Appliance Buying Guide: Water Heaters
When it’s time to replace your water heater, you’ll find a wide array of high-efficiency models offering big energy savings.
By: Joe Bousquin
Since hot water accounts for as much as 25% of your home’s energy use, when your water heater dies, the replacement you choose will have a big impact on your monthly bills. New technologies make many of today’s models far more energy efficient than that old tank you’re getting rid of. Some of the greenest options are tankless units that heat water on demand, but even conventional water heaters — the classic metal cylinders that are by far the most popular in the U.S. — have gotten less expensive to operate.
Water heater basics
Most households need a 50-gallon tank, according to Jeff Haney, a product manager at manufacturer Rheem. That’ll cost $900 to $2,000, installed, depending on which model you choose. Your plumber will put it where the old tank was, with the cold water supply pipe attached at the bottom of the tank and a hot water outlet pipe on top.
Inside the tank, a thermostat constantly assesses the water temperature and fires up a heating mechanism when it falls below the desired setting (120 degrees is standard). When you turn on a hot water tap, heated water flows from the tank and gets replaced by more cold water from the supply line below.
To do this work, water heaters use electricity, oil, or natural gas. Choosing a new water heater that uses the same fuel type as your old unit is the easiest way to keep replacement costs down, says contractor Andy Wargo of Marcellus, N.Y.
What to look for on the label
Within each fuel type, you’ll find a range of models and price points. To compare, look for these key differences, marked right on the label:
First Hour Rating is a measure of how many gallons the unit can produce in one hour (which is more than its tank capacity since it starts making more hot water as soon as you draw some out). With the average shower using 20 gallons of water, a shave using a couple more, and washing breakfast dishes another 5 to 10, a busy family might need an FHR of 60 to 70 gallons to handle the morning rush. Your plumber can help you analyze your needs.
Energy Factor tells you how efficiently the unit operates. The higher the number, the more efficient the unit, and the less it will cost to run. Federal tax credits for highly efficient water heaters expired in 2011, but you can look for state credits and local utility rebates at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.
Here’s a breakdown of your basic water heater options from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy:
|Water Heater Type
||Yearly Energy Cost
||Total Cost (over 13 Years)
High-efficiency gas storage: These are just like standard gas water heaters, but with more efficient burners, better insulation, and other upgrades that make them about 7.5% more efficient, saving the average household about $30 a year. Costs for high-efficiency gas tank water heaters start around $850 (about $175 more than a conventional gas tank unit), plus around $200 for installation (the same as a conventional unit).
Gas condensing: To achieve even higher efficiency, these systems vent the exhaust from the gas burner back through a closed system of coils inside the tank, allowing the water to absorb heat that would otherwise escape up the chimney, explains Potomac, Md., contractor Jay Irwin. That makes them about a third more efficient than conventional tanks, for savings of about $100 a year for a typical household.
Gas condensing units are expensive — around $1,600. And because they produce condensation as the exhaust cools, they need a special drain to discharge the runoff, pushing installation costs up to around $400.
Electric heat pumps: Heat-pump models work like air conditioners, by pulling heat out of the surrounding air. But rather than exhausting the heat outside like an air conditioner, they concentrate it and pump it into the water tank. As a result, they use 55% less energy than traditional electric water heaters. Since these utilize ambient heat in the air, they produce the biggest year-round energy savings in hot climates.
You’ll pay around $1,400, or three times what a conventional electric unit costs, but you could save $300 a year in energy costs, meaning it will pay for itself in about three years.
How To Insulate A Garage Door
Garage door insulation cuts energy bills and street noise. Here’s how to insulate your garage door.
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon
Garage door insulation can make your life warmer, cooler, and quieter. It lowers energy bills, acts as a barrier between you and street noise, and brightens an otherwise dreary space.
Garage door insulation is an easy DIY project; it’ll cost you about $200 to insulate two 9-foot-wide doors.
Types of insulation
Any insulation type will increase the energy efficiency of your garage door. Here are the most popular types to apply to the back of garage doors:
- Batt insulation. This flexible insulation, often found stuffed into exterior walls, is commonly made of fiberglass. It’s usually backed by paper or foil, which act as vapor and air barriers. Insulating values are R-3 to R-4 per inch of thickness. Cost is about 30 cents per sq. ft.
- Foam board insulation. These rigid panels, typically made from polystyrene, provide a high insulating value for relatively little thickness. Panels most often range from ½ inch thick (R-3.3) to 1 inch (R-6.5). Foam board often is faced with aluminum or vinyl. ($20 for a 4-by-8-ft. sheet that’s 1 inch thick.)
