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|HVAC & Water
Water Heating > Brands & Features
|The water heating industry has seen its fair share of transformation, with various technologies coming to the fore, only to be replaced by others that were better suited to changes in people's habits and ways of lives. Particularly, there has been an on-going back-and-forth between storage tank and tankless technologies. We provide some history on the industry and present its current leading manufacturers.|
Before delving into the current state of water heater systems, some background is in order to help understand how water heaters evolved over time and to provide perspective on the older models that are still in operation in many homes throughout the country. In addition, seeing the progression of water heating technology over time provides some understanding of how the application and functionality can become increasingly enhanced even though the basic concept of the underlying technology remains unchanged.
In the Victorian Age, it became a common practice to heat water in vessels over a fire and then to fill tubs and sinks with water warmed in this way. Of course, this was a highly manual and time-consuming process. However, there did not seem to be any way of making it either faster or less labor-intensive. During that time, the most common way to heat water was either in a pot over the fire, as mentioned above, or in a kettle over the cooking stove. Later, when running water became more common, a pipe loop called a “water-back” was installed in the fire box of the stove. Heated water would move through this chamber and subsequently be piped to a storage tank. When heated water was required, it would get pumped from this storage tank.
A more modern apparatus was not invented until well past the middle of the 19th century. Indeed, the roots of modern water heating probably go back to 1868, when a British artist named Ben Maughan created a contraption which he dubbed the “geyser”. This invention consisted of a set of heated wires which were inserted into flowing cold water. The wires were heated by a gas burner. As the water flowed by the wires, it picked up heat and this now warm water was channeled into a tub. Unfortunately, taking a bath using Maughan’s “geyser” could be a risky proposition, as there was no vent to remove the heated gases from the bathroom.
Variations on Maughan’s geyser were soon installed in many of the more affluent homes. These early water heaters consisted of a gas burner coupled with a copper water pipe in the form of a coil, which acted as a heat exchanger. Water was heated as it flowed through the coil on its way to a hot water faucet. Unfortunately, this kind of water heater lacked any sort of temperature control. As a result, the relative warmth of the hot water varied, depending on the strength of the burner and the capacity of the coil.
A few decades later, a Norwegian engineer named Edwin Ruud was exposed to Maughan’s geyser concept. Shortly after immigrating to the United States, Ruud perfected the idea. In 1889, while living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ruud invented what would be recognized as the world’s first electric water heater. The Norwegian started the Ruud Manufacturing Company to begin the commercial production of water heaters. Although it was subsequently acquired by Rheem, the Ruud brand name remains among the best available in the water heater space to this day. Along the way, the company made multiple innovations and advancements with respect to water heaters and water heating technology.
In the early 20th century, water heaters became increasingly common in the home and, correspondingly, the number of water heating equipment manufacturers skyrocketed. The main competition was between instantaneous water heaters, which heated the water as it passed through the pipes, and storage water heaters, which pre-heated the water in a storage tank and then pumped it from the storage tank to the faucet as needed. The benefit of the instantaneous water heaters was that there was no energy waste associated with repeatedly heating water in a tank until it was actually needed. However, the problem with the early instantaneous water heaters was that they did not heat water evenly or consistently. As a result, the temperature of the water coming from the hot water faucet would fluctuate.
When baths were popular, the fluctuation in temperature associated with instantaneous water heaters was not a major issue. People would draw a tub and, before stepping in, test the temperature. If it was too warm or too cold, they would simply add more hot or cold water, as needed, in order to arrive at the appropriate temperature.
However, as the 20th century wore on and people became more time-conscious, showers began to gain in popularity vis-à-vis baths. The benefit of a shower was that it could be completed in a fraction of the time required for a bath. With a shower, though, the temperature fluctuations associated with instantaneous water heating were highly uncomfortable, resulting in people being hit with icy cold water one moment and scalding hot water the next. As a result, storage tank based heaters, which offered hot water at an even temperature, began to gain ground against the instantaneous models.
Storage tank water heaters eventually became the most popular type of water heater in North America. The storage tanks themselves were made from a variety of materials, as manufacturers experimented with different options, including copper, bronze, and steel. Performance was significantly improved when insulation was added to the tanks, allowing the water, once heated, to keep its temperature for far longer.
With storage tank heaters dominating the market, the race was on to make these heater types more efficient and less costly. Different types of venting were used to try and capture more of the heat from the burning and combustion process and trap it inside the storage tank for a longer period of time. New materials came to the fore, including glass-lined steel which both resisted wear and provided excellent insulation.
In the second half of the 20th century, a lot of attention was also devoted to the safety of water heaters. Early models were notorious for leaking and blowing up. Innovations such as relief valves and automatic gas shutoffs made a major difference and resulted in far fewer unnecessary accidents.
Today, the major focus is on greater energy efficiency both because consumers are demanding better energy performance from their major home appliances and because the government has passed legislation setting more stringent guidelines for minimum efficiency levels from manufacturers. At the same time, instantaneous water heaters – better known as tankless water heaters – are resurgent as improvements in technology have eliminated their early problems in providing hot water at stable temperatures.
