How a Water Heater Works

Water Heaters and How They Work

The water coming into your home makes a journey through a system of pipes, and it’s usually cold or cool, depending on the time of year. To have water warm enough to take a hot shower or bath, or use your dishwasher or washing machine, you need a water heater.

Water heaters are familiar fixtures in most homes. They typically look like big metal cylinders, tall drums that are often consigned to a laundry room or basement. Newer styles have some interesting features, like losing the tank completely in favor of water-on-demand, but the old, reliable water heater design that’s most widely used in the U.S. today is really a pretty simple appliance; it’s basically a drum filled with water and equipped with a heating mechanism on the bottom or inside. Even though they lack drama and complexity, water heaters are still pretty amazing. What makes them interesting is that they exploit the heat rising principle to deliver hot water right to your faucet with a minimum of fuss. Don’t let the simple shape shrouded in its wooly insulating blanket fool you. Water heaters have an ingenious design on the inside for something that looks so ordinary on the outside.

In the next pages, we’ll get into a little hot water and take a closer look at what’s really going on in that big steel can of a water heater in your basement.

Let’s take a quick look at the components that work together in your water heater to make your morning shower so satisfying:

  • Tank - The inner shell of a water heater is a heavy metal tank containing a water protective liner that holds 40 to 60 gallons (151 to 227 liters) of hot water at around 50 to 100 pounds per square inch (PSI), within the pressure range of a typical residential water system. The exterior of the tank is covered in an insulating material like polyurethane foam. Over that, there’s a decorative outer shell and possibly an additional insulating blanket [source: APEC].
  • Dip tube - Water enters the water heater through the dip tube at the top of the tank and travels to the tank bottom where it’s then heated.
  • Shut-off valve -The shut-off valve stops water flow into the water heater. It’s a separate component from the heater located outside and above the unit.
  • Heat-out pipe -Suspended toward the top of the tank’s interior, the heat-out pipe allows the hot water to exit the water heater.
  • Thermostat - This is a thermometer- and temperature-control device. Some electric water heaters have a separate thermostat for each element.
  • Heating mechanism - Electric water heaters have heating elements inside the tank to heat the water. Gas water heaters use a burner and chimney system instead.
  • Drain valve – Located near the bottom of the exterior housing, the drain valve makes it easy to empty the tank to replace the elements, remove sediment or move the tank to another location.
  • Pressure relief valve - This safety device keeps the pressure inside the water heater within safe limits.
  • Sacrificial anode rod – Made of magnesium or aluminum with a steel core, the sacrificial anode rod is suspended in the water heater tank to help retard corrosion.

Now, let’s see how all these parts work together to provide you with hot water.

Heating the Water

Tankless, anyone?
Although tank style water heaters are still very popular, especially in the U.S., tankless water heaters are gaining in popularity. Where a tank-style water heater continuously heats the water to make it available when you need it, a tankless system creates hot water on demand. Although this can mean big energy savings, a tankless system can initially cost up to three times as much as a standard water heater setup [source: Novate Media].

Let’s take a close-up look at what’s going on inside a water heater’s tank to see how simply and elegantly it does its job.

A water heater’s thermostat controls the temperature of the water inside the tank. Normally, you can set the temperature anywhere between 120 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit (49 to 82 degrees Celsius). The water temperature setting recommended by most manufacturers is between 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (49 to 60 degrees Celsius). This is hot enough to be efficient for household use, but not so hot that it can pose a scalding risk. If there are children living in your home, it’s wise to stay closer to the lower end of the range.

Setting your water heater to a lower temperature saves energy, too, and if you remember to dial back the heat when you go on vacation, you’ll experience even more energy savings. Usually, the thermostat is located underneath a protective cover plate and has a knob or dial you can turn to set the temperature.

