Water heater regulations reshape the product landscape
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New standards for water heaters will force changes on homeowners, builders and plumbing contractors while saving tons of carbon dioxide emissions and energy at the same time.
In April 2015 regulatory changes to water heaters will have a big impact on the entire industry. After April 16, all water heaters will be required to have higher Energy Factor (EF) ratings.
The new standards date back to 2010, when the United States Department of Energy, as part of the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA), issued new energy efficiency mandates that require higher Energy Factor (EF) ratings on most residential water heaters. The higher standards impact how water heaters are manufactured, as well as how and where they're installed.
The 2015 standards will save approximately 3.3 quads of energy and result in approximately $63 billion in energy bill savings for products shipped from 2015-2044, according to the Department of Energy Building Technologies Office. The standard will avoid about 172.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of about 33.8 million automobiles.
The new regulation applies to virtually all residential water heating products including gas-fired, oil-fired, electric, tabletop, instantaneous gas-fired and instantaneous electric. Tankless systems already exceed these EF requirements, and all other water heating products manufactured before the DOE mandates take effect can still be bought and installed after the changeover date.
For tank water heaters (used in the majority of U.S. homes), this will mean added insulation and a larger overall size. Currently, the only technology that meets the standard for Large-capacity tanks is heat pump technology, which may require a separate mechanical room in conditioned living space or ductwork to an adjoining room to work properly.
Homeowners and builders are going to feel the impact in their wallets, as they are forced to retrofit existing homes to accommodate larger tank heater. Installation costs will likely rise as well, due to the larger size/weight of the new tanks.
Industry experts caution contractors and homeowners to be aware of how the changes may effect installation requirements and costs. For instance, because the water heaters are larger, installation may be a two-person job instead of a one-person set up that would lead to increased labor costs. Also, larger tanks may not fit in the contractor's vehicle.
Tankless on-demand water heaters
On-demand tankless water heaters offer one alternative because of their small footprint and inherent energy efficiency. Tankless water heaters are available in gas and electric versions.
In the past tank water heaters have cost less to purchase than tankless options. However, the new regulations will increase the cost of tank water heaters (and may make their installations more expensive as well). The changes will have virtually no price effect on tankless water heaters and may narrow the price gap enough that many consumers are expected to upgrade to tankless when it comes time to install or replace a water heater.
Because tankless water heaters operate on an as-needed basis, they use up to 40 percent less energy than traditional systems, in turn reducing environmental impact. That makes tankless models the preferred water heating method for most green building programs, such as the United States Green Building Council's LEED ratings and the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index.
Tank water heaters
For standard gas-fired tank water heaters with 30-50 gallon storage tanks, more insulation will be required resulting in up to 2-inch greater tank diameters. This could be a problem when an existing tank water heater needs to be replaced and the new, larger tank no longer fits in the same space or through narrow doorways, openings and staircases leading to it.
In addition to tank size, the complexity and expense of a tank water heater installation will increase. Tanks with a 55-gallon capacity or larger may require an electrical outlet to be installed to power the additional components and controls needed to achieve high efficiency.
A number of manufacturers offer other types of tank water heaters in electric, natural gas and LP fuels that use technology such as condensing design to meet the regulations.
Gas products water heaters with a capacity of 55 gallons or more will likely be condensing units, which may require electrical service and a means to drain the condensation.
Heat pump water heaters
Heat pump water heaters are one of the best options for a tank water heater under the new regulations. They use proven heat pump technology found in space heating and air conditioning, and apply it towater. A heat pump water heater – sometimes called a hybrid water heater -- uses advanced technology to extract heat energy from the surrounding air and uses this to heat water.
In very basic terms, these pumps are able to extract energy from the surrounding air and transfer it to the water in the tank. These units are often described as ‘energy multipliers’ in that they can generate around 4kW of output heat for every 1kW of power input. This performance efficiency is incredible and can lead to big savings.
A heat pump water heater could actually reduce your annual water heating costs by somewhere between 60 percent and 75 percent. This is because the technology extracts heat energy from the air, thereby reducing your home’s reliance on electrical power. Please keep in mind that these savings will depend on the size of your home and its surroundings.
Heat pump water heaters can work in any weather or climate, but they are most efficient at warm ambient temperatures and high humidity. The higher the temperature and humidity, the more heat energy can be extracted from the air. Most systems will have three operating running modes that automatically activate to ensure you always have water.
Solar water heaters
Solar water heaters use rooftop solar collectors in order to absorb the sun’s thermal energy and heat water. Depending on the climate, they are often used in conjunction with other types of systems to provide adequate hot water year around.
Geothermal water heaters
These water heaters use a ground-source heat pump, with tubes buried under the ground that transfer heat to and from the water. There are water-heating systems that are part of a geothermal space heating system, and there are some companies that offer stand-alone geothermal water heaters. This option doesn't burn fossil fuels to heat the water, instead relying on the steady temperatures under the ground to manage heat flow.
Read more about energy-efficient water heaters.