If you are just starting your journey to buy a tankless water heater, you are likely asking yourself, “What size tankless water heater do I need?”
It is probably the most important question when wondering how to choose a tankless water heater.
Before that can be answered, it takes a change of mindset.
People are used to thinking in terms of capacity. Like, a hot water tank for 5 people will require at least a 60-gallon tank.
Since tankless water heaters supply endless hot water, you don’t have to worry about capacity, but instead, think in terms of water flow rate. Gallons Per Minute (GPM) is the key when it comes to sizing tankless water heaters.
The lowest price you can get for the highest GPM is easily the Takagi T-H3-DV-N that will give you a whopping 10 GPM. You may not need that big of a tankless water heater so make sure you read the whole article.
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In this article:
How many gallons per minute (GPM) do I need?
The flow rate of the number of fixtures running at the same time is your Gallons Per Minute (GPM). So, you don’t really have to think of how many gallons you use over the course of the day. Only the gallons used at the same time.
For example, let’s take the morning as that is when most people are taking showers or doing laundry.
Let’s say that you have a two bathroom house with 4 people. In the morning you have two showers running and somebody put in a load of laundry at the same time.
You have to figure out how many gallons each of those fixtures uses per minute and add it up.
How many GPM is a shower? How many GPM is a dishwasher? Or washing machine?
You can check your specification sheet on your manual for the fixtures. Or, you can take a look at this handy cheat sheet below to get an idea.
- Shower – 1.5 GPM for low flow to 3.0 for standard
- Kitchen Faucet – 2 to 3 GPM
- Bathroom Sink – 0.5 to 1 GPM
- Dishwasher – 1.5 to 3 GPM
- Washing Machine – 2 to 3 GPM
- Bathtub – 4 to 6 GPM
Take a week or so and write down the times that you have multiple fixtures running at the same time and which ones they were. At the end of the week, you will see some patterns and understand exactly when your peak water demand is and how many GPM you will need from your on demand water heater to cover that.
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Tankless water heater sizing calculator
Before we get to how to use the calculator to size a tankless water heater, let’s talk about the factors that go into understanding what size inline water heater you need.
We already covered GPM.
Now you need to understand what temperature rise means.
Temperature rise is how you will figure out what the actual GPM that the tankless water heater is.
When you see the GPM rating of a tankless, it is the best case scenario. In certain circumstances, you won’t get that water flow and still have the water come out hot.
What happens when the GPM you need is higher than what the tankless water heater is capable of is you end up with endless lukewarm water.
This is why sizing a tankless water heater is so important.
To determine your temperature rise, you need to figure out the temperature of the water coming into your home.
Take a look at this groundwater temperature map to get
As you can see, the temperatures vary wildly by location.
Now here is the fun part. In the sizing calculator below, enter the temperature that you expect your incoming water to be.
Then in the next field enter how hot you want your water setting to be for outgoing hot water.
Hit the button to calculate it and there is your water rise temperature.
Once you have this temperature rise number, you can look at the specification sheet of the tankless water heater you want to buy and see what the GPM is rated for based on that number.
How to determine how big of a tankless water heater I need?
What size tankless water heater depends on your GPM at peak hot water demand. And your temperature rise which is determined by your incoming water temperature subtracted from your hot water setting.
As an example, I will show you what came out for me. I live in Boston so my groundwater temperature is around 47°F.
I have small kids at home so I keep my water set around 105°F. This is a safe temperature and it also will keep my gas bill down. My temperature rise then is 58°.
Our peak water demand is a shower, washing machine and faucet running at the same time so I calculated my GPM as 6.
Since I live in Boston I should be looking at a gas tankless water heater since they work best in cold climates. I wrote a really detailed article reviewing the best gas tankless water heaters for different sized households that you should read by clicking here.
So, I need to know what size tankless water heater is best for a family of 4.
Looks like the Rinnai RUC98iN from Amazon is going to be best to suit my needs. It is listed as being 9.8GPM, but since my factors are not the best case scenario, it drops down to 6.7 GPM. This will probably rise in the summer as my incoming groundwater temperature will also be a bit warmer.
