Water Heater Sizing Guide
How to select the right size

If you are shopping for a new electric or gas tank-type water heater the first thing you should do is to get familiar with the water heater sizing guide. By getting the right tank size, plenty of hot water will be available to your household even during the peak times, but without wasting too much of energy and water. The guide is very helpful as it provides expert guidelines, recommendations, and tips from different manufacturers.

It is important to know how to pick the right size water heater because water heating is large energy consumer. It is actually the second largest energy user in North American home and with the rising cost of gas, electricity, and fuels in general, you should be careful when sizing a water heater.

General water heater sizing rule: The heater should provide sufficient hot water at a temperature of min. 120 F at the busiest time of the day.

Keep in mind that an over-sized heater means wasted money and energy as you will be heating more than you need. The heat and energy will be lost through the tank walls and pipelines and every time the unnecessary quantity of water has to be re-heated.

An undersized heater means problems.

A properly sized water heater will meet all the household needs for hot water.

Water heater sizing guide tips

When you buy a new heater it is normal to expect that the unit will perform perfectly and deliver hot water whenever we need it; day, night, year by year.

There are many different sizes, from the small point of use and medium tankless water heaters to large tank models and boilers for higher demand.

Tankless heaters, for example, are providing hot water on demand, continuously, and its output can be expanded by applying the multi-system and by connecting several units into one system.

Tank type heating units are different; they are large in size and occupy much more area from the floor space.

The tank-type heater must be sized properly for your home and family needs and also to meet the demand for various applications, including showers, dishwashing and washing machines.

Is your water heater undersized?

An undersized heater automatically doesn't provide enough hot water and it may cause overheated water. It may also result in condensation and pilot flame outage due to drips onto the flame.

Common symptoms of the undersized water heater are:

  • Not enough hot water
  • Heavy condensation
  • Rust chips on the burners and flue tubes
  • Premature tank failure

Improper water heater sizing can create problems that will reduce the life of the heater, so units that are undersized are not eligible for warranty consideration.

On the other side, purchasing a properly sized tank will minimize burner or other element operation when small quantity of hot water is used, so there will be less stress on them.

Sizing also means; sufficient kW to heat water, proper pipe size to provide required flow and output, amperage, gas pipeline, drain pipeline, vent to handle the total BTU input, recovery rate, electrical fusing and expansion tank, the air used from the provided opening size...

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Important factors to consider

Probably the most important two factors are storage (capacity) and heat input. It is important to have the right water heater size especially when large quantities of hot water are required in a short period of time.

On the other side if the peak usage period is for an extended period of time (more than two hours) than the heater recovery rate is more important.

Another tip from experts is to buy a heater with the highest Energy Factor (EF). EF measures the efficiency of the heater. They are more expensive, but with higher EF you will purchase Energy Star models, save on energy and get the rebate through government incentives.

With the larger storage tank models, you will get the lower EF and lower EF gets you the higher operating costs.

When selecting a water heater, it is important to take into account the size limitation like diameter and height of the unit, as there are models like short, tall, lowboy, tabletop... so it can perfectly fit inside the designated room.

Here are suggestions and major factors that directly influence water usage, to investigate and include when selecting a heater:

  • What is the size of your home and family? Determine if your family has a low or high demand for hot water. High demand is if there are more than 2 baths, there are at least two teenagers in a family and you are using a hot tub, whirlpool bath...
  • How many bathrooms, tubs, dishwasher, washers you have... any additions in the future?
  • Age of family members, kids, teenagers... family is growing?
  •  What is the pattern of the usage?
  • Quantity and type of fixtures.

The pattern of the usage is very important as it gives you the idea of the peak hour demand or when is the busiest hour of usage (i.e. peak time might be in the morning between 6 and 7 before parents go to work and kids to school).

Calculate how much hot water do you need

Here are the consumption rates as an indication of how much water are required by certain application:

  • For shower or bath, you need around 20 gallons.
  • Showers with energy efficient shower head - 2.5-3 gal/min.
  • Automatic dishwasher needs around 14 gallons and 1-2.5 GPM flow rate.
  • Clothes washer needs 1.5-3 GPM flow rate.
  • Washing machine needs 32 gallons to wash the clothes.
  • To shave you need approximately 2 gallons.

For storage tank-type heaters if there is a need for more hot water than what your existing conventional unit provides, you may want to consider buying high recovery unit or split the system and install two units.

Sizing and the First Hour Rating chart

Don't make a mistake like the majority of consumers to buy a water heater based on the size of the storage tank. The peak hour demand capacity or First Hour Rating is more important. This information can be found on the Energy Guide label or brochure.

First Hour Rating is an indicator of how much hot water, one unit can provide. For natural gas, for example, first-hour rating range is from 40 to over 100 gallons.

It is shown in gallons and is the result of the combination of the amount of usable hot water stored in the tank and how many gallons of usable hot water, the heater can generate in one hour of operation.

Example: If 40-gallon natural gas heater stores 31 gallons of usable hot water and it delivers 41 gallons of usable hot water in the first hour, its First Hour Rating is 72 gallons.

High First Hour Rating allows you to buy a smaller model as it will result in a good performance even during the peak time and high demand while minimizing the cycle and standby losses.

Looking at the AO Smith water heater selection guideline for several family sizes:

Family size

2 people
3 people
4 people
5 people
6 people
> 7 people

FHR requirement (gal)

45-55
55-65
65-75
75-85
85-100
>100

Sizing calculators

Bradford White sizing calculator
State sizing calculator

What are the popular sizes

The most used tank size (based on the common family size of four to six) and the general rule for water heater sizing are:

  • 30 gallons unit - enough for one bath residential homes or apartments.
  • 40 gallons WH - for two bath residential homes or two applications.
  • 50 gallons WH - for three bath residential homes or three applications.

The above is the general guideline but if want to use the electrical heater for example, for family of four, and you live in a home with two full bathrooms, and using washing machine and dishwasher you should be within 50 to 80 gallons tank capacity range and around 5.5 kW of power produced by heating elements.

For the same requirements, and if using a gas, the recommendation is to use a 50-gallon tank with 40,000 BTU/hr gas input.

Here are the assumptions you should also consider for water heater sizing:

  • The electric heater is considered to have close to the 100% recovery efficiency due to its immersion installation.
  • Gas heaters are considered to have 75% recovery efficiency, which means that 75% of the total heat produced by the burner is absorbed by the water in the tank. 25% is energy waste.
  • Keep also in mind that around 70% of the hot water is drawn before dilution by the incoming cold water. For example, 50-gallon tank will deliver 35 gallons of usable hot water.

Related articles

How to size a tankless water heater
Tank-type water heater review
Review of tankless water heaters

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