ByDerrick Mains

Jun 12, 2014

Ever wonder when someone says that something will be recycled what that actually means?

I would expect that word to encompass the whole of the item from soup to nuts (or bolts to nuts I guess) – each and every part being properly repurposed, melted down and turned into a sweater vest. Yet, when it comes to that tank water heater at your home or business that’s rarely the case.

Since the late 1800’s water heaters have been a staple of human existence. Hiding out in the corner, deep in far reaches of the garage or in a dark closet keeping the boogieman company. Over the years, your water heater has done what its name implies – heat water. But like everything else in our world, water heaters are disposable and every 8 years or so (like presidents) they need to be replaced because they get full of muck and crud (like presidents) from heating water 24/7/365. This buildup causes tanks to be become less efficient over time until they just don’t do the job anymore (like presidents). Worse still, tanks can rupture and then, like the water inside of them, everything goes downhill. It’s been demonstrated that gas units that are not properly maintained and replaced can explode (see the MythBusters episode on this one) causing astounding amounts of destruction (like preside … ahh forget it)!

Eventually by plan, leak or something far worse, the plumber comes for us all and your old water heater gets the heave-ho and a shiny fresh new one takes its place.

So when the plumber tells you he is “recycling” your old tank what does that really mean?

According to studies done by the EPA and Humboldt State University, the recycling of a tank is a difficult proposition. These studies have shown that if a tank water heater is recycled, out of the 135 pounds of materials used to manufacture and ship it – 89.5 pounds of that STILL end up in a landfill! So only one-third of the tank gets recycled and two-thirds end up in a landfill. That’s not recycling – that’s “sortacycling.” Worse yet, those are just the tanks that actually get taken to a recycler in the first place! The rest are laying somewhere at the bottom of the landfill.

Tanks have complex compositions that include many elements like copper, steel, aluminum, foam, porcelain and plastics. Of course, the higher-value materials like copper are almost certainly recycled, but the metal scrap yards that usually do this work have no incentive or even method to recover the other materials. In the end, much of that material ends up right where we don’t want it ….clogging up a landfill.

So what can you and your plumber do? Well, unfortunately not much. A good electronic recycler with the right certifications might be able to get a larger percentage of your tank recycled – but as a former e-waste guy myself, I can tell you not many of them are set up to deal with heaters.

Fortunately, new technology has been coming onto the market and a growing share of the market has turned to tankless units. Tankless heaters have many environmental benefits, starting with their much smaller size (units weigh 25-40 pounds versus 135 or more) which means less material used in the creation of the unit and a smaller footprint in shipping it to market. Tankless units also tend to last significantly longer than tanks, with many manufacturers stating life expectancy of 20+ years with little or no maintenance. Add to that the fact that tankless systems only heat water when you need it (not all the time like a tank) and tankless units are a huge step forward for homeowners and the planet.

Tankless units are “on demand” so they don’t store large amounts of water in a tank waiting for your next shower. Because of that, many of the foam, insulation and plastic parts used by tanks to try and keep the water hot aren’t needed. These are also the parts of the tank that are the most difficult to recover (everyone wants valuable copper, but who wants soggy, dirty insulation?). By eliminating those elements from the design, tankless units by nature are more sustainable and thus more recyclable.

For the past decade, gas tankless heaters have been taking the market by storm – but since 45% of US homes don’t have natural gas available to them (mainly in the South and West) solutions for those homes with electric only have been hard to find. Thankfully over the past year newer technology in electric tankless, including cloud-connected devices has hit the market and begun grabbing up share from the electric tank business. Companies like the one I work for see sustainability as a key point in our efforts and we are making units more efficient with less waste, and lower power and water consumption. The considerably longer lifespan of a tankless unit means lower replacement costs and fewer hassles and problems recycling units at the end of life. Integrating sustainability into the features and benefits just makes sense for customers, the planet and the company.

Additionally, the newest tankless units have integrated alerts that allow the heater to notify you of problems like leaks, saving homeowners the cleanup associated with flooding (and protecting the landfill from receiving a soppy carpet and ruined drywall, yuck).

Since modern tankless units heaters use newer approaches to design, we are also seeing some units being programmed with a mind of their own. They’re now connecting to the cloud and looking for ways to improve themselves, like reporting usage patterns. So, you can give your kids the business when they spend 40 minutes in the shower practicing their inaugural speeches for when they become president, and even turn your unit off remotely when you are on vacation…or when your mother-in-law is in the shower and you want to “remind” her she has overstayed her welcome.

Although tanks will be with us for a few more years, more and more of the market is moving toward tankless and for good reason. Fortunately, at some point in the future tanks will become a thing of folklore, only seen in the Smithsonian where children will gawk and point and parents will tell stories of how tanks ruptured and flooded whole towns!

Sometimes recycling is hard, and it’s not easy to find a place for all materials – but looking for solutions that last longer, have a smaller footprint and have integrated energy and water savings into their design is a no-brainer. Of course, that might not help your current tank – but in the long run it will help your pocketbook and the planet. Plus, recovering all that wasted space your tank currently takes up and reclaiming it for those golf clubs isn’t a bad thing either, is it?

By Derrick Mains

Derrick Mains is a former VP at Earth911, former President of the ewaste company youchange, co-founder and former CEO of GreenNurture, today he is involved in a number of clean and green tech projects and acts as COO of trutankless (so he knows a thing or two about the topic). Yes, yes, he talks a lot - in person, on the radio and at conferences and by proficiency, chance or coincidence he is known to occasionally drop some knowledge on you.