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Does anyone know a reliable brand or model?
I have read both good and bad things about A.O. Smith.
I am not interested in a tankless model.
I have had good luck with state or american brands.
My electric utility (a not-for-profit cooperative) sells the Marathon Brand (lifetime warranty, super insulated, ~$500 for a 40 gallon electric heater). I purchased an electric 50 gallon GE four years ago from Home Depot with the 12-year warranty on the tank. It is pretty clear that it is made by Rheem, but it seems well made and I have had no problems. I think there are only 3-4 actual manufacturer's in the US.
My personal feeling with the GE rheem from the depot is this; Buy the 12 year because they make so many with a emphasis on price that the quality can suffer. I have replaced a 12 year and a 9 year in the last week and a half, both were in the first 3 and 2 years respectively. Both were on treated city water which makes me wonder about the quality. Maybe just a coincidence. Sadly, as posted above all heaters in US are under a few mega companies, just flooding with different makes and models to make it seem like there are tons of options.
Go to a Plumbing Supply house to buy one. Not onlyu will the quality be better, but also, when you take your old one out, just take the old one back to the Supply house. The downside is that the model may be $50 more. But, like I said, the quality is better.