Wednesday 8 February 2023

Electric water heating - finally got rid of the pilot light !

There's nothing much more boring than a photo of a cylindrical water heater hanging on the wall, but there it is boringly getting on with its job, heating the water for our shower and bathroom using solar power from our roof and our showers definitely don't mean burning gas any more !

Over three years have passed since I calculated how much gas the pilot light in our water heating system was consuming. It was a bit frightening. 134 cubic metres a year, That means the pilot light wasted almost twice as much gas each year as we just used for heating our home for the whole of January. What's more, 134 m3 at the current price of around €1.80 per m3 works out as about €240, which due to everything else we've already done to reduce our energy consumption is about half of our total annual energy bill for electric and gas combined (we've paid €40 a month for the last year, and the energy company currently owes us money). It's been at the back of my mind literally since I first made that calculation that I had to do something about it, but there are always other things to do and it took until this week until it happened.

Of course I went through all options, including such things as heat pump water heaters. These appear to only be available in absurdly huge sizes meaning more waste, with costs that are simply too high, and with unknown reliability compared with a simple resistive heater. I also considered complete heating systems including water, but most of the year we unplug our heating system so this seemed less than optimal. Eventually I decided that a simple hot water tank, was the best option so long as it could be well insulated and with some kind of control to stop it wasting energy when we didn't need the hot water.

I should have been able to write this last year. I ordered a water heater in September which got delayed due to covid and then didn't turn up at all. After sitting on a waiting list for several months I eventually asked the company I'd ordered it from for a refund which they sent promptly, so I can't really complain about that. Anyway, I then ordered another type which arrived less than 48 hours after I'd ordered it. It's supposed to be a "DAT Arca 80 litre anti-kalk" (anti calcium) boiler, but for some reason what turned up has "GOT" written on it instead. Before ordering I tried to work out whether I'd be able to buy spare parts, and it seems I can. Not that there's much in this thing to go wrong.

Between the two orders I did a bit of extra research which led me to prioritize buying a boiler with a dry heating element which should last longer.

Smart vs dumb boilers

Some boilers are "smart". The main reason why smart boilers are claimed to use less electricity every year than the boilers with dumb controllers is simply that the dumb boilers are typically switched on 24 hours a day, consuming electricity to make warm water when no-one will use it. Smart boilers include such features as analysing your use for the first week and then only warming water when it thinks you'll need it. That's not a bad idea, but we don't really have a fixed weekly pattern of use so I'd have had to use it as a time switch instead.

At the moment the controller consists of a simple analogue clock style time switch and I've also got an energy meter connected up to let me measure electrical consumption over time.

I have no interest in any "smart" IoT product as connecting things like this to the internet means yet another thing to worry about with potential spyware and software updates (if they happen at all they'll be phased out before the lifespan of the product) so I never had any intention of connecting the boiler to the internet. However the company who made the first product only sold the model of their boilers which had thick insulation alongside the smart controller so that forced the issue. Luckily I found an alternative product that combined 30 mm of polyurethane insulation with a simple dumb thermostat. Perfect for us. I think I would have ended up using the smart controller as nothing more than a time switch anyway, and a cheap analogue time switch for then €5 does the same job.

Matching consumption to available solar power

I also found that some companies were offering "anti-salderings" boilers at extra cost. These come with lower power elements than usual as a better match to domestic solar power installations.

Underneath the easily removed plastic base of the boiler is this mess of wires. Disconnecting the two white wires from the second element halves the energy consumption, making it more compatible with using excess solar power.

The idea of this is to ensure that to the greatest extent possible you only use your own electricity. This is because Dutch energy companies don't give you very much for any extra kWh that you export to the grid, and no-one is quite sure what will happen in the future to the existing rules around this. So when I found it was possible to buy a 1500 W boiler which actually has two 750 W elements wired in parallel, that's what I chose because this can also be run as a 750 W boiler which happens to come with a free spare element. The company that we bought our boiler from also offers an anti-salderings version of the same boiler for €50 more. Does this differ in any way other than only having one element wired up ? I don't know.


The size of the boiler was a topic of much discussion. I'd have been happy with a 30 l boiler, but my wife insisted on 80 l.

The biggest problem with buying a fairly large boiler was the weight. This thing weighs 32 kg. Holding up there above my head over the stairs while Judy helped push it into place to hook it onto the supports that I'd already fitted in the wall took a lot of effort. The bathroom is just behind the wall on the right. This was the closest place to the bathroom where we could install the water heater. This means less loss due to long pipes than was the case with the gas water heater. As you can see, I'd not yet done the plumbing or electrical work when this photo was taken.

