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A friend living alone in a 2 bedroom condo needs a new water heater and has been quoted over $4000 from multiple plumbers to replace the one pictured. I live in a 6 bedroom house with 7 people, I replaced my water heater with a much larger one for $1500 and we've never run out of hot water, ever. I've never lived in an apartment, I have no idea what constraints there are or why a water heater should cost 3 times one that serves a house 3 times the size. Two plumbers told her she has no choice, there's only one model she can use. Why is this the case, and what should our expectations be? Why is the pictured unit SO expensive and why is it impossible to replace it with one that is not? Explain to someone who has only ever lived in a house with a $1000 water heater merrily doing its job for decades. (And for clarity, I replaced my home water heater 2 years ago for $1500 including installation. It's a 75 gal Bradford White.)

Existing condo heater pictured.

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EDIT: Responding to question in comments about the red hose. From another two of several more photos I have, it looks like it goes from a PRV on the cold supply to the drain. I will inspect more closely when I'm next there.

enter image description here

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Michael Karas
    Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 13:43
  • @MichaelKaras do you do that based purely on the length of the conversation, regardless of content? There were questions and answers in these comments that helped to produce the existing, pretty good, answers, and further material in them that will inform (eventually) the correct answer. That is how this community thrives and grows. I confess there was a bit of extraneous chat in this thread but it was incidental, and you ought to accommodate some of it bearing in mind that community members are people.
    – jay613
    Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 13:49
  • Any further luck with this situation? I'm dying to hear what the "no vent" plumber had to say lol
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 13:21
  • @monkeyzeus what I have determined so far: 1) Said plumber’s tone and behavior was contemptuous. Her description of the encounter is not a pleasant one. So your sucker theory is a top contender. I will never know what he actually meant by “no vent” but he either meant it requires a power-vented high-efficiency boiler (it does), or it was more of a Cosmo Castorini copper pipes play.
    – jay613
    Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 14:27
  • 2) I’ve seen it now and discussed with her. No explanation for why such a large powerful boiler is there. I’ll attend the next quote to negotiate a downgrade from someone with a T&M mindset rather than a fixed markup, and we must find someone who does not already regard this upscale seniors development as a gold mine. 3) I have determined that the red pipe is just a drain. The cold supply valve has a drain, and the pipe goes into the drain. Why, I don’t know. Maybe to partly drain the interior pipework of the condo? But then why not do it from the tank’s own drain valve?
    – jay613
    Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 14:31

4 Answers 4

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I think it's fear of downgrading.

I think the pro plumbers are unwilling to downgrade them.

For instance, the latest Codes require water heaters to have better insulation than they did before. This means they are larger. This is a well-known problem: a new heater often won't fit in the same location. That means you must either downgrade a size, or go to a taller heater. That's already a pretty tall heater, and it's hard to go much taller in that space, so they may be forced into something exotic to stay at 50 gallons.

Why not just quote the customer a 50 and a 40/30 and let them decide? Because in the real world, plumbers are finding that people don't understand the consequences of their choices, and blame the plumber.

So they might have better luck opening the dialogue with asking for the downgrade: "I hate that 50-gallon thing, I'd much rather have a 30 like I used to have, and get rid of that stupid pre-heating system too, it just makes my cold water hot". That way you are putting the plumber on advance notice that you want the downgrades.

There is no reason for a 2-person condo to need a 50-gallon heater if they are sensible with showers (and showerhead flow). If they are insensible with showers then they are better off with a gas tankless, which will provide unlimited hot water at perfectly respectable rates. Gas tanklesses are expensive, but they're sure as heck not $4000.

It may also be a bacteria thing

Science has made a lot of forward progress on how people get sick from hot water (the Flint water crisis had a little to do with this). It turns out, water heaters set at certain temperatures are breeding grounds for bacteria. These are the same temperatures you set to avoid scalding, something you really want for seniors, who might have a "senior moment" and blast the hot. Unfortunately the most vulnerable people to water-heater-borne bacteria are also seniors.

So... the gold standard for retirement communities is now to jack water heater temperature up to a bacteria-killing 140F/60C. However, since that creates an equally bad scald situation, this can only be done if ALL hot faucets are changed to thermostatic types that will automatically mix in cold water to keep water at scald-safe temperatures.

So the big quote may include re-kitting the house with appropriate faucets, including shower-and-tub work, which can get expensive if the builder didn't leave you an access hatch.

A pleasant upside to having hotter hot water, is that the same temperature at-the-faucet uses less hot water, and that makes the hot water runtime run longer. So a 40 gallon tank @140F can easily replace a 50 gallon @115F.

I also suspect a cheapo "pre-heating" system

Some people like to install "circulation pumps" to churn hot water down the pipes, so the hot water in the pipes is already hot, and they get almost instant hot water out of the faucet.

This requires a "return line" back to the water heater for the water that was moved through the pipe. Most houses do not have this hard-plumbed.

So the el-cheapo method of solving this problem is to simply use the cold water line as a return pipe - taking the tepid and warming water in the pipe and pumping it back into the cold water pipe.

Now, consider the implications when this is combined with a bacteria-safe 140F water heater and thermostatic faucets. The user calls for hot water -- too hot! So the thermostatic faucet automatically mixes in some cold water to reduce the 140F hot down to safe temperature. Except the cold water is too-hot also, because of the cheapo circulation pump filling it with hot water. This creates a guaranteed-scald scenario.

Needless to say, this all creates a big mess for the plumber to have to contend with, versus customer expectations that nothing get worse.

Let me harken back to the idea that tankless heaters don't heat water except during flow, so they don't store hot water, so they don't breed bacteria. You can set a tankless to 110F and just run it like that. That takes the scald situation completely off the table.

