Water Heater History: From Stove-Top to the Incredible Tankless

Water Heater History

Need to get clean? Go take a shower. Just turn on the faucet and luxuriate under the warm water. Wanna relax? Take a bath. Just fill a bathtub with water and you’re in business. Americans take running hot water for granted.

For almost a century, American homes have had hot running water – all you have to do is turn on the tap. But it wasn’t always like this.


For millennia, the only way to get hot water in the home was to heat it on the stove in the kitchen. The ancient Romans had hot baths and even steam rooms, but these were public. Until the invention of the residential water heater, everyone else had to heat their water in the kitchen. A pot had to be filled with water and placed on the stove or hung by its handle over the fire. The stove was fired by wood or in some cases coal. When the water was heated to the desired temperature, the pot was taken off the stove by hand and poured into the bathtub, which was also often in the kitchen.

Water takes a long time to heat up, and you have to boil several pots in order to get a decent bath of water. This was tedious and time-consuming – families could spend the whole Saturday cleaning up for Sunday church.

The Invention of the Residential Water Heater

The Invention of the Residential Water Heater

Fast forward to 1868 England. An English painter – yes, that’s not a typo – he wasn’t a plumber or an engineer, he was a painter – invents and patents the first residential water heater that didn’t use solid fuels. Benjamin Waddy Maughan’s device – which he called a geyser (after an Icelandic underground spring) heated the water by burning gas. The geyser worked very well but they could be dangerous: if you didn’t turn off the heater when you were done with the bath, it could lead to a very “explosive” situation – you could blow up your house. And there was no flue to take away noxious gas fumes. But they worked – for those who could afford them.

Enter Edwin Ruud. He was a Norwegian mechanical engineer who emigrated to the US in the 1880s. Ruud went to work to work for George Westinghouse, Edison’s rival in the new business of the distribution of electric power in American cities. Edison was pushing his DC/Direct Current system, but it could only transmit electric power a distance of about a mile. Westinghouse’s scientists invented all kinds of transformers, generators and distributors which could carry electricity over long distances, and Westinghouse’s system of AC/Alternating Current quickly won out. Ruud filed patents for several inventions while working for Westinghouse.

But Ruud had bigger plans for himself. He had improved and perfected Maughan’s device, and filed a patent in his own name for his new storage water heater in 1897. And the rest is history. Ruud quit working for Westinghouse, formed the Ruud Company, and persuaded a few of the country’s most successful plumbing entrepreneurs to join him as executives at Ruud. The company was a huge success, became a major player in the water heater business, and is still in existence to this day.

In 1915 there were 150 companies in the United States manufacturing water heaters. Today there are only a few. Ao Smith, Bradford White and Rheem are the biggest, and Ruud is still around after more than a century, though it’s now part of Rheem. Improvements have been made in everything from insulation and temperature control to new alloys of bonding different types of metals together in one unit – and then keeping them in water most of the time. This was a huge problem until recently: different metals corrode at different rates, and will yield in favor of a “superior’ metal, so steel will rust in favor of copper, and so on. But that problem seems to have been solved today, and new alloys are being used with new adhesive devices that will last longer. In the last decade the EPA’s Energy Star Certification has been awarded to the newer more efficient water heaters.
Water heaters can be powered by gas, electricity or solar power. The latter type is becoming increasingly popular as people turn to environmentally-friendly ‘green’ solutions that would also include electric cars.

Then there’s the Incredible Tank-less Water Heater

Tank-less Water Heaters

All the water heaters we’ve talked about so far have been the storage type. But there are also tankless water heaters. Tankless water heaters have been around since World War II, but they did not take off in America until recently. They were popular in Europe and in Canada from the get-go, and their popularity increased even further during the 1970s’ world oil crisis. Tankless water heaters are far more efficient – there is no boiler to fill up. Tankless water heaters are also much more expensive to buy, but have a longer lifespan – they can last up to twenty years, twice the lifespan of a storage-type water heater.

The Future of Home Water Heaters

Heating water in the home has come a long way from the stove-top and the kitchen fireplace. To get an idea what’s coming down the line in water heating equipment, take a look at this new water heater from Gorenje Tiki, a Scandinavian manufacturer of high-tech water heaters.

These water heaters are heat pumps, which are the most energy-efficient and cost-effective method of heating water, and are equipped with a thermal disinfection system to prevent bacterial growth. This incredible pump can also be used for cooling smaller rooms. The pump has a magnesium anode to prevent corrosion, is digitally controlled, and has excellent insulation. And of course it comes in your choice of color.


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