If you live in a cold climate that is going to be a huge factor in which tankless water heater to go with. Read up on my full article on how to use a tankless water heater in a cold climate with 8 simple tips.
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How to choose a tankless water heater
There is more to just the size of the tankless that you need to think about. There are a few different kinds to choose from. Each has its own purpose that it is designed and engineered for.
Here are a few things to consider before buying.
Gas vs Electric
It’s my opinion that most households should use a gas tankless. Gas tankless water heaters are best for most homes since they deliver the highest GPM. To get hot water to the whole house using only one unit, then this is going to be the way to go.
Electric units are good when you don’t have access to natural gas or propane.
The benefit of electric tankless heaters is the initial cost. They cost much less to buy than a gas version.
How Much BTU?
BTU is a measure of how much energy is needed to heat water.
The formula goes like this: 1 BTU is equivalent to the amount of energy it takes to raise 1 lb of water by 1°F. The higher the BTU, the more water it is capable of heating. To make sure you are getting the water hot enough you need to have a high BTU for high water demand.
If you need to provide a whole house with hot water and your peak water demand is high, then you’ll need up to 200,000 BTU.
If you only need a couple of low flow fixtures at once, then you can go with lower BTU since it will consume less. Something around 140,000 BTU is more than enough for a small household with low water demand.
Whole House vs Point Of Use
Most people will opt for one unit to provide hot water for the whole house. In many scenarios, this makes the most sense.
However, there is a case to be made for having multiple, small tankless water heaters at each point of use.
For example, if you have two bathrooms, you can put a unit under the bathroom sinks and it will provide hot water on demand for the sinks and showers in each and even a washing machine. Then another, larger one can go in the kitchen to provide hot water for the kitchen sink and dishwasher.
These point of use tankless water heaters can provide a few GPM which will be enough for most applications and they don’t cost nearly as much to buy or install.
I wrote a buyer’s guide to the best point of use tankless water heaters that you can read by clicking that link.
The cost to install a whole house gas tankless heater can be quite expensive and may play into the decision as to which type of tankless heater to buy.
The factors that contribute to the cost are the distance from the heater to the fixture and where you need to vent. In some cases, you may be drilling through a brick wall which increases the cost. You can read all about your installation options by clicking that link.
Electric units cost far less to install since they don’t need to be vented. There is no exhaust since the heating element is a type of anode.
You’ll need an electrician to help, though since they need to be hard wired.
Can you install a tankless water heater yourself? In most cases, you definitely can. It’s a matter of following the instructions. But, it may make sense to hire a professional to make sure you don’t void your warranty if you install it incorrectly.
FAQ About Tankless Water Heaters
Technically, no, it can’t run out of hot water. When you have the right sized tankless for your hot water demand, you will have endless hot water. However, with that said, if your tankless heater can’t keep up with your demand, you will have and endless supply of lukewarm water as it will have to lower the temperature to keep up. This is why it’s so important to buy the right unit for your needs.
No, they don’t. If your unit is close to your fixtures then you will get hot water faster than with a tank system placed far away. However, if you want to get instant hot water you will need a hot water recirculating pump.
If you take care of your tankless water heater and do yearly flushing of the heat exchanger, then you can expect your tankless to least up to 20 years.
Yes, you can use a tankless water heater even with well water, but you will need to use a sediment filter to make sure it doesn’t get ruined. You should also use a filter to deal with hard water from a well.
Are tankless water heaters worth it?
After sizing a tankless water heater and evaluating your needs, it may become clear that a tankless water heater is not the way forward for you. They are not for everybody after all.
In the right circumstances, a tankless water heater is the best way to go. If you have heard negative reviews, then you probably are dealing with somebody who didn’t properly evaluate their needs and got one that didn’t offer the GPM necessary. If they had sized their tankless heater well, then they would have gotten the one with a higher GPM and more than likely would be very satisfied.
I hope that this article on how to size a tankless water heater was helpful and will put you onto the best one for your needs.
Any questions? Drop a comment below and I’ll do my best to help you out!