Water Heaters - too many choices!

sue_ctDecember 1, 2011

I have a 17 yo Weil Mclain oil fired boiler with direct hot water. I also have hard water. My water company states the hardness is up to 17 grains per gallon. I believe it used to be even worse. Now my coil is finally shot on the boiler. I need a new hot water heater. These are the choices I have come up with:

1. The cheapest solutions is to install a separate electric hot water heater. I was quoted 800.00 for a 40 gallon. I am going to price larger ones.

2. replace the current coil with a new one, 970.00. No one is big on doing this and I have been warned that if the bolts break or something else major goes wrong, I could have to buy a new boiler right away. The coil was removed once in the last 15 years to be soaked and cleaned. It did not last long. That was a friend of the family that did that.

3. Install an indirect storage tank on my current boiler, cost 2100.00. No guarantees on how long the current boiler will last, of coarse, but I am told 20-30 yrs is not unusual. I was first told this was not advised because my boiler might not be large enough to hand the 3 zones on it now and the storage tank. They later said yes, it could be done.

4. A separate oil fired water heater, 2500.00. If I want Bock, 2800.00

5. A new boiler AND indirect tank, 6500.00. I don't particularly like those numbers. :)

This is a 1500 sq foot cape with separate zones in the basement and on the first and second floors for heat. One person living here, but it is a 3 bedroom and I don't want a water heater undersized for the house in case I ever want to cell it or circumstances change. I also have a large 2 person whirlpool tub in the second floor bathroom that I can't fill and I would like this to be usable again. I suspect it is about 80 gallons, def. less than 100 gallons. I don't want a whole house softener, but if there is a softener that would just protect the furnace or hot water heater for a reasonable price I consider that.

With the current price of oil, I honestly don't know which is more expensive to run.

I don't know how long any of these would last with the water, but the boiler could go in 10 years or less, too.

Is there any "right" answer to this?

Any help would be appreciated!

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Given all of the variables, I would go with a 50 gal electric tank heater and call it good.

I don't know how much each type will cost to operate in your area, but my guess is that it's a wash.

You can expect 10-15 years on a tank heater - lower end of that with hard water.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2011 at 8:52AM
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I am too curious not to ask, why not a water softener? My parents are still running a 50 yo oil-fired boiler with two coils, one for DHW and the other for heat. Before they installed a water softener halfway through that time, they swapped in a spare coil for the DHW very frequently, maybe annually, while the other was taken to be cleaned.

The soft water helped in a lot of other areas too, faucets last longer, no more mounds of soap scum in the sinks, shower and tub, maybe 80% less detergent use in the laundry.

You need to compare lifetime system costs using current fuel costs:


Given that you use fuel oil, you are probably not in a hot humid area, but if you are, consider a heat pump water heater.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2011 at 11:08AM
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Thanks, not in a hot, humid area, Connecticut is cold for long periods. My objection to the water softener is added cost, maintenance and Sodium or Potassium in the water. Family members are salt restricted, and I am a nurse. Don't want hidden sources of sodium or potassium. If there was a proven method not using those that was reasonably priced I would consider it. We had removed salt substitutes from our hospital because they are potassium, and salt restricted patients were using them very liberally long periods of time and we were treating hyperkalemia (too high potassium levels) which can lead to heart arrhythmias. So we wanted to remove "hidden sources" of these elements. Not saying they were entirely responsible, just didn't make sense to treat people for high potassium and give them potassium to sprinkle on food. Same with Sodium. I have family members with heart disease who limit sodium and I don't them to worry about visiting, or how much of either is in the food I cook with water that may have either in it.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2011 at 6:34PM
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i would go with electric too but no way 50 gal is enough for a 2 person hot tub. 80 minimum.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2011 at 7:05PM
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Plenty of people run a separate, unsoftened line for cooking and drinking water. Often you can put an additional tap an existing opening in the kitchen sink.

Up front cost is significant, but a lot of that and the supplies costs will be recovered in greater longevity of some other equipment and lower costs for detergents and soap.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2011 at 7:28PM
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The longer service life of your plumbing, fixtures, appliances, clothes and the savings from using less detergent more than offset the initial cost of a correctly sized and set up water softener.

Regarding sodium or potassium added to the softened water... there is sodium and potassium in the water already and it is not hidden.

The formula for added sodium is 7.85 mg/l (about a quart) of softened water per grain per gallon of compensated hardness.

EXAMPLE 20 gpg * 7.85 = 157 mg of sodium added per liter of softened water, not salt.

