Best Water Heaters

Why Buy a Water Heater?

We've evaluated water heaters since 2015, spending over 80 hours researching the best manufacturers in the industry. While researching for this guide, we looked at 50-gallon models from 10 of the best brands. We chose these water heater brands because they have reputations for making reliable, durable and efficient units. This guide summarizes our research to help you make an educated decision when buying your next water heater.

Best for Most Homes

Best for Most Homes: Rheem

Rheem is a good mid-level water heater brand that's not too expensive, but its reputation for manufacturing durable, reliable water heaters makes it an excellent choice for most homes. The company sells water heater models in gas, electric, tankless, solar and hybrid styles. We looked at the Rheem Prestige G50-40N RH67 PD as a reference point for our guide. This gas water heater is Energy Star-rated and has an excellent 12-year warranty, and you can control or monitor it as part of your smart home using the included EcoNet Wi-Fi Kit and smartphone app.

Best Budget Brand

Best Budget Brand: Kenmore

Kenmore water heaters, which you can buy at Sears department stores, are among the least expensive on the market. They are dependable and sturdy, which makes them a good choice if your budget is limited. The company makes models in natural gas, electric and hybrid variants but doesn't make tankless models. We looked at the Kenmore 58250, an electric water heater, as a reference point for our guide. We like that it has a 12-year warranty and digital controls. If you want smartphone controls, you can buy an optional kit. However, this water heater doesn't have an Energy Star certification.

Best Premium Brand

Best Premium Brand: AO Smith

AO Smith is one of the largest manufacturers of water heaters, which it sells under a variety of brands. Those sold under the AO Smith brand are some of the more expensive models we looked at, but the company has an excellent reputation for quality products. AO Smith makes gas, electric, tankless, solar and hybrid water heaters in a variety of sizes. We looked at the AO Smith Vertex GPHE-50, a premium gas water heater, as a reference point for this guide. We like this model's durable brass drain valve and remarkable energy efficiency, and it is Energy Star certified.

Why Trust Us

Since 2012, we've evaluated HVAC equipment and tested some, such as smart thermostats, in our lab to see how easy it is to install and use. Through these tests, we've gained valuable experience that helps us reach our conclusions concerning more complex home appliances, including water heaters. When, as in the case with water heaters, we can't physically test the product, we use the same attention to detail to verify our research so our decisions echo our mission to provide helpful information to our readers.

To inform our research, we used guides by the U.S Department of Energy’s Energy Saver website and Nationwide insurance’s guide to water heater safety. Additionally, we looked at the buying advice provided by the water heater manufacturers themselves, though we admit that this doesn’t play as large a part in our comparison as the aforementioned sources. Lastly, we looked for customer and installer reviews to see which brands have the best reputation.

How We Tested

Due to installation requirements, we don't test water heaters in-house at Top Ten Reviews. Instead, we conduct extensive research to help you decide which water heater brand is best for your home. We chose 10 popular brands and evaluated the specifications of a 50-gallon model from each. We plan to expand our coverage to examine other models in a future update. In this guide, we focus on efficiency ratings, warranty coverage and reputation.

Efficiency Ratings
Efficiency standards for gas and electric water heaters are different, but both use the Uniform Energy Factor (UEF) ratings system, where higher scoring units produce more hot water while using less energy. To earn an Energy Star certification, for example, electric water heaters with tanks up to 55 gallons must have a UEF greater than 2. In contrast, gas water heaters with tanks up to 55 gallons only need a UEF above 0.64 or 0.68, depending on how they use water during the day. Qualifications for tanks over 55 gallons are even higher. Choosing a water heater near or above the Energy Star standards will save money on your utilities, though the most efficient units usually command the highest prices.

Warranty
The typical water heater is estimated to last eight to 12 years. Many factors can affect this, including the build quality, maintenance issues and the hardness of the water in your area. Since your water heater can be a substantial investment for your home, choose one with a long warranty. The best water heater warranties cover the unit for nine to 12 years. Labor warranties usually last one year, though your plumber might offer an extended warranty.

Reputation
As we researched water heater brands, we looked for reviews from installers about the reputation of each brand. The insights of installers are a valuable tool to help determine which brands are the most reliable and require minimal servicing.

How Much Do Water Heaters Cost?

On average, you can expect to spend between $700 and $2,000 to get a new water heater installed in your home. Without installation, electric water heaters usually cost between $300 and $700. Similarly, gas water heaters cost between $400 and $1,000. However, a heater’s cost depends largely on the water heater brand, tank size and its efficiency rating.

Installation costs typically include labor, supplies and water heater removal. You can expect to pay between $300 and $500 to have an installer swap out your old water heater for a newer model, though this may increase or decrease based on where you live. However, if you’re changing the type of water heater in your home, you can expect to pay up to $1,500, sometimes more, to upgrade your home’s electrical or natural gas connections appropriately. Make sure to get quotes from three or four local plumbers in order to find the best price.

What to Expect When Buying a Water Heater

A Professional Should Install Your Water Heater
Although it's tempting to open the installation manual and install your new water heater on your own, most homeowners don't have the necessary skills and experience. By choosing a professional installer, you get someone who knows exactly what to do and how to do it correctly and safely. Furthermore, some brands only sell their water heaters through installers. Installers also often have water heater suggestions for your home.

Most plumbers are trained and licensed and have valuable experience, so it's worth the extra cost to have them install your water heater. To find the best plumber in your area, take some time to look at their online customer reviews on Yelp, HomeAdvisor, Angie's List and similar websites. If they don't clearly outline their pricing, set an estimated completion time and provide a written quote, don't use them, even if they are the lowest bid.

