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Converting to an electric water heater from gas

by Mark Bower

If you've priced a new manufactured home gas water heater lately, you've discovered that sealed combustion units cost over $675 WITHOUT installation. Are gas water heaters still the way to go? In my opinion the answer is 'NO'.

Water heater manufacturers must display on the unit itself the estimated annual operating cost. If anyone has recently made a trip to the local home improvement store to examine those stickers, you'll notice that electric water heaters cost twice as much to operate than natural gas. Hmmmm. Take a closer look at those stickers and you'll find that many manufacturers are still quoting energy rates from 1994! Back in 1994 it did cost twice as much to operate an electric water heater than gas (assuming no special price breaks were given on electricity as some cooperatives may do). So for the most part, those stickers from some companies are worthless.

water heater removal Computing the annual operating cost of a gas water heater is tough to do because gas prices fluctuate monthly. I recently spoke to a retired technician who specialized in gas and energy usage, and he said that when natural gas costs reach 91 cents a therm, they pretty much equal the cost of operating an electric water heater. Right now (February 2005), natural gas in my area is $1.44 per therm. According to the technician, right now it's costing me a lot more to operate a gas water heater than electric.

Then there's the cost of the water heater. At the time of this writing, a person could still buy an electric water heater with a 6 year warranty for $190-$240. As you stated in your letter, sealed combustion gas water heaters designed for manufactured homes are $550 or more. If you have an outside access to your water heater, then you may be able to get by with a standard gas water heater as long as its approved for a manufactured home. Remember, if you own a manufactured home, you can only use a gas water heater approved for manufactured homes. It's against the law to use anything else. Electric water heaters aren't so critical.

Based upon today's energy costs and water heater prices, I would replace a gas water heat with an electric model. Of course you also need to consider whether or not you have enough available space/amps in your fuse box to install an electric water heater.

Do keep in mind that new government regulations and the price of steel have really impacted the price of a water heater. Many price increases have already been passed on, but sources are telling me to expect even more prices increases this coming year mainly due to high steel prices.

The steps listed below will give you a good idea of what's involved in replacing your gas water heater with an electric unit.

Assess your Electrical Panel

electrical panel Before you even begin converting a gas water heater to electric, you need to know if your current electric panel has the capacity to feed an electric water heater. If not, updating to a bigger panel may be more of a project than you wish to tackle as it could also include bringing a bigger service line into your home. All electric work should be done by a licensed electrician.

To run an electrical wire over to your water heater, bring the wire down from the electrical panel, run it underneath the home and then route it up into the water heater closet. Be sure to use electrical wiring rated for outdoor use. Electrical wiring should be at least 10 gauge and hooked to a double 30-amp fuse. Be sure to check the manufacturer requirements for your electric water heater.

Note: never turn the power on to your water heater without first filling it with water as you will burn out the heating elements.

Disconnect and remove old water heater

water heater 1. Shut off water and gas to old water heater.

2. Drain water. Use a garden hose. Lift the lever up on the pressure relief valve to allow air into the tank to help it drain. If the lever on the pressure relief valve is stuck, then cut a waterline at the TOP of the water heater.

3. Disconnect gasline and cap open end. Better yet, completely remove the gasline from the water heater closet as it's no longer needed.

cut waterlines 4. Disconnect vent/chimney. Plug chimney with fiberglass insulation, or remove and patch roof.

5. Cut old waterlines. Don't even try to reuse those old waterlines with the corroded ends. Plan on installing new.

6. Pull that water heater out of the closet and haul it to the scrap yard.

Installing an easy-accessible water shut-off

access door With the old water heater removed, now is the time to prep the closet for your new electric water heater. Start with adding a main water shut-off valve that's easily accessible by anyone in the home.

On the outside of the closet, cut an opening in the wall and install an access door. Behind this door will be your main water shut-off. Cut carefully as you may find an electrical wire inside the wall.

water shut-off If necessary, reroute the waterlines to the very side of the closet. Install a whole-house main water shut-off in front of the access door you installed in the previous step.

water lines Once assembled, your waterline set-up will be similar to this.

access door Installed access door showing a peak at the main shut-off behind it.

Preparing closet for new water heater

Once you have the waterlines moved off to the side and the main shut-off installed, the rest is elementary. If you haven't already, remove the gasline. Do this from underneath your home. When finished, check all caps for leaks. If you are not comfortable with gas, then hire a competent service person to do the job for you.

tape holes Seal all the old holes left in the floor to prevent any critters from finding their way in from the belly. Using a piece of stick-it-n-forget-it tape will make quick work of those holes. Scraps of aluminum nailed over the holes will also work too. Whatever you use will need to be flat. Of course if the floor of your closet has been damaged from the old leaking water heater, then replace the floor or overlay it with a new floor. Use treated plywood so you don't have to do it again anytime soon.

drip pan If you've taken the time to move the waterlines off to the side, then you will now be one of the rare homeowners who could have room for a drip pan. If you have the room, install one now. Connect a drain to the pan so if a problem ever develops, the water will drain underneath the home.

Install the new electric water heater

pex adapters Before wrestling the new water heater into the closet, first install any fittings needed to hook the waterlines to the heater. It's easiest to install these fittings now while its sitting on your back deck with all the room in the world.

Note: in this example we did not use the flexible copper leads. Most codes require the copper leads on gas water heaters, but not electric. Check the codes in your area.

waterline connections Set the water heater into the closet taking care not to damage the drip pan. Connect the waterlines including a shut-off on both the hot and cold waterlines.

electric water heater Turn the water on and check for leaks. Fill the tank with water. Make the electrical connections and turn the power on. NEVER TURN ON THE POWER BEFORE THE WATER HEATER IS FILLED. You should have warm water in less than an hour.

leak detector As a final touch, add a leak detector to warn you of any future water leaks.

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