I'm almost totally bald while Judy has long hair so it's no surprise that she thought a larger boiler would be necessary. I've done calculations which I think reliably indicate that 50 litres would be more enough for Judy, but as we're grandparents now we might actually need to run a bath for our favourite visitor at some point and that could mean needing more water. The extra large boiler will cost a bit of extra energy, but we can compensate by running it slightly cooler and letting the shower mix in less cold water. But in any case we should have solar power to spare - I expanded the solar installation in September when I ordered the first water boiler specifically in order to cope with this.

Tidying up

The water pipes to the gas heater have been removed but the heater is still in place in the boiler room alongside the central heating boiler (which doesn't get used much, but . I'll get rid of it when the gas central heating boiler is removed, a job which I will probably have to get someone else to do so they can do both at once. Until that day it's doing us no harm and it's perfectly safe - the gas pipe the gas boiler has a tap on it which which is now switched off.

How much energy does it use ?

After three weeks of operation, with us having showers as frequently as usual, the water heater had consumed 44 kWh of electricity. That works out as an expected consumption of about 770 kWh per year to cover all our hot water usage, which would cost about €300 at today's electricity prices. By comparison, the consumption of our old gas water heater's pilot light was 134 m3 per year. At today's price that amount of gas would cost over €400 per year, and remember that that was just for the pilot light. i.e. it didn't include the gas used for actually making hot water that we washed with. So all else being equal, replacing the gas water heater with electric would save us about €10 a month. i.e. it would take about three years before the new water heater has paid for itself in reduced cost.

We expect these extra solar panels installed in September to
generate about the same amount of electricity as the water heater uses
But all else isn't equal: The extra 800 W of additional solar panels which we added to our rooftop system a few months ago should generate approximately the same amount of energy each year as the water heater consumes. As a result, our annual energy cost should just drop by the price of the gas that the water heater burnt, which worked out as about €40 a month. That's quite a significant number for us because €40 a month just happens to be exactly the  same amount as we've paid for our electricity and gas together over the last year.

So as we stand right now our energy bills ought to be very close to zero in future even if we do nothing more to improve efficiency of our home. But that's not the plan. We will of course continue to do more to make our home more efficient, and there will be more blog posts about it.

It's also a battery / storage heater

An instant water heater would consume electricity when it is used. i.e. nighttime showers could not be powered by our solar panels. But with this hot water tank our showers can be powered by our solar panels even if we shower when the sun isn't shining. Another effect of having a tank of hot water heated from solar power during the day to warm our water is that small amount of heat leaking from the water tank is released 24 hours a day. i.e. some of the energy stored by the water heater during the day is released at night, keeping the upstairs of our home slightly warmer in winter.

Why not install solar thermal water heating ?

A perfectly reasonable question, which someone asked on social media. My answer is as follows:

In total the panels, the boiler and all the parts needed to install everything cost less than €1400. It would have cost at least twice as much to install a thermal solar water heater. Also, we'd still have needed to buy the  electric boiler (a more expensive version of it with pipes as well as electric heating) because if we'd gone with solar thermal that would almost certainly not heat the water sufficiently in winter. By doing it this way, all the solar panels on our house & garage combined can contribute to water heating, not just a smaller area so it's likely to work better on darker days.

In addition, the extra solar panels are on the garage roof were easily to reach safely at a low work height while thermal solar panels would have had to be installed on the much higher roof of our home. So in addition to this being a cheaper way of heating water than thermal solar, I also did not have to clamber about on the roof of my house (nor pay anyone to do that dangerous job for me), didn't have to make holes in the roof for pipes which could leak, and there's no risk at all of leakage due to pipes being frozen in winter.

And think of future maintenance. The water heater and solar panels function completely separately from each other. i.e. either can be replaced without affecting the other component of the system.

I don't think that thermal solar makes much sense these days. It did in the past when PV panels were far more expensive than they are now. My father-in-law made his own solar water heating panels in the 1980s. This was an interesting project, they were made of copper sheeting with copper pipes soldered on, all painted black, in an insulated wooden box with glass in front. They were very effective and I enjoyed a few nice warm showers from that system in the summer. But it worked out in large part because they built a home around the system so the panels could be larger than commercial systems and ideally located to work with gravity. Around the same time I was experimenting with my first solar electric panels on my roof, but they produced very little electricity for their size and cost and it would have been completely impractical to use them for heating water. For many years I thought we'd end up with solar thermal water heating, but they were always difficult to install on a standard home, and this is now a better way of doing it.

Anyway, that's another DIY job finished, and we've taken another step in the direction of complete independence from fossil fuel.