The dip tube feeds cold water from your home’s water lines to the bottom of the tank’s interior, where the water starts to warm up. The heating mechanism, either a burner or an element, stays on until the water reaches temperature. As the water heats, it rises to the top of the tank. The heat-out pipe is located near the top of the tank. Water exiting the water heater at the top is always the hottest in the tank at any given moment because it’s the nature of hot water to rise above denser, cold water.

The secret to a water heater’s design for separating cold, incoming water from hot, outgoing water is that it relies on the principle that heat rises to do the hard part. The position of the heat-out pipe at the top of the tank does the rest.

Tankless, anyone?

Although tank style water heaters are still very popular, especially in the U.S., tankless water heaters are gaining in popularity. Where a tank-style water heater continuously heats the water to make it available when you need it, a tankless system creates hot water on demand. Although this can mean big energy savings, a tankless system can initially cost up to three times as much as a standard water heater setup [source: Novate Media].

Solar Water Heaters and How They Work

Solar water heaters—also called solar domestic hot water systems—can be a cost-effective way to generate hot water for your home. They can be used in any climate, and the fuel they use—sunshine—is free.

How does a Solar Water Heater Work?

Solar water heating systems include storage tanks and solar collectors. There are two types of solar water heating systems: active, which have circulating pumps and controls, and passive, which don’t.

Most solar water heaters require a well-insulated storage tank. Solar storage tanks have an additional outlet and inlet connected to and from the collector. In two-tank systems, the solar water heater preheats water before it enters the conventional water heater. In one-tank systems, the back-up heater is combined with the solar storage in one tank.

Three types of solar collectors are used for residential applications:

  • Flat-plate collector

    Glazed flat-plate collectors are insulated, weatherproofed boxes that contain a dark absorber plate under one or more glass or plastic (polymer) covers. Unglazed flat-plate collectors—typically used for solar pool heating—have a dark absorber plate, made of metal or polymer, without a cover or enclosure.

  • Integral collector-storage systems

    Also known as ICS or batch systems, they feature one or more black tanks or tubes in an insulated, glazed box. Cold water first passes through the solar collector, which preheats the water. The water then continues on to the conventional backup water heater, providing a reliable source of hot water. They should be installed only in mild-freeze climates because the outdoor pipes could freeze in severe, cold weather.

  • Evacuated-tube solar collectors

    They feature parallel rows of transparent glass tubes. Each tube contains a glass outer tube and metal absorber tube attached to a fin. The fin’s coating absorbs solar energy but inhibits radiative heat loss. These collectors are used more frequently for U.S. commercial applications.

There are two types of active solar water heating systems:

  • Direct circulation systems

    Pumps circulate household water through the collectors and into the home. They work well in climates where it rarely freezes.

  • Indirect circulation systems

    Pumps circulate a non-freezing, heat-transfer fluid through the collectors and a heat exchanger. This heats the water that then flows into the home. They are popular in climates prone to freezing temperatures.

Passive solar water heating systems are typically less expensive than active systems, but they’re usually not as efficient. However, passive systems can be more reliable and may last longer. There are two basic types of passive systems:

  • Integral collector-storage passive systems

    These work best in areas where temperatures rarely fall below freezing. They also work well in households with significant daytime and evening hot-water needs.

  • Thermosyphon systems

    Water flows through the system when warm water rises as cooler water sinks. The collector must be installed below the storage tank so that warm water will rise into the tank. These systems are reliable, but contractors must pay careful attention to the roof design because of the heavy storage tank. They are usually more expensive than integral collector-storage passive systems.

Solar water heating systems almost always require a backup system for cloudy days and times of increased demand. Conventional storage water heaters usually provide backup and may already be part of the solar system package. A backup system may also be part of the solar collector, such as rooftop tanks with thermosyphon systems. Since an integral-collector storage system already stores hot water in addition to collecting solar heat, it may be packaged with a demand (tankless or instantaneous) water heater for backup.

For more information about solar water heating system components, talk to one of our proffesionals.


What Would You Like To Do Next?