements to operate correctly. It needs to be more than just let it sit in a hole in the wall, which is how many gas water heaters are installed.
One advantage of electric systems is that they are much safer than boilers. Boilers have hot flues and pipes that leak gas into your home and can cause an explosion if a flue pipe cracks or breaks. The chimney can also crumble if it isn't adequately sealed, which carries the same risk.
If you install a boiler, hire a professional to ensure proper installation and alignment. It's also essential to have an adequately vented flue pipe so that gas can exit your house instead of leaking into it.
Electric water heaters often have one set, so they produce little heat. The amount of hot water you can use at one time is limited by the amount of hot water that comes out of the faucet, which could be inconvenient for many households with more than one person.
Boilers offer a higher capacity when it comes to heating hot water. It's common for an electric water heater to heat hot water at 1 gallon per minute, while a boiler can heat much more than that, reaching up to 30 gallons per minute.
Boiler systems are designed to be upgraded if a more extensive system is needed. Boilers are upgraded for increased heat output and efficiency.
The only additional control a boiler requires is the temperature of the water coming into the system, which is essential since too hot of water isn't suitable for most plumbing systems or the need to keep it at a consistent and economical temperature. You cannot work with boilers because this amount is automatically determined based on electricity consumption and weather conditions.
Electric water heaters often require more maintenance than boilers do. If your electric water heater breaks and needs to be replaced, you can change out a part of your house, while boiling systems are so complicated that they require dedicated expertise.
Boilers need more attention over time to keep them running correctly after changing out parts in the system, which is why boilers cost much more than water heaters over time. It's a good idea to hire a professional when you purchase a boiler, when it fails for the first time, or whenever you want to upgrade.
Electric water heaters are much cheaper than boilers. Most of the time, electric water heaters cost half as much to purchase and install as boilers do. Electric water heaters are much easier to install because they have only one control setting that is adjusted quickly.
Boilers cost more than electric water heaters because they need a professional to install, while you can do it yourself with an electric water heater. Maintaining an electric system is much easier and less expensive than maintaining a boiler system since you don't have to hire anyone for installation or repairs if your boiler breaks down from overuse.
Most boiler systems are not made well and are often used to replace older electric water heaters. Newer systems have a high quality and are easily recognizable by their insulation, comparable to electric water heaters' quality. Older gas systems can be low-quality because they require high maintenance to keep from breaking down quickly.
The more you use an older unit, the more likely it is that hot water will stop flowing or will take longer for the hot water to reach your faucet. The more often you use an electric system, the higher the risk of something going wrong and having to be replaced immediately.
Electric water heaters and boilers have advantages and disadvantages, each with pros and cons. It depends on your situation and how much you will spend on your new water heater. There's no right or wrong answer regarding which is better for your household and home, but there are clear advantages in choosing the most efficient water heater.
Boilers have lasting power when it comes to heating hot water and can usually heat water much faster than an electric water heater can. Electric systems can be challenging to install, especially if you need a gas line installed along with a chimney, and they often require more maintenance than boilers do, even though they're cheaper over time. It all depends on your situation and what you need. If you live somewhere where using a boiler may be difficult, then an electric water heater may be your best option.