Gas vs electric water heater graphic

Buyers Guide: Gas vs. Electric Water Heaters

A flame burns in a natural gas water heater.

Buying a new water heater is a part of life if you’re a homeowner. Fortunately, they have a long shelf life, but inevitably you’ll have to replace the one in your home. Once that time comes, you may be faced with purchasing a gas or electric water heater. You’ll probably ask yourself what’s the difference between the two. 

There are a variety of pros and cons to each type of water heater. Before making a purchase, there are many things to consider: cost, energy efficiency, environmental impact, safety, installation, or longevity. Ultimately, it’s good to find what best fits your needs and capabilities. Our guide will help you make a more informed decision.

How Do Gas Water Heaters Work?

A gas water heater sits in the basement of a home.

A gas water heater works via a duo or the thermostat and thermocouple. When the thermostat senses the water temperature inside the tank falls below a certain degree, a signal is sent to the gas control valve. The thermocouple determines if the pilot light is on and if so, gas is allowed to flow to the burner and ignites. 

The burner heats the bottom of the tank, and as the water heats up, it rises. The cold water at the top of the tank will sink to the bottom, creating a circulation cycle that warms all the water inside the heater. The gas control valve will turn off once the water reaches a pre-set temperature.

How Do Electric Water Heaters Work?

The thermostat panels removed on a electric water heater.

The thermostat is mounted flush with the water tank in an electric water heater. When the thermostat senses the temperature inside the tank has dropped below the pre-determined setting, it’ll send electricity to the heating element. The heating element is dropped in the water inside the tank and heats up, similar to an electric stove. Once the correct temperature is reached, the power is shut off the heating element. 

Some electric water heaters feature a dual heating element system where both the top and bottom of the tank have their own heating element. They alternate heating the top and bottom as they each have their own thermostat.

Gas vs. Electric Water Heaters: Factors to Consider

Once you’ve determined what kind of heater you’re interested in, you can begin to consider all the other factors that can dictate if you want either a electric or gas water heater.

Cost of Hardware & Maintenance

An electrician performs maintenance on a water heater.

The cost may seem like a big part of your purchase, and it is, but it’s more about how much you can afford upfront. Gas water heaters have a higher initial cost than electric options. On the other hand, gas models are cheaper to operate than electric heaters, as natural gas is cheaper than electricity. Gas water heaters will have a cheaper overall cost in the end.

As for maintenance of the heater over its lifetime, they’re both very similar again. Both need the water tank to be flushed periodically to ensure sediment doesn’t settle in the bottom of the tank. Gas heaters need their gas lines and tanks checked regularly to prevent leaks or sediment buildup in them. Maintenance on a gas heater will cost a little more over time, but it isn’t much.

Energy Factor Ratings

The water heater’s efficiency is related to the cost of your purchase, so you’ll want to pay attention to the model’s energy factor rating. Electric heaters are usually more efficient than gas water heaters due to how they operate. The heating elements in an electric water heater are contained in the tank, so there is less heat loss. 

A gas water heater vents the spent natural gas, which causes some of the heat to be lost. Some gas models have an Energy Star label, which means they’re high energy-efficient and use far less energy. 

Difficulty of Installation

A natural gas water heater is professionally installed.

Replacing a gas or electric water heater requires two different levels of expertise and, depending on your level of knowledge, maybe best be done by a professional. An electric water heater really only requires swapping out some electrical wires, so it could be done yourself if you feel you have the ability. A gas water heater is a much different process. You need to disconnect and reconnect a gas line, and you might need to maneuver the lines. Gas water heaters also need to be vented to the outside, and if you don’t already have vented lines, it might be difficult.

If you’re considering switching from electric to gas or vice versa, you need to determine if you’re home can accommodate a different type of water heater. If your home has been fitted with gas or electricity, you’ll most likely go with the same option you currently have. Almost everyone has electricity, and the majority have gas. If your home doesn’t have access to natural gas, an electric heater would be your only option. Although, if you live in a rural area, you can use a conversion kit to use propane with their gas water heater.

Safety

Safety is more of a concern with a gas water heater. A gas line and an open flame are required to run a gas water heater, and with that, you run the risk of a gas leak and possible explosion. There is also the concern of carbon monoxide leaks from the gas line. You don’t have to worry about any of those risks with an electric water heater.

Environmental Considerations

A water heating solar panel sits on the roof of a home.

Environmental impact may be something you want to consider when replacing a water heater. Electric water heaters are much better for the environment as they are more energy-efficient. They also can be powered via renewable energy sources, such as solar or hydroelectric power. On the flip side, some electricity is supplied by coal or nuclear power plants. Gas water heaters require natural gas, which needs to be pulled from the earth that releases a lot of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. 

Longevity

When buying a water heater, you want one that will last a long time without needing to replace it. Due to the cleaner operation of electric water heaters, they usually last 10 to 15 years, while gas water heaters’ lifespan is 8 to 12 years. 

Time Taken to Heat Water

Gas water heaters usually heat water quicker due to their combustion operation compared to an electric water heater’s heating elements warming up slower. Because of the combustion of a gas water heater, their recovery rate and first-hour rating are usually higher than an electric heater.

Gas vs. Electric Water Heaters: What Should You Buy?

In the end, buying a water heater can be a long process, but be sure to focus on the specific needs of your home. Will you need a lot of water for multiple family members, leading to more showers, laundry, and cooking? There are a handful of less important factors to consider as well, such as warranties, after-sales service, or brand names.  

Check Acme Tools for many water heater models from Reliance, including gas and electric, tankless, and propane options.

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