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  • Regarding the bacteria thing. In my part of the world they don't use thermostatic controlled faucets. Replacing all taps is unnecessary. What we do here is put in a tempering valve on the outlet of the hot water cylinder. e.g. plumbplumbing.co.nz/tempering-valve Total cost of the valve is only a few hundred NZ + labour.
    – hookenz
    Commented Mar 9, 2021 at 2:12
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    @Matt, yeah, that type of installation is also possible in the US. I think on newly built systems, point-of-use thermostatic valves are preferred, since then you can set the temperature per-device (and things that don't need them, like the dishwasher, can use the full temperature water). But for retrofits, the way you're describing is much easier and cheaper.
    – Nate S.
    Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 19:34
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First off, a new AO Smith 50 100 is about $2,200: https://www.supplyhouse.com/AO-Smith-GPHE-50-50-Gallon-76000-BTU-Vertex-Power-Vent-Residential-Gas-Water-Heater. Whether or not that's the price the plumber's supplier charges is a different story.

My experience is that plumbers will gladly quote double the cost of the unit for a swap out; it's just industry standard unless you get a plumber that works for themselves. An in-place swap out shouldn't cost more than $400 realistically for time (2-3 hours) and material (new appliance connector gas line, fittings, etc...).

Secondly, I noticed the old unit is 50 gallons at 76,000 BTU/HR. This bad boy can heat a tank of water real quick! My 50 gallon unit is only 40,000 BTU/HR.


As for this:

Two plumbers told her she has no choice, there's only one model she can use.

I'm not sure, take your pick:

  • Profit margin - if you install expensive stuff then you can mark up the labor
  • They think your friend is a sucker
  • Getting the same unit just makes the whole install easier - less time spent installing, more money made
  • HOA rules?
  • Code rules which require this type of heater for the specific dwelling
  • The existing unit is rated for 5,300 feet; maybe altitude is an issue for other heaters?

At the end of the day your friend needs to ask "Why is this the only model I can use?" and document the reasons thoroughly.

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  • Your $400 estimate feels right, and if they charged me $1500 for mine they can't possibly have taken more than $400 for themselves. So hers want almost $2000. There are HOA rules but they DID NOT consult them! I'm afraid their both taking her for a sucker may be the right guess, and that is what she said to me before I asked here. :(......
    – jay613
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 20:11
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    @jay613 Sorry to hear that. If the HOA also specifies that water heaters must be performed by licensed companies or worse-yet specifically companies ABC or XYZ then the plumber has even less incentive to be competitive. "Quote high, and possibly get haggled down to fair" is always the name of the game! Additionally, trades-people tend to prey on females and the elderly; I'm not being sexist, just stating facts which I've observed when my wife had to deal with a situation when I was not home.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 20:16
  • yes she is elderly and in a senior community with private ownership. The HOA does not require specific plumbers but I wonder if all the local ones know they have a captive audience. I gave her the numbers for 3 plumbers I trust but none of them was willing to go to her, only 20 miles away.
    – jay613
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 20:24
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    @jay613 With a condo, if there are people living below her then there is a certain amount of risk involved in installing a water heater above a finished space. The premium install price could be to offset future costs associated with being blamed for property damage caused by a failed water heater. If the plumbers are familiar with this HOA then they might already be well-verse in catching blame for something not their fault. It might not have costed them money out-of-pocket but wasted time or legal battles will easily jack up prices for future clients.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 20:31
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Collecting the most plausible bits from other answers, comments, and new observations into one place. Much credit to the authors of the other answers.

The existing boiler is expensive It's a power-vented high efficiency condensing boiler, the only kind suitable for the internal location. These are expensive. The one in place is oversized and overpowered for the small apartment. We don't know why. It lists for $2200.

Installation is harder than a standard boiler There are external venting, condensing, and drain pipes that need to be rebuilt with the replacement boiler. This adds about an hour to the installation for someone highly experienced with the specific boiler, or more than an hour for someone working from the manual.

Downgrading is unattractive to plumbers and adds actual cost. Given the need for a power-vented condensing boiler the only available downgrade is a smaller less powerful one. A much smaller one might save some money but 1) would require reconfiguration of the cold, hot, vent, and gas line and 2) exposes the plumber to being blamed for future problems whether related to the downgrade or not. They won't suggest it and my friend didn't demand it.

An unwritten condo insurance tax Working in an upstairs condo in a development probably results in more problems and issues with downstairs neighbors requiring higher insurance premiums that are built into the price.

All the above gets us easily above $3000. It's unfair to compare to my $1500 installation of a standard boiler in an unfinished basement with easy access to an outside door.

And then ....

There is a sucker factor A high end seniors development may attract high-ball quotes, and that is reflected in the tone from one of the people who did a quote.

Other misc explanations:

  • The plumber who said "there's not vent", to be generous to him, probably meant that a power-vented high-efficiency condensing boiler is the only kind that can be installed in that location.
  • The red hose in the picture is a drain and my best guess is that the installer needed a shutoff valve, only had one with a drain, and didn't want to leave that drain unconnected because given the location (finished space) that might fail inspection.

I may update this after I personally attend a quote or two (may take time) and eventually the boiler is replaced.

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Replacing a hot water heater in a condo complex is a riskier install and the total 4K includes the new water heater, to code installation, and removal and disposal of the old one. That seems very reasonable to me.

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  • Discussion of pricing is explicitly off-topic here because pricing varies so much by locale and over time. What's reasonable where you are could be dirt cheap in another place and highway robbery in a 3rd place.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jun 4 at 12:39

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