Energy Adviser: Do legwork on heat pump water heaters

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When your electric water heater kicks the bucket, you will want to replace it as quickly as possible. Chances are you will be more preoccupied with your next hot shower than energy-efficiency ratings. So now is the time to give water heating some thought — before it’s a crisis.

Recent studies and a new $1,000 rebate, available through Oct. 1, may persuade you to consider a heat pump water heater, a technology that has proven to save energy even in the Northwest’s cool climate.

Heat pump water heaters work like a refrigerator but in reverse, and they switch to electric resistance heating if the surrounding air gets too cold, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance explains at Smart Water Heat.

“We’re trying to make it easy for consumers to learn about heat pump water heaters and make a good decision,” said Dave Kresta, a senior manager for the alliance. “People don’t pay attention to water heaters until they break, and then you don’t have a lot of time to do research. You want a new one installed within 24 hours.”

Water heating typically eats up about 15 percent of a household’s energy spending, and ranks as the second largest consumer of electricity in homes after space heating and cooling.

“In the Northwest, about 200,000 electric water heaters are replaced every year because they wear out,” Kresta said. “There’s tremendous opportunity for energy savings.”

The Electric Power Research Institute recently wrapped up a study on heat pump water heaters that tested how they functioned at 140 sites in four different climate zones around the country. Five households in Clark County participated in the study. Clark Public Utilities, in partnership with the Bonneville Power Administration, installed heat pump water heaters in those homes in April 2010, and monitored them until December 2011.

The nationwide study found heat pump water heaters save about 3 kilowatt hours per day for an annual savings of 1,095 kilowatt hours over a standard electric water heater, said Matt Babbitts, a Clark Public Utilities energy counselor.

The Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance has embarked on its own study. The alliance has monitored 30 units in the Northwest for six months so far. A final report is expected in 2013, but preliminary numbers show heat pump water heaters provide 25 to 60 percent in savings over standard electric water heaters.

“They operate well even in cooler climates,” Kresta said.

While heat pump water heaters indeed provide energy savings, like many more efficient technologies, they require slightly more upfront investment.

Units are priced between $1,000 and $1,500, with installation costs ringing up at about $500. “It’s not like plugging in a refrigerator,” Babbitts said.

Heat pump water heaters also have a few downsides. They are noisier than standard electric water heaters, although they are quieter than traditional heat pumps.

For families ready to lower energy consumption and take control of how efficiently water is heated in the home, a heat pump water heater might work well for you. If purchased and installed before Oct. 1, 2012, there’s a $1,000 rebate available from the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance as part of the regional test project. The smartwaterheat.org web site offers details about the rebate, as well as a list of participating contractors and specifications for various units.

Energy Adviser is produced by Clark Public Utilities and relies on the expertise of utility energy counselors and staff, who provide conservation and energy use information. Call 360-992-3355, email ecod@clarkpud.com or visit Clark Public Utilities.