How does this sodium content of softened water compare to sodium found in common foods?

The table demonstrates the usual range of sodium in common foods.

Food Amount Mg of Sodium

Ketchup 1 tablespoon.....204
Milk 2 Cups.....226
Frozen Peas 1/2 Cup.....295
Bread 2 Slices.....322
Corn Flakes 1 oz.....260
Parmesan Cheese 1 oz.....528
Tomato Juice 4 oz.....504
Tomato Soup 1 Cup.....932
Chili 1 Cup.....1194
Beef Broth 1 Cup.....1152

On a salt restricted diet, no problem so am I. Using potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride is the answer. Sure people can abuse any substance but again, look at the minute amounts added to the softened water.

My wife is an RN.ICP.CIC and has looked at this subject in great detail and her hospital has no problem using KCl provided the equipment is correctly sized (really BIG for the hospital) and set up for efficiency.

Our water at home is 30 gpg hard and with two of us in the home we use about ONE bag of KCL a month. Even at the current $16.79 a bag that's a whopping $200 a year on KCl. IMO money well spent for us and the environment... and my wife waters her plants with it and they thrive..

An added bonus and one that's more on point of your post... around here water heaters last 2 years on average and then die. Our water heater was installed in 1995 and every year when I drain it, nothing but clean clear water comes out the drain

So, aside from huge savings over the years in NOT replacing water heaters and clothes as often, using less detergent and soap, I haven't replaced a faucet washer or faucet cartridge since I moved in. Gee, that water softener sure has cost me more... err, I mean less. Maintenance, check the KCl level once a week and add KCl to cover the water in the brine tank as needed. That's the sum total of maintenance.

So, a correctly sized softener using KCl and add an under sink RO in the kitchen for cooking, drinking, and the ice maker and the next water heater you buy will be a long, long way off. You'll have the equivalent of bottled water for drinking and cooking and there will be little more in the RO water than the H and the O it started with. No potassium or sodium.

As a nurse I'd think you'd be more intent on curing the disease instead of merely treating the symptom ;-)

    Bookmark   December 3, 2011 at 4:54PM
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I actually do know how much sodium is in foods. :) No room for an RO under my sink. I live by myself and thats one more thing to forget to do each week, between the housework, lawn and gardens, mowing or snowblowing and shopping, you get it I am sure. Certainly can be done, but I forget to put out the trash on the correct day at least once a month it seems. Doesn't matter, but if my water was twice as hard as it is, I would probably bit the bullet with a softener, too. But I probably wouldn't have an electric water heater in that case, either, unless I had to. I guess if I HAD to add a softener system, it would be worth it to just go with the 2100.00 for the storage stank on my current furnace but then I wouldn't need a softener. I understand softeners definitely have benefits and are very popular here on this forum. There seem to be more posts on that than anything else. Should I decide to consider it, could you recommend a system or tell me about how much one would cost installed?

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 12:26AM
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A Charles H. Ullery paper presents a thorough assessment of water hardness classifications for the American Society of Agricultural Engineers. The ASAE Standard S-339 is:

soft: 0-3.5 grains per gallon (gpg),

moderate: 3.5-7.0 gpg,

hard: 7.0-10.5 gpg, and

very hard: over 10.5 gpg

With your water @ 17gpg it is REALLY hard and that's without knowing the iron and manganese content. That means that most solutions to your water heating problem are doomed to shorter service and more frequent maintenance from the start and that is EXACTLY what you are complaining about with a softener... except a softener requires you to walk by and look at it once a week.

You can opt for the storage tank and that will give you hot water and false security because all your plumbing, every appliance, and fixture will be seeing ludicrously hard water and that will cost you $$$ and usually at the most inopportune time.

Like the old FRAM commercials said... you can pay me now or you can pay me later.

ROs don't have to mounted under the sink. They can be installed in a basement or through the wall behind the kitchen sink.

"... and that's one more thing to forget to do each week" Well, think of it as taking vitals... we can have a water doctor write the order for you.

Without knowing the details of your water usage I can say that a correctly sized industry standard softener could be had for between $500 and $1000 online plus the cost of local install and at a higher price locally installed.

"I understand softeners definitely have benefits and are very popular here on this forum. There seem to be more posts on that than anything else"

As the cost of appliances and fixtures go up people seem more interested in getting the longest and most trouble free service life from those purchases. Few of us have more money than we know what to do with so we look for the best bang for the buck we can get.

