The Difference Between Boilers and Water Heaters

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During the cold weather, access to heat and water for your space is a primary concern. While water heaters and boilers can provide essential heat to a home, it can be confusing to know the difference between the two heating appliances. Though a boiler and a water heater provide hot water, they have different functions. Many homeowners do not know the difference between these two water heating systems. In this article, we will discuss the exact function of boilers and water heaters, how the two systems are similar, the several factors that differ, and how they can be combined. We will also discuss deciding which system is best for your home.


A boiler is designed to store water used for space heating in a home. They perform the function of a furnace, wall heater, or other HVAC method. It produces steam by heating the water stored inside, which it uses to provide space or radiant heating. They can have fuel sources of natural gas, fuel oil, electricity, or propane to heat the water stored inside. A pump will then push the heated water or steam through the pipes within the walls or floor of a house to transport heat, where radiators will eventually send the water cycling back to the source to be reheated and sent through the process again.

This means that boilers do not constantly use an input of new water; instead, they cycle the same water through the heating process to provide heat to the entire home. The boiler will not have to use much energy to reheat the water once the steam cools enough since it will already be warm from the previous cycle when the boiler heats it again.

Water Heaters

A water heater heats water explicitly at a specific temperature for domestic use. This means things like cleaning dishes and washing clothes. Cold water will enter the heater and be heated through coils, a gas flame, or water to water, depending on the type of system. The hot water leaves the tank and travels through the plumbing system to the desired location. A tank will have a limited capacity, so cold water will sometimes come out of the faucet or shower once the supply is depleted. A water heater does not produce steam and will only provide water for usage rather than heating a space.

There are two major types of water heaters: tank water heaters and tankless water heaters. A tank water heater will store a certain amount of hot water, which will be refilled with cold water at the bottom as it exits the tank. It is possible to use up the available hot water in this case. Tankless water heaters heat water on demand rather than storing it, making them more energy efficient and better able to keep up with hot water demands. However, because of its output rate, a tankless water heater will still have limitations on how much hot water it can provide at one time. A tankless water heater will also have lower running costs over time.

Hot Water Heater vs Boiler: Similarities and Differences

Both boilers and water heaters heat water and distribute it throughout a home or building. They also usually store water in pressurized tanks, which are heated and ready to be distributed. But besides these two functions, boilers and water heaters differ significantly in their purpose regarding domestic hot water.

The biggest difference is that boilers can be used to heat the entire home, while water heaters do not have that capability. Water heated within a boiler is usually not safe to be touched since the temperature it is heated to is at boiling levels to turn water into steam, and it would not be able to go near appliances such as a shower or sink. Domestic water heated by a water heater can be used for cooking and cleaning. Boilers can also use heating oil as fuel, while water heaters use gas or electricity. Price-wise, a boiler installation will be much more expensive than a water heater installation, and a water heater will be easier to replace. They will have a similar lifespan of around fifteen years, but tankless water heaters will have a lifespan closer to 20 years.

When comparing costs to run each type of system, it is essential to factor in the price of your HVAC system when looking at water heater energy costs. Since a boiler is your HVAC system and water heater, it is all in one. A water heater needs an external HVAC system so that your house can be heated, not just your water, so both costs would need to be considered when comparing the efficiency costs of boilers and water heaters.

Maintenance tips will be similar for both units. Performing yearly inspections is always recommended for plumbing and HVAC equipment. Both require checking to make sure there are no leaks, and you should always drain out the tank so that sediment does not build. For boilers, it is important to lubricate the moving parts to keep them running smoothly, and for water heaters, you will need to test the water valve to ensure it is working correctly. It is also a good idea to schedule professional tune-ups so that an HVAC or plumbing specialist can properly review the whole system and ensure that nothing needs to be repaired internally. As with most machines, maintenance is crucial to keeping them running efficiently to or past their lifespan while avoiding constant, expensive repairs.

Can You Heat Water and Your Home with a Water Heater/Boiler Combination?

Having both a boiler and a water heater could be a massive waste of energy since both units supply hot water, one for domestic hot water use and the other for wall or floor heating. So can the two be combined into one system?

One option for this is a combination boiler. These types of boilers, commonly referred to as combi boilers, are able to function as both a space heater and a domestic water heater. When you open a tap in your house, the water in a combi boiler will be prioritized to flow there through the heat exchanger to provide you with hot water. When the water is called for wall or floor heating, it travels to a separate channel, where it goes through the heating loop to give heat to the radiators. They are also compact units that can save a lot of space in your home.

Another option is an indirect water heater. This water heater does not have its own heating source and could, therefore, use a boiler’s heat to provide hot water. A pipe from the boiler would be connected to this water heater so that it heats water in that tank while also keeping its own supply of water separate from the space heating system, so the water will still travel through separate pipes.

Trading Boiler for Water Heater: Which Option Is Best For You?

Homes do not require boilers, but they do require water heaters. You are the expert on your home and appliances, but it is best to consult a professional if you are unsure which system would be best. Boilers are considered a more old-fashioned heating system and can be less efficient, so many people will want to use a forced-air heating method.

If you do find that a boiler is your preferred option for heating systems, it might be best to go with a combination boiler or an indirect water heater, just to save energy so that you are not heating water in two separate places. If you have a separate water heater and boiler system, investing in them both as time goes on can become incredibly expensive.

The experts at John Owens Services can always assist you with this decision. We can inspect your home’s water and heating needs to help you determine which option would be best for you before conducting a flawless installation. We can provide any necessary maintenance and repairs you may require at any point. Any kind of boiler or water heating system can be handled by our experts so that you are able to keep your home warm during the cold months.

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San Rafael
(415) 942-6565
Santa Rosa
(707) 452-3464



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San Rafael
(415) 942-6565
Santa Rosa
(707) 452-3464