Your next water heater could save you $170 a year

A water heater, air purifier and HVAC system in a model home. (Benjamin C. Tankersley for The Washington Post)

Your next water heater could be a heat pump.

Starting in 2029, many electric water heaters on store shelves will have to use heat pump technology to comply with new energy efficiency standards released by the Department of Energy on Tuesday.

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The change marks the Biden administration’s biggest step yet in setting appliance energy efficiency regulations, one that will save Americans billions of dollars per year on their power and water bills and slash household emissions.

Water heating is responsible for roughly 13 percent of both annual residential energy use and consumer utility costs, the biggest share after air conditioning and heating, according to the Energy Department.

While the government has mandated that a variety of appliances become more efficient over the years, including washing machines, dryers, refrigerators and even lightbulbs, some experts say water heaters historically have not gotten the same amount of attention.

“The opportunity here to use modern technology to drive down electricity use while still providing all the hot water people need is a big one,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the nonprofit Appliance Standards Awareness Project.

The new efficiency standards will save American households $7.6 billion per year on their utility bills, according to the Energy Department. Over 30 years, that adds up to $124 billion in savings and a 332 million-metric-ton cut in carbon emissions - equivalent to the combined annual emissions of nearly 43 million homes.

“Almost every U.S. household has a water heater, and for too long outdated energy efficiency standards have led to higher utility bills for families,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

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What is a heat pump water heater?

Many Americans use electric resistance water heaters, a technology that first became widespread in the 1940s.

“Electric resistance is very low tech,” said Joe Vukovich, a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on energy efficiency. “It’s just like passing a current through a wire: The wire gets hot, that heat is transferred.”

While these water heaters can be nearly 100 percent efficient, meaning they put out about as much energy in the form of heat as they’re using in electricity, some heat pumps can reach 300 percent efficiency or higher, Vukovich and other experts said. According to the Energy Department, the new standards can be met by basic electric heat pump water heaters that will more than double the efficiency of many electric water heater models available on the market today.

Compared to the old technology, “a heat pump water heater is like a quantum leap,” Vukovich said.

Replacing common-sized traditional electric resistance storage water heaters - 40 or 50 gallon models - with electric heat pump models meeting the new standards would save many consumers about $170 a year. Over the life span of the appliance, that adds up to an average of about $1,800, according to the Energy Department.

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Does this mean I have to replace my water heater?

No, the new efficiency standards don’t mean people have to replace their electric resistance water heaters or switch to electric if they’re using a gas appliance. Instead, the updated rule would help make heat pump technology more common and affordable, experts said.

“These rules affect what manufacturers can offer for sale in the U.S.,” deLaski said. “The wide variety of choices in the market will be more efficient than before the standard took effect.”

“This will make owning an electric water heater much less costly,” he added.

The water heater rule is the Biden administration’s latest update to appliance energy efficiency standards, which it estimates will have the greatest impact yet on Americans’ utility costs and household emissions. In February, for instance, the government announced new standards for washer and dryer efficiency, which it projected would save Americans up to $39 billion on their utility bills and eliminate 71 million tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions - equivalent to the annual emissions of about 9 million homes - over 30 years.

Compliance with the water heater standards would result in half of the most commonly sized electric appliances switching to heat pump technology after 2029, the Energy Department said. Today, heat pump water heaters make up just 3 percent of the market.

“If you’re looking at electric, you’re basically going to be looking at heat pump water heaters,” said Vukovich said.

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What about gas or other types of water heaters?

The new rule would lead to a moderate increase in efficiency for other types of water heaters, including gas-fired, oil-fired and larger electric storage models. The Energy Department said it’s still considering standards for gas-fired instantaneous water heaters, which are not addressed by the final rule.

For now, greater adoption of heat pump technology will reduce emissions from water heating - and is a critical change as the country moves toward electrification, deLaski said.

“As people are using more electric appliances, it’s super important that those electric appliances are energy efficient,” he said. “That helps make our electric grids more stable, and makes it easier to meet the country’s growing demand for power.”

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