With respect, a correctly sized and set up softener with a modestly priced stand alone water heater is the most cost effective, simplest, and easiest to live with solution you can get.

Let us know what you decide.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2011 at 1:24AM
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I am not sure why RO is coming into the discussion. If you don't have it now, you don't need to add it if installing a water softener. It is another option if drinking water is of poor quality. If you find your water is fine for cooking and drinking, just add another tap to the kitchen sink that bypasses the softener.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 3:46PM
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The RO came into the discussion as a way to provide drinking water with no minerals to address the OP's concerns regarding added sodium or potassium in softened water for cooking, drinking, and fridge duty.

@ 17gpg, the water may not be as appealing as RO water would be and running "a separate, unsoftened line for cooking and drinking water" isn't so easy in older homes and homes on slabs unless you're a plumber who will work for him/her self for free and you know a good sheet rock person and painter who owes you a favor.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 4:07PM
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I am not sure why RO is coming into the discussion. If you don't have it now, you don't need to add it if installing a water softener. It is another option if drinking water is of poor quality. If you find your water is fine for cooking and drinking, just add another tap to the kitchen sink that bypasses the softener.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 5:09PM
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The water is fine for drinking and cooking. I really don't want to consider RO right now. Clearly you are a strong advocate of water softeners, and I knew that before I posted, from reading other questions on this forum. I do appreciate your advise, but I didn't actually even ask about water softeners. :) I sure will get to curing those pesky diseases like hypertension and Congestive Heart Failure when I get to work tomorrow, I just didn't have time today. Darned, wish I had thought of that before. :)

All kidding aside, thank you for taking the time to give me your opinion.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 7:25PM
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I advocate water softeners when the circumstances warrant them.

Back when water heaters were $99 I really didn't care if I had to replace one every 5-10 years. Now that a high altitude LP water heater runs around $1500 installed replacing one every 2 years is just plain stupid so @ 30gpg hardness I have a softener and my WH will be 17 years old soon. .

Your original post asked "Is there any "right" answer to this?" and the right answer is to choose the most cost effective solution and to put it in an environment which will support the longest service life... and that is what I suggested.

If your water was naturally soft I'd still have suggested the most cost effective stand alone water heating solution knowing it would give you a respectable service life.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2011 at 7:37PM
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Avoiding the soft water discussion completely...

If cost is an issue, go with the 50 gal electric. It's common enough that it will still be reasonable. Once you start going larger, (75 gal) the costs go up quickly. As long as you don't have elderly or young children you can set your hot water temp to 140 degrees and you should be able to fill your tub at 105 degrees with a 50 gal tank.

Don't worry about what's appropriate for the next owner in this case. A 50 gal tank won't be an obvious problem and by the time you move it may need to be replaced because of the hard water.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2011 at 10:42AM
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The data given above indicates that sodium in softened water is a problem for the sodium-restricted. Consumption of 2l of water would be 15% of a 2g/day sodium limit. I advocate water softeners because I know a few people that are very happy with them. I just wanted to be sure you understand all the benefits that would offset the costs.

If not going that route, a cheap heater is going to be your best bet as jakethewonderdog indicates. It does depend somewhat on on the relative fuel costs, but you are not going to want to throw away expensive equipment on a regular basis.

I hope that you got useful advice despite the hijacking. I understand that you are too busy to work on hypertension and congestive heart failure. I am too busy with viruses. I just can't do it all anymore :-)

    Bookmark   December 6, 2011 at 3:12PM
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OK, I realize it is your wife who is the nurse, but given your previous remarks I felt you actually did understand that what you said was not really realistic. If I had a "CURE" for hypertension and Congestive Heart Failure I would certainly share them with you and your wife. I assume if your wife had one, she would not be keeping it a secret either. Snide remarks aren't helpful.

Advise about the subject is, and I thank you for that.

Thank you, Jakethewonderdog and others for taking the time to respond in a pleasant manner.

Signing off now...

    Bookmark   December 8, 2011 at 12:03AM
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Seems that my statement "As a nurse I'd think you'd be more intent on curing the disease instead of merely treating the symptom" was completely misunderstood...

The symptom I was referring to was the failure of the heating coil and the cure I was referring to was to eliminate what was causing the shortened service life of the water heating apparatus so you wouldn't have to address another failure sooner than you'd like.

I was not referring to the treatment of any medical condition.

The most cost effective solution is a stand alone electric WH as jake and I already said. With or without a softener is your choice.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2011 at 1:17AM
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