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There are many different companies which manufacture water heaters, ranging from giant multinational conglomerates for which water heaters are just one of dozens of consumer product lines to specialized firms which focus on water heating systems exclusively. In addition, due to consolidation within the industry, different brand names of water heaters may actually be manufactured by the same company.
Given the important role that water heaters play in the home and the relatively high sticker price associated with a new unit, most consumers prefer to purchase their systems from a reputable manufacturer whose products are known for quality, performance, efficiency, and reliability. Like any consumer space, water heaters feature a full range of manufacturers, running the reputational gamut. Some are known for adhering to the highest standards, while others have a less stellar reputation.
Many consumers and water heating experts agree that the top three manufacturers of water heaters are Bradford White, Rheem, and Rinnai. Each of these companies receives almost universally high marks for their product offerings. The next two places on the totem pole are more open to debate, but in this site's opinion, A.O. Smith and Bosch both make a strong case for being there, with Noritz and General Electric receiving honorable mentions.
With a history that dates back to 1881, Bradford White is among the oldest and most renowned water heater manufacturers in the market. Headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and running a state-of-the-art 800,000 square foot manufacturing operation in Middleville, Michigan, the company focuses exclusively on wholesale distribution. This means that Bradford White’s products are only available through authorized plumbing and heating professionals. The company avoids retail distribution channels to ensure that its products are properly and professionally installed. This way, Bradford White’s reputation for quality water heaters is far less likely to be tainted by mistaking a deficient installation for a deficient product.
Bradford White devotes significant resources to continual research and development, seeking to remain on the cutting edge of innovation within the water heating industry. The company explicitly challenges its engineers to “create products and systems with enhanced quality features that are built to last and to serve the constantly evolving and more sophisticated needs of our professional customers”. So far, the engineers have risen to the challenge and Bradford White remains at the forefront of high quality water heater manufacturing.
Rheem is another long term participant in the water heater space. The company was originally established nearly 90 years ago. Started by two brothers in San Francisco, the Rheem Manufacturing Company began its life with the manufacture of water heaters and remained exceptional in that area, although by the 1940s the company diversified into space heating systems as well.
In 1959, Rheem acquired the Ruud Manufacturing Company, which was the original innovator of modern water heaters. In the 1960s, Rheem entered the heating and air conditioning market and continued its rapid growth. In the 1980s, the company expanded further by acquiring Raypak, a producer of heating equipment for swimming pools and hydronic systems.
Today, Rheem sells water heaters under both the Rheem and Ruud brands. The company has an outstanding reputation for quality and reliability in the industry, receiving consistently high marks from plumbing and heating experts and service professionals. Many consumers swear by Rheem/Ruud systems and would not even consider purchasing a water heating system from any other manufacturer.
Unlike Bradford White and Rheem, the Rinnai Company is headquartered in Japan. However, it established a North American presence in 1974 and has been successfully supplying the U.S. market for nearly four decades. At present, Rinnai has offices in California, Florida, Texas, and Georgia, with a distribution network of authorized sellers throughout the entire country.
Rinnai is the largest gas appliance manufacturer in the world and a global leader in the production of tankless water heaters. In point of fact, Rinnai was the first company to receive an ENERGY STAR designation for tankless water heaters. The company has established a name for itself in the water heating industry and is one of the largest manufacturers in that space. For those consumers who are specifically looking for a tankless water heater, Rinnai is about as good as it gets.
While Rinnai did not enter the North American market until 1974, A.O. Smith has been a presence in this market since 1874, a full century earlier when the Smith family opened a small machine shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The company started as a manufacturer of bicycle and automobile parts, supplying to such major corporations as Chrysler and Ford, and becoming a leader in that space by the early 1900s. During the First World War, A.O. Smith became involved in the war effort and was soon the largest bomb-maker in the United States. In the 1930s, A.O. Smith came out with the first glass-lined water heater and subsequently entered the water heating space with a massive manufacturing effort. By 1970, the company had produced more than 10 million water heaters.
Today, A.O. Smith is an international powerhouse in the production of water heaters, with extensive operations in not only North America, but also Europe and Asia. The company sells its products in 60 countries around the world and its water heaters have acquired a reputation for quality, performance, and durability.
Finally, Bosch is a giant German conglomerate whose roots go back to 1886 when Robert Bosch opened his Workshop for Precision Mechanics and Electrical Engineering in Stuttgart, Germany. Like A.O. Smith, Bosch began as suppliers of automobile parts, including ignitions, spark plugs, windshield wipers, and headlights. Subsequently, the company expanded into power tool manufacture and other consumer products. Over time, the Bosch Group acquired a number of other enterprises, expanded into other industries, and grew its international presence.
Today, the Bosch Group comprises more than 320 subsidiaries, which include auto components, industrial machinery, hand tools, home appliances, security systems, and telecommunications. The company’s home appliance division produces a line of exceptional tankless water heaters which are comparable to models from Rinnai in terms of both quality and efficiency.
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