- Reflective insulation. Rigid boards and rolls of reflective insulation have highly reflective aluminum foil applied to one or both sides of insulation materials, such as cardboard and polyethylene bubbles. This type of insulation reflects radiant heat, making it a good insulation choice for garages that heat up in summer or hot climates. Its approximate R-value is 3.5 to 6, depending on the way you apply it. (A 4-by-25-foot roll is $42).
Matching insulation to your garage door
The goal is to match your garage door to an insulation that’s easy to install and appropriate for your climate.
- Steel garage doors. These doors can accommodate any type of insulation. Stuff the flexible insulation in the frames around the panels, with the fiberglass side touching the door. Or squeeze cut-to-fit foam board insulation into the frames.
- Wood frame-and-panel doors. Cut and fit rigid insulation into the recesses between the door frames. For extra climate control, install two layers of foam board.
Flat garage doors.
Foam board or reflective insulation is the best fit for garage doors without panels. Glue or tape the insulation to the garage door.
Even though buying and cutting insulation isn’t hard, garage door insulation kits make it even easier. They contain:
- Insulation — rolls or boards — cut closer to the size of garage panels than if you bought these yourself, though you’ll still have to trim.
- Fasteners or tape to hold insulation in place.
- Higher-end kits throw in gloves and/or a utility knife.
Kits to insulate a 9-ft. wide garage door cost $50-$70.
Adding insulation to a garage door adds weight. Extra weight isn’t usually a problem with 9-ft. wide doors, but can strain the opening mechanism of larger doors. Your garage door’s spring tension might have to be adjusted — a job best left to a garage door professional.
Kitchen Cabinets in Motion: Even the Jetsons Would be Impressed
By: Jan Soults Walker
Cabinets in motion obey hand signals to open doors, and touch-sensitive drawers glide out with the brush of a fingertip.
Jane Jetson pushes a few buttons and dinner pops out, but her cabinets are definitely old-school. What a great kitchen upgrade these cabinets would make for George and Jane.
Using the latest in motion-detection and touch-sensitive technology, cabinet doors and drawers glide open—and shut—in response to movement or the slightest touch. Small motors activate the doors. Motion sensors are set so that your hand must be within an inch of the sensor, which prevents doors from accidentally opening as you walk past.
Cabinets in motion integrate with other home automation technologies and can be programmed for multiple functions. For example, push a single button marked “baking” on a computer screen or wall-mounted touch pad, and doors glide open to reveal baking supplies and utensils, lights over the baking prep area brighten, and a false-front cabinet door slides away to uncover a TV screen, already set to your favorite channel.
The technology can extend to other areas of the house, such as using automated doors to create hidden storage behind paneled walls in the living room or den.
Custom cabinet company Anvil Cabinet and Mill offers a creative approach with Anvil Motion, a luxury custom line with ultra-modern automated features that you can dress in any style.
- Sliding doors. Motion sensors detect the wave of your hand near the cabinet you want to access and the panels comprising the door slide upward to reveal the contents. Wave your hand again and the door closes. Doors can also hide integrated top-of-the-line appliances and slide open when you need them.
- Dynamic drawers. Simply touch the front of the drawer that you want to access, and it glides open. Touch it again and it closes.
- Fingerprint security. You can also integrate biometric locks, which “recognize” your fingerprint and allow only authorized users access to the contents, such as prescriptions, knives, liquor, or valuables.
- Price points. All these high-tech bells and whistles come at a cost, of course. Expect to pay 40% to 70% more for automated cabinetry than you would standard swinging door cabinets.
Get the Kitchen You Want for Less Part 2
By: Kimberly Sweet
There’s more to lighting than one big overhead fixture or even multiple recessed ceiling lights. Designers like to incorporate ambient or general, task, and accent lighting. In the kitchen, this typically translates into ceiling lights (ambient), under-cabinet lighting (task), and in-cabinet or above-cabinet lighting (accent). Older homes often lack the last two layers, but you can achieve better optics simply.
Get the trend for less (in the long run):
Under-cabinet lighting options, like pucks and light strips, are plentiful, low-cost, and help you reduce the risk of chopping your fingers instead of your vegetables.
For accent lighting that adds drama, use inexpensive LED tape or strip lighting (uninstalled, it runs $10-$30 per foot) inside cabinets, says Designer Nick Lovelady. This can work equally well to illuminate a big pantry cabinet or to show off dishware in a glass-front cabinet.