Permits & Inspections
Most cities and counties require you apply for a permit before you install a water heater in your home. Depending on where you live, the licensed plumber you hire can obtain the necessary permits as part of the installation. However, it’s a good idea to double-check with them or your local building department to learn exact permit requirements for your location. This will also help you find out if you need to get the permit yourself or if the contractor does it. When the installation is complete, someone from the organization that issued the permit will inspect the water heater to verify it complies with the building code.

Gas Vs. Electric
Water heaters fueled by natural gas usually cost less to operate on a monthly basis than electric models. As a bonus, they still work when the power goes out. Electric water heaters heat water more efficiently than gas models but often have higher energy costs, since electricity generally costs more than natural gas. If your home already has a gas water heater, there's no need to switch to electric. If you want to learn more about different types of water heaters, the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Saver website has a fairly comprehensive guide on the subject. In fact, it was one of the best resources we found during our research about water heaters.

Tank Size 
Choose a hot water heater large enough to handle multiple water users simultaneously. The number of people in your home affects the water heater size you need. For example, most 50-gallon water heaters can supply hot water for up to four people. Most water heater companies – including Whirlpool, Rheem, Kenmore and Bradford White – offer small and large sizes so you can select one that suits the needs of your household.

To figure out a more precise size of water heater for your household, you need to estimate your peak hour demand. The simplest way to do this is to add up the number of showers, times you wash the dishes and wash clothes with hot water in an hour. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Saver website provides a useful worksheet that suggests the following amounts of hot water for common activities:

  • Shower – 10 gallons
  • Shaving – 2 gallons
  • Hand dishwashing and food preparation – 4 gallons
  • Automatic dishwasher – 6 gallons
  • Clothes washer – 7 gallons

After you figure out your peak hour demand, look for a water heater with a first-hour rating (FHR) that matches. The FHR is how much water a unit can heat per hour, assuming you start with a full tank of hot water.

Lifetime Energy Costs
You can estimate your new electric or gas water heater's annual and lifetime energy costs with this calculator from the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP). It also compares your estimates with those of base models, FEMP recommendations and the most efficient models in the industry. This calculator can help you decide if a more efficient model is worth the extra cost over its lifetime.

Tankless Water Heaters
Although most homeowners choose traditional gas or electric storage-tank water heaters, tankless water heaters are an alternative that provides on-demand hot water more efficiently, contributing to lower energy costs. Whole-home tankless water heaters are very expensive compared to traditional water heaters.

How Many Years Does a Hot Water Heater Last?

When you're spending so much at once for a hot water heater, the question of longevity is a concern. Fortunately, tank style water heaters generally last eight to 12 years on average  depending on if you have hard water in your area and perform regular maintenance to keep the heater running at peak efficiency. We found through our research and discussions with plumbing professionals that you can expect a new water heater to last for about 10 years. Setting aside a little money every year to help offset the cost for when you do have to replace it can help reduce the stress of forking over a chunk of change you weren't expecting to spend.

We also found that many plumbing experts advise installing a hot water filter to help reduce the amount of sediment and minerals that get into your water heater. This extra system could help double the lifespan of your water heater, but we recommend consulting with your local plumber first to find out if it would be worth it in your area. 

When to Replace Your Water Heater

You don’t need to be a plumber to figure out that your water heater isn’t working properly, but it helps to know the symptoms associated with a broken water heater before you lose hot water entirely. 

  • Look out for any changes in hot water quality, such as brown water or metallic tastes, which may indicate your storage tank is rusting on the inside.
  • If you experience a sudden decrease in the amount of hot water your heater delivers, or the water never gets completely hot, this could be the result of a bad or old heating element.
  • A decrease in the volume of water coming through the faucets could indicate a pipe is blocked with sediment, hard water deposits or another object.
  • If your water heater starts to sound different when heating water, especially if you hear popping and cracking, that could be a problem.
  • Any time you see water leaking directly from the water heater, something needs to be tightened.
  • As mentioned earlier in our guide, the average lifespan of a water heater is about 10 years, so anything older than 10 to 15 years is a good candidate for replacement, even if it’s still working fine.
     

Water Heater Safety

Your water heater may be out of sight, out of mind, but this integral part of your household does need regular maintenance and care. Nationwide insurance recommends homeowners inspect certain components of their water heaters at least yearly, such as ventilation, pilot light and the temperature or release valve.

You should follow the instructions contained in the manufacturer’s user manual to see exactly how to check each of these components. As always, if you are unsure of the condition of your water heater or need assistance, call your local plumber to get a professional inspection and guidance.

Additional safety tips Nationwide gives include:

  • Using earthquake straps on your water heater is a good idea, even if you live outside an earthquake zone. This is particularly important for maintaining gas water heater safety. If your water heater were to fall over, it could sever the gas line and cause an explosion.
  • Remove paper, dust or other combustibles from the heater enclosure.
  • Extinguish the pilot light before using flammable liquids or setting off aerosol bug bombs.
  • When leaving for vacation, set the hot water heater temperature to its lowest setting. This saves money and reduces the risk of problems while you are away. 
  • Consider installing an automatic gas-shutoff valve to stop the flow of gas if the ground moves or if gas flow increases dramatically. The valve prevents fires when a gas line breaks due to flood, earthquake or other disaster.
  • Temperature or pressure relief valves help prevent tanks from exploding if temperature or pressure exceeds safe limits. Test this valve yearly by pulling up on the handle to make sure water flows freely out and stops when you let go of the handle. If it does nothing or runs or drips, then the valve should be replaced.

Contributing Reviewer: Grant Morgan