Hot water heaters being outside an apartment is weird, right?

There was a big fire this morning in the town I grew up in. 2 people were hurt and dozens displaced :worried:

The thing that struck me as strange about the story, though, is someone at the fire department said that the propane fueled hot water heaters for the apartments are outside on the balconies: “All of these balconies have water heaters or heaters in them that are run by propane for their hot water and all their other stuff” said a fire official, who went on to say they think one malfunctioned and being outside allowed the fire to spread despite the building having sprinklers in working order.

But getting back to the location of the water heaters, is that as strange as it sounds to me? Why would you expose a propane hot water heater to the elements, especially in a state that gets a lot of snow?

Sounds like those heat on demand water heaters. No tank, just a heat source with a gang of pipes inside of it. Gets hot water to an individual apartment faster than a big tank in the basement. I think hotels use these as well.

It’s sounds pretty odd to have water heated by propane tanks. I don’t think even Hank Hill does that. Is a propane heating system kept outside for safety reasons? I mean, they don’t let propane tanks inside a supermarket, right?

Is there perhaps a small shed on the balcony? Our place in NC had a deck outside the back door, and at one end of the deck was a lockable storage shed which was an extension of the house; some people actually put their washers and dryers in such a shed, and I think our water heater may have been there as well (it’s been 30+ years).

I thought the washer/dryer setup was an insane idea, but one neighbor liked it because it meant she had an extra closet inside (our washer/dryer was inside).

I’ve seen some water heaters designed to be outside. If properly weatherized it has the advantages of not taking space, also no need for indoor combustion air and exhaust is easier.

Sort of like @Mama_Zappa’s shed answer, I’ve seen apartments with water heaters in closets accessed from outside. The water heaters were inside the building, but outside the living space, and access was only through a hatch on the wall of one side of the balcony. At least that’s how it was on the upper floors, I don’t know what the setup was on the garden levels.

Lots of folks do that. I have a whole-house tankless heater in my basement run by propane via a 1,000 gallon buried propane tank.

Exhaust gases and combustion air vented/supplied by a coaxial duct.

Around here, some apartments have a closet on the balcony that houses the washer, dryer, and hot water heater.

I think you are thinking of the wrong scale of propane tank. The tanks used at homes with propane are several hundred gallons, and plumbed in just like natural gas. I grew up in a home and owned a vacation home that had LP (liquid propane) for heat, cooking, hot water, and laundry dryer.

How would a propane system be any more dangerous than a natural gas one?

Tank water heaters and washers, dryers outside on the lanai (balcony) at apartments are common here in Hawaii. Not an issue because of of tropical weather. I’m sure they’re all electric, not gas.

Propane pools in confined spaces. Natural gas is a mixture of gases, but mostly it just floats away. As a consequence, the rules for how to install propane systems are actually, in fact, different than the rules for natural gas.

I have a combination solar/electric water heater, with a tank, on my roof. They’re fairly standard here.

So much depends upon where you live. The solutions for heating, hot water and the like vary dramatically.

Instant gas, on the wall, water heaters are very efficient and work really well. Unlike a storage system you get near instant heat and you get unlimited hot water, it only runs out when the gas runs out. The heat losses incurred with storage tanks are hard to overcome, and instant gas will usually beat them on efficiency. But the economics can vary a lot.
Running them on natural gas (which is mostly methane) has been a great way to go for a long time. So long as where you live has piped natural gas available. The alternative of LPG (mostly propane, maybe some butane) has traditionally been more expensive, but still great in regions where piped gas is unavailable. In rural areas it is good because it is possible to truck it around, and can be sold in small tanks easily. Before the advent of LNG this ability to transport LPG made it much more saleable than natural gas, leaving natural gas as a significantly cheaper energy source for those that could get it. With the advent of LNG, the prices have risen to near parity as we ship LNG around the planet. This means LPG has reduced competition economically. (Where I live we have lots of natural gas, and most houses are on piped gas. Except for me, because I live just outside the area that was deemed economically viable to run a main. So I buy LPG in 45kg tanks to cook and run a room heater. When I first moved in the price difference was really depressing. Natural gas prices have risen markedly since, and whilst my costs are no better than they were, I’m no longer paying vastly more than my brethren using piped natural gas.)

If you have a climate that supports solar hot water it is great, for a lot of the time you can get near free hot water. But for those days when the sun isn’t cooperating, you need a boost. Instant gas still provides a really good answer.

Electric heat is the poor cousin. You can’t drag enough power in to make an instant heater viable, so you need a storage heater. These leak heat, and take up space, and they die with monotonous regularity. Here in Oz they now usually live outdoors. It just works better to do it that way. But we mostly don’t have proper cold.

I seen a number of nice apartments that have two closets on the balcony. One for storage, one for the hot water heater.

And I suspect that they where heated by propane from one large centrally located tank. Not that unusual. It’s what I do, I don’t have Natural Gas available.

My last apartment had an outside utility closet for the water heater. My key didn’t open that door.

Older buildings have large boilers in the basement. Hot water is made by heat transfer from the boiler. Hot water gets piped to baseboards in the apartments. Drinking water goes to the sinks.

If HGTV has taught me anything, this configuration is very common in the LA area where cold weather doesn’t really happen.

Sure. But the fire happened in New Hampshire…

That wasn’t the question that was asked.

The “high-end”, new construction apartment complex I lived at in Colorado Springs a few years ago had exactly this configuration - two closets off the balcony, one for storage, one containing utility equipment including the water heater and central air handler.

So, not exclusively a warm climate thing. Don’t think it was propane though.