So You Need a New Hot Water Heater

Condensing, tankless hot water heater (left) with drain water heat recovery unit.

The decision is usually thrust upon you. Shower water goes luke warm, or worse, stops altogether one morning. If you're lucky, the basement won't be all wet when you go downstairs to investigate. Yes, the hot water heater has died.

In the hectic days following, you need to make a decision quickly. If long-term energy security and environmental impact are priorities for you, here is a short guide to buying a new hot water heater.

Note: this post was co-written by a good friend of mine who is, in my mind, one of Edmonton's most knowledgeable experts on energy efficient retrofits. He recently installed the water heater shown above in his own home.

Solar Hot Water

The most efficient way to make hot water uses solar collectors, but if you don’t want to (or have the time to) go the solar route, your best option is to use our plentiful and cheap natural gas. Although electricity provides 100% efficient water heating, the electricity itself was generated at 30%-50% efficiency, often using dirty Alberta coal.

Tankless Hot Water Heaters

Using natural gas, the most efficient choice is a condensing, on-demand hot water heater (seen above). This means that there is no tank, and therefore no standby heat losses, and the combustion of the natural gas to heat the water is the most efficient. They have an energy factor (EF) of 0.92-0.96, and they cost around $3000-4000 installed. The combustion gases are near room temperature and are vented directly outside through the basement wall often using PVC pipe.

Predictably, I (Conrad) endorse the above choice. Long term, people! Think long term.

The next most efficient choice is a regular combustion, on-demand hot water heater (no tank, but the combustion is less efficient). They are vented up an existing furnace/hot water chimney or out the side wall using metal pipe. They have an energy factor of 0.82-0.84. (we have no info on costs - anyone?).

Hot Water Tanks

Next up are condensing hot water tanks. Their combustion efficiency is in the 96% range, but because of the standby losses of the tank the energy factor is around 0.83. They cost around $4000 installed.

Finally, there is the regular old hot water tank, which has been around for more than 100 years. Some are insulated better than others and energy factors range from 0.53 to 0.66. (again, no cost info, although this is certainly the cheapest option). 

Tankless = Durable

Besides energy efficiency, a compelling reason to choose a tankless heater is durability. Every tank will eventually corrode and spring a leak. The difference in life spans between tank and tankless heaters is significant. In fact, "Expected life of tankless water heaters is 20 years, compared to 10 to 15 years for tank-type water heaters" (source).

So there you have it. To me, tankless seems like the way to go, but obviously every situation is different. If you do decide on a tankless unit, Edmonton contractors are much more knowledgeable about them than they were just a few years back. Also, make sure to get at least two quotes, as I have heard of $1000 differences for installation and purchase of the exact same unit.

* The Energy Factor of a hot water heater is based on three factors: 1- the efficiency with which the combustion energy of the natural gas is transferred to the water; 2- the heat lost due to storage; 3- cycling losses due to startup and shutdown. 

More pictures:  read more... »

Save razors, money, and the whales with the RazorPit


Nowhere is the absurdity of how our world works more apparent than the ubiquitous disposable razor ad. As slick and serious as an ad for a personal spaceship, these commercials offer the promise of a better life, right around the corner, attainable only by buying the newest 17-blade wonder.

Such banalities are normal now, and best ignored, but a man still has to get the hair off of his face. Especially this man, for whom Movember is just a month to get through (37 years old, still can’t grow a full beard. Don't mock my pain!). So I’m happy that I noticed a little display in the Save-On-Foods pharmacy last year. It was for the RazorPit, a simple silicon (I think) block that makes a disposable razor blade last for months. 


The RazorPit disposable razor blade sharpener.

I started using it in late November: after every shave I add a tiny drop of shaving lotion to the surface of the block, and then I pass the blade over it about 10 times (The process works by cleaning and sharpening your blade with the friction of the silicon). That’s it. It’s seen three months of daily use now, and my 50-cent razor felt as sharp as ever this morning. 

At this rate, the bag of 50 razors that I bought at Costco in October will last about 16 years. Saving resources and money, two things that make me feel good.

In other shaving news, I use also save the whales/spotted owls/children by using a lotion from Earth’s General Store instead of one of those nasty shaving cream bombs that they sell.


This small plastic container of Kiss My Face shaving lotion is 30% less evil than a can of shaving cream.

I guess the ultimate solution would be to use a straight razor to shave with, but I don’t know anything about that. The RazorPit totally works. I recommend that you pick one up at Save-On-Foods. Also remember that the black ones don’t work for women!


Notes for tomorrow's F-debate

Editor's note: this post was originally published at Myles Kitagawa's personal blog space.

I guess it’s not going to be my first debate on CityTV’s breakfast television tomorrow morning ~ but it’s been a while.  The all-candidate’s forums of the 2001 municipal elections had a definite debate-like quality to them.  And one year Edmonton’s academic highschool debate champions challenged my MLA (member of the legislative assembly) and myself to a debate on climate change.  

So, tomorrow at 9am, CityTV is going to air a feature story on water fluoridation in Edmonton and producers decided to accompany it with a live debate on the issue featuring a local dentist and me.

I actually think it’s going to be kind of fun.

I’m not an anti-F activist.  All of the AlexJonesian idiocy about fluoride being a tool of the NewWorldOrder and it’s global depopulation project really annoys me. In fact, I believe that water fluoridation probably doesn’t hurt most people.

But just because something doesn’t hurt people isn’t an argument for public dollars being spent on it.

Topical application of fluoride is good for your dental health.  I think that is a fact and it is undisputed.  Applying fluoride to the surface of your dental enamel prevents tooth decay.

The issue is this: in a developed country like Canada, in a fluoridated community like Edmonton, we are paying three times for essentially the same treatment.  I pay my dentist for fluoride treatments once per year.  I pay for my toothpaste that I apply to my teeth twice per day.  And I pay as a citizen for the extremely weak fluoride solution of that passes over my teeth whenever I drink tap water.  The question is, is there any value to this extra water fluoridation expense that we’re all forced to pay collectively, when we already pay for more effective treatments individually.

I think a big part of the answer is found by looking at the last 30 years of dental health data for developed countries as gathered by the World Health Organization.  This information looks at 18 countries, 14 that do not add fluoride to their water and 4 that do.  What we see is a comparable improvement in dental health across all countries.  So, I think this third payment is actually wasted money.

But then we should consider that there are some people who should not be drinking fluoridated water.  American Dental Association and the Canadian Pediatric Society both advise that infant formula not be prepared with fluoridated water. So now we have people, the parents of newborns, who must in a sense pay a fourth time for fluoridation – this time to avoid it.

Then there are the people who wish to avoid fluoridated water because of the unanswered questions on how it might affect human health. There is really interesting research on the associations with silicofluorides in drinking water and human health effects.  There are several – including cancer and bone health - but I’ll only mention the ones that I think are really interesting and that’s those are the associations between fluoridated water and IQ – where fluoridated water reduces children’s ability to evacuate lead from their bodies, and an association with hyperactivity and reduced impulse control – both of which would indirectly lead to learning problems. 

Now Health Canada is correct – on a weight-of-evidence approach- there isn’t enough information in this research to make definitive conclusions.  But we’re discussing a treatment which is probably inferior, definitely redundant, to things were are already doing so there is no reason to continue to run this risk while the research continues.  And from an economic perspective,  we’re spending $600,000 per year in direct costs on this probably inferior, definitely redundant activity.  Which City Council could easily find other uses for that would be more appreciated by Edmontonians.

Looking for no carbon man

Courtesy of Kevin Ma and the St. Albert Gazette:

One family's quest for a net-zero life