If you’re willing to spend some money up front to save money in the long run, consider replacing existing can lights with long-lasting, energy-efficient LED lights. Kitchen lights account for a great deal of home energy usage, and eventually the savings cover the higher cost of LED bulbs.
Designer Judy Klein suggests looking for lamps with under 3,000 Kelvin to create a warm glow.
Space for connectivity
As the role that smartphones, tablets, and laptops play in our life grows, so too does their place in the kitchen command center — whether for doing homework, looking up a recipe, or listening to music. Some kitchens incorporate a charging center for just this reason. Heck, some appliances even come with computers: Samsung’s Wi-Fi enabled refrigerator sports a built-in 8-inch LCD touch screen tablet and plenty of cool apps.Back to reality.Get the trend for less:
Install an outlet inside a cabinet to keep the countertop clear.
Switch a standard outlet to an outlet with USB ports so you can charge phones directly without an adapter.
Paint the walls. It’s much easier for you — or a potential buyer of your home — to repaint a wall than to repaint cabinets or replace a countertop.Opt for colorful vases or serve ware. Target has affordable pieces in every shade of the rainbow.Linens and fabrics make an impact, too. Klein recommends cotton, washable rugs from Dash & Albert, and Ikea also offers a large selection of attractive rugs. For placemats and table cloths, try Pier 1.
Get the Kitchen You Want for Less
By: Kimberly Sweet
1. White kitchens
White kitchens are classic and clean looking (at least in pictures). And if Pinterest is an accurate gauge, white kitchens, white cabinets, white marble counters, and white subway tile backsplashes are swooned over as much as white wedding dresses. But, there’s no need to redo the whole kitchen.
Get the trend for less:
Paint the walls white. A fresh clean coat of pristine white paint may be all you need to make your kitchen feel shiny and new. Avoid a stark “builder white” and go with a slightly warmer white instead.
Paint the cabinets white. The real question is, to DIY or not to DIY? Painting cabinets is a time-consuming job that requires a lot of prepping and priming. All the doors need to come off (where will you put them?), and you may not have the right tools or skills. Intrepid DIYers: See what’s involved in painting cabinets:
On the other hand, hiring pros can cost $100 to $200 per box, depending on the cost of labor in your area.Alabama kitchen designer Nick Lovelady, owner of Cupboards Kitchen & Bath, recommends buying new, especially with old cabinets that aren’t built well and lack interior accessories. When clients insist, though, his company does paint cabinets. Doing the job right, he says, can pay off by extending your cabinets’ finish 15 to 20 years. Lovelady recommends using a sprayer rather than a brush to avoid lines, especially on hard-grained woods.
Next: 2. Stone counters
Most show kitchens have stone counters, whether they’re made from engineered quartz, exotic granite, or a highly veined marble. But stone is expensive.
Get the trend for less:
Create a stone look by using granite tiles instead of a granite slab. At ¼ to 3/8 inch thick (instead of 2 to 3 cm), tiles cost less and make for easier carrying and installation than slabs. They can also be laid over an existing countertop. However, grout lines break up the appearance and can be tough to clean. 12 in. x 12 in. tiles roughly range from $2 to $17 per sq. ft.
Laminate counters now have more realistic patterns and patterns than before. Here’s your chance to get that white “marble” counter. (Note: They cost more than standard laminates.)
“Manufacturers are increasing their offerings and products look much better than they used to,” says Judy Klein of JK Design in Wilmette, Ill. One new option for laminate is curved edge treatments, such as bullnoses and ogees, which eliminate those telltale dark lines where edges meet, making it hard to identify a laminate counter as such.
By the way, laminate holds the U.S. countertop market share at 56%, with solid surface (12%), natural stone (9%), and engineered stone (7%) bringing up the rear, according to recent research by The Freedonia Group.
3. Minimalist kitchens
Whether driven by a desire to simplify or by simple economics, kitchens look considerably more minimalist than a decade ago. Rather than showing stuff off, we’re hiding it. In appliances, that means paneled, integrated refrigerators and dishwashers. Cabinets not only look less showy with simpler door styles and less moulding, they have more interior organization accessories to keep clutter at bay.To streamline the kitchen you already have, think low-cost kitchen storage.Get the trend for less:
Rev-a Shelf offers an under-sink pullout (about $300) that makes the most of underused space.
Cookware organizers ($156 or $284) eliminate the need for a pot rack.
Modular, stackable trays make drawers manageable.