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Americans Consume - A Commentary by Jim Snell

Americans consume, it is what they do!

Are American consumers really trying to reduce energy consumption, or is this just another false start like the oil crises' of the 1970s?  

We have all heard about the "American consumer". Why Americans are called "consumers" is simply because they consume everything they can find, and typically in a very big way. After all, consuming is the "American Way" and this includes oil, electricity, water, and natural gas. Often they consume in ways that are in fact shameful. But Americans don't care, they can consume as much as they want and nobody can do anything about that. It is the right to consume that drives the American economy. Or is it? With the $4.00 per gallon gasoline prices of 2008, Americans were suddenly dumping their big cars and SUVs and in a few months they had purchased millions of little automobiles with small fuel efficient engines. With a typical American knee-jerk reaction to high gasoline prices, Americans are buying these same little cars that people the world over have been using for decades. For more than half a century Europeans and Asians accept these same small cars as they have dense cities with not much available parking space and traditionally pay two or three times as much for gasoline than drivers in the USA. In late 2008 the U.S. Government instituted the "cash for clunkers" bill which paid new car buyers a discount at the dealership up to $4500.00 if they traded-in their gas guzzler for an economy model. This was designed to help the struggling auto industry and reduce the need for imported oil.

So, what else is new on the energy saving subject? Tankless water heaters! The typical American will ask; what is a tankless water heater? Another way in which Americans waste energy is the ways in which they heat hot water. As usual, Americans have procrastinated until they are the last culture on earth to change their wasteful ways. Fifty years after Europe began to use tankless hot water heaters this technology has finally entered the minds of some American homeowners. After 100 years without change, Americans are slowly beginning to accept new energy efficient water heater technology. For America, today's flavor of the month is to "go green". This and a substantial tax credit for "green" devices are driving the rapidly expanding USA market for eco-friendly tankless water heaters.

The large storage tank type water heater in the typical USA home is a big user of energy. The average American household spends $400 to $600 per year for water heating, making water heating the second highest energy expenditure behind furnace and air conditioner operation. Like the $4.00 per gallon gasoline prices of 2008, it seems that only a slap in the face can awaken the typical American from their wasteful ways. Again the U.S. Government steps in to stimulate (pay) Americans to reduce their energy consumption. This tax credit incentive took effect in February of 2009 and offered a substantial Federal Income tax credit to get the attention of the public and news media alike.


Unlike Europe and Asia, where tankless on-demand water heaters are common, in the USA storage type units are prevalent. The storage tank type water heater is well developed, understood by most homeowners, but really quite wasteful. Conventional tank type heaters are throw away appliances and their carcasses are clogging landfills and lying in roadside ditches across North America.

In the USA, the traditional residential whole house gas model tank type heater dates to 1894. The first model with 90% efficiency was produced in Kalamazoo, Michigan by a company named Humphrey. Today's tank models are only about 75% efficient. The reason is because of simple economics. The older models were made of "Monel" which was a copper-nickel alloy. Many of these that were produced in the 1940s and '50s are still in use today. For many years, the primary concern for USA consumers and contractors was simply the lowest possible price. To be competitive in the marketplace, today's tank type heaters are made from very thin metal with a glass coating. Some of them have external insulation wraps as well. Essentially, Americans accept new heaters that are 20% less efficient than those of 100 years ago. The bottom line is that tank type heaters keep large quantities of water at a specified temperature 24/7 and this wastes energy. Imagine how much energy is expended nationwide to keep all of those tanks of hot water at a constant temperature? It is almost incomprehensible how much energy could be saved if every USA household had a water heater that only used energy when a hot water faucet or shower was actually turned on.


In comparison to conventional tank heaters, tankless models differ in the fact that they do not have a large water storage tank. These models supply instant hot water in a continuous supply as needed. Sensors turn on the instant heater when a hot water tap is opened, and the unit turns off when the faucet or shower head control is closed and the flow of hot water stops.

Tankless water heaters are rated by the GPM of hot water that can be supplied. (U.S. Gallons Per Minute) If properly sized, they are capable of supplying more hot water than a tank water heater which has a stored total capacity. Tank type water heaters are rated in U.S. Gallons by their total capacity of stored hot water. Exceed this capacity of stored hot water and you need to wait for another tank to heat. Depending on the model and type of tank type heater, this can take several hours. For large homes or small businesses with greater GPM needs, tankless heaters can be joined together and work simultaneously to supply larger volumes of hot water.

Tankless water heaters can be installed virtually anywhere. Compared to traditional water heaters, the most obvious differences is its small size. The typical tankless water heater mounts on the wall, inside or outside.

Tankless heaters require a different concept in exhaust. Because they use a forced air duct system that has higher temperatures, stainless steel pipe designed for this purpose is an essential part of any installation of an indoor model. This special forced air exhaust pipe is unique to this technology and has sealed joints. (On this type of exhaust, the gasses are forced outside under pressure.) In comparison, conventional gas water heaters use a draft method of exhaust. This exhaust method relies upon natural suction to draw out the gasses though a flue. These gasses contain carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, particulates and other harmful bi-products of combustion. These combustion products may result in eye, nose, and throat irritation; fatigue; dizziness; and nausea. With an indoor on demand tankless heater using a sealed forced air exhaust, these potentially harmful gasses are evacuated from the home through the sealed stainless steel exhaust system.


Typically, electric models are best for single sink, or half bath type installations, Or for use in a workshop hand sink or small cabin. When in operation, larger whole house electric models can easily consume more electricity than the usage demands of the entire house combined. In fact, some electric models tankless heaters may be larger than the supplied maximum service of the home. For example, many small older rural homes still have the original 60 amp service which was common many years ago. Obviously an 80 amp heater will not work on a home with 60 amp service. Homes built in the 1960s or 1970s may have 100 amp services and again an electric whole home tankless unit is going to consume a large portion of the home's electrical supply. For this reason, most experts agree that gas fired models are best for most whole-house multipl-bath installations and this is the reason our company does not sell electric models of tankless heaters.


As usual, American consumers perpetuate and exaggerate the negative. They believe the negative rumors of the past and as usual, most people are not to be bothered with finding out the real truth. With the internet, up to date and accurate information about tankless technology is easily found. It seems that internet based tankless information is the driving force of this new market. Even today, the typical USA home improvement store has employees without tankless training. Even though they sell tankless heaters, their personnel typically know very little about them. Years ago, early tankless heaters could not keep up with the large demands of the typical American household and because of this they often broke down. For this reason, they have acquired a reputation for premature failure and inadequate supply. In reality, today's models are a lot more dependable and can keep up with any household's needs. (If the unit being installed is properly sized in GPM capacity.) Today's tankless heaters are designed to last 15 to 25 years or more and just as American consumers have been reluctant to give up their gas guzzling autos and SUVs it may take a generation before the majority of Americans truly believe in the same tankless technology that is accepted worldwide.