What to Do with an Old Water Heater?
Scrapping, Recycling, or Repurposing?

Broken water heaterBroken water heater
(photo: pixabay)

Find out what to do with an old tank or tankless water heater when it finally comes to the end of its useful life. See how to get rid of your water heater, and is it better to scrap it yourself, hire a junk removal company, recycle it, donate, or repurpose it.

Well, what's possible depends on a number of factors which we will look at here to help you decide what you should do next.

In this article:

Did you rent, lease or buy your water heater?

Many people decide to rent or lease their water heater, and the main reason is you can have one delivered and installed very quickly for a tiny outlay, rather than forking out the full cost of purchase and installation.

So, what happens when the rental or lease period is over? Well, that depends on the deal you did at the get-go; there are a number of ways it's handled.

Firstly the deal may be for a fixed period of, say, five years, during which you are making regular monthly payments plus a maintenance fee, so in the event, there is an issue with your heater, a professional technician will come and fix it as part of the deal. The rental cost will most likely rise as the unit ages due to the increasing likelihood of repairs being necessary.

Most deals for water heater rental or leasing are run over a fixed period, but some just run until the unit eventually is beyond repair, which is a costly way to do it as traditional tank-type units will last up to 15 years and even 20 years for a tankless unit.

Most companies will offer a peppercorn rental, which is an ongoing contract at a very low rate to keep the water heater, but the ongoing maintenance costs will get higher each year.

When you decide to change, you must ensure you follow the agreement you made with the rental or lease company if you are returning the unit. If you fail to follow the rules, it could cost you money, so always refer to your agreement or give the rental or lease company a call and follow what they advise to the letter to avoid unpleasant cost surprises.

Sometimes the agreement will offer a buy-out clause, so the water heater becomes yours for a one-off payment, which may be a good deal if it is only five years old, so there is a lot to consider before dumping it.

Rented versus purchased

The fixed monthly cost, including service on the tank or tankless water heaters, can end up being huge. At the end of the rental, the supplier will remove the heater, and you start again.

With purchase, your initial outlay is higher, but the costs over, say 10+ years are much lower.

Leasing also has fixed monthly payments and a low initial outlay, and the end-of-lease option will depend on your individual lease terms and may include a buy-out clause or a continuing peppercorn rental fee, where for a small ongoing monthly payment, you can keep the unit, or they can simply remove it, and you start over.

There are open-ended rental agreements that will run for the unit's life - up to twenty years, in the case of tankless units, which is very expensive over that length of time.

Water heater disposal (if you own it)

You can call your local scrap dealer to take your old or broken water heater (if available), but they will give you almost nothing for it.

Or, you can strip it down if you have the time and tools, then take the separated recyclable parts to a scrap yard and get some cash. For example, a tankless water heater will strip to bits in about an hour and will yield around $30 in scrap value. If you simply dump the unit with the dealer, he will give you much less, as he has to supply labor to do the work.

The scrap value is generally low with a standard tank water heater because there are fewer 'valuable' metal components, like copper connections, heavy-duty copper wire, and heating elements. The main tank is surrounded by foam insulation, so it's best to deliver the unit to a scrap dealer who will give you a small amount for what he will call 'shredded steel' scrap. That means he also won't strip it down but put it into a large machine which renders the whole thing as shredded pieces ready for melting down and recycling.

There are also local services that will charge you for uplift removal for recycling, and some folks find the unit miraculously disappears overnight if you leave it by the curb, although there is no guarantee, and your neighbors and local statutes may prohibit you from doing that.

If you are having a new unit delivered and installed, the supplier may remove your old water heater for you free of charge. Some of the Big Box stores usually offer that service to you.

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I want to buy a new water heater. What do I do with the rented unit? (Words of caution)

With a rented water heater of either type, you must comply with the terms and conditions of your legal agreement. If you don't do that, the rental company could take legal action against you.

This is particularly relevant if you are changing to an alternative water heating method before your original rental period is up. Most rental agreements will allow for early termination of the contract but check carefully for the costs and penalties; they may be quite high.

In any case, if you are at the end of your agreement, you can request the removal of the unit by your rental company, and it is their responsibility to dispose of the heater correctly. Never assume you can just dump it and say nothing; you must advise your rental company in advance and follow their specific instructions. After all, the unit belongs to them, not you, and the end-of-agreement terms will be fully detailed in the rental agreement, so it's worth holding onto it in a safe place.

They may tell you to dispose of it, but more likely, they will make arrangements to pick it up and may wish to uninstall it, too, so check out what's needed before you do anything.

The same applies to the end of a lease agreement. Always contact the leaseholder for advice on what to do to stay legal.

Can I recycle my old water heater?

If you buy a new water heater, the company you buy from will most likely remove the old unit and recycle it for you as part of the deal. That way, you know it is being handled correctly and safely with no concerns to you.

Most local authorities have a waste management department or recycling facility, so contact them and ask what they can do. Here is an example of what Sacramento offers its residents.

There will often be a small charge, whereas a local scrap dealer may pay you hard cash for the old water heater if you take it to them.

In Ottawa, they do not collect household appliances with the general rubbish collection; however, they operate a Take it Back system with local companies who will take the unit back for safe disposal and recycling.

In Toronto, they will uplift large items like water heaters with the regular curbside collection. They have a list of what they will take and what needs to go to the Drop Off Depot.

Curbside collection in your area may offer a service to remove your old water heater, so check with your local authority waste management department, and they will advise you what exactly is available.

Tankless water heaters last a very long time and are easy to disassemble for recycling if you have the inclination and a few tools; it takes about an hour. The main goodies are in the expensive metals like copper, brass, and copper wire, plus a range of cheaper materials like aluminum, all of which are eminently recyclable.

If you do the work and separate everything, your local scrap dealer will ease out his wallet and part with a few dollars for your efforts, all worthwhile and heeding the planet at the same time.

Some Do's and Don'ts

Always dispose of any tank or tankless water heater sensibly, within your local rules and regulations, and do it safely to avoid anyone, especially children, being injured.

Never dump a water heater anywhere besides a registered waste management recycling facility or registered scrap dealer. It's illegal and dangerous and could end up costing you expensive fines or charges when you get caught.

Never put a standard water heater into a dumpster. It's mostly illegal as they can create a hazard in a landfill. The empty tank void may collect explosive and dangerous gases in landfill sites, which can cause explosions or illness.

DIY repurposing project ideas

Finally, you could call on your DIY creative juices to come up with a neat project idea to repurpose your old water heater. Probably tank-style water heaters offer more ways to do that than tankless ones.

Have a look on the internet and see what other creatives like you have come up with. Pinterest has over 70 ideas on the subject, so it's well worth looking.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Food smoker
  • Garden art
  • Rain storage butt
  • Flower or plant holder
  • Outside wood burning stove
  • Outdoor fire pit
  • Water feature
  • Solar water heater (if it has a good tank)

It could be way more satisfying than taking it to the scrapyard, don't you agree?

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