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News / Life / Clark County Life

Energy Adviser: Cool electric bills with heat pump water heater

The Columbian
Published: February 26, 2019, 6:00am

A typical homeowner usually thinks about their water heater only twice: once during a pre-purchase home inspection and once more when it quits working.

But, the odds are good, especially if you live in an older home, that your water tank is costing you hundreds of dollars a year that could easily be saved by investing in a heat pump water heater, also known as a hybrid water heater.

Heating water is one of the largest expenses hidden within your utility bill, and traditional electric water heaters require a lot of energy to do the job.

“Your electric hot-water heater accounts for roughly 15 percent of your home’s annual energy consumption,” said Matt Babbitts, Clark Public Utilities Energy Services project manager. “You can cut that by more than half by switching to a heat pump water heater.”

At the most basic level, heat pumps extract heat energy from the air around them and force it into another area. It’s a tried-and-true technology that’s been used for years to cost-effectively heat and cool homes in temperate climates such as the Pacific Northwest.

A few years ago, companies began applying that same technology to water heaters. The resulting units are often called hybrids because they feature both heat pumps and an electric resistance heating element.

The heat pump pulls heat from the air and uses it to warm the water inside the tank. The electric element is there as a backup that kicks on if the air around the unit isn’t warm enough for the heat pump to operate. But that should only happen on the coldest winter nights, and if the tank is in an unconditioned space like an uninsulated garage.

While a traditional electric-resistance 50-gallon electric water heater might cost between $500 and $600 a year to operate, a hybrid will almost always cost less than $250 annually. Additionally, a hybrid system is designed to last one to seven years longer than a traditional water heater — making the savings stretch out even further.

Because heat pump water heaters are larger, somewhat noisier and can cost close to three times more than traditional electric water heaters, it’s important to plan ahead since water heaters are usually quick purchases made when the current unit has suddenly stopped working. The good news is that homeowners who plan ahead to make the change can enjoy a quick return on their investment thanks to utility incentives and significantly lower energy bills over the lifetime of the tank.


Current Clark Public Utilities incentives include a $500 rebate for a new hybrid water heater. New homes can qualify for a $300 rebate to install a new hybrid tank during construction. If you purchase your heat pump water heater in Oregon at a retail location be aware your $500 incentive is applied at the time of purchase.

Like everything else in our modern era, technological advancements are reshaping heat pumps and their applications. Most heat pump water heaters are one unit, but there are also split systems that the water tank indoors and the heat pump outside. The advantage being that the system is quieter and cooled air exhausted by the heat pump goes directly outdoors, rather than needing to be ported out.

Manufacturers are constantly striving to make their products more efficient and operable at increasingly lower temperatures by experimenting with operating fluids. They’re also actively refining home heating and cooling heat pump systems so that they will simultaneously heat water tanks.

Not only do these technologies offer savings for individuals, there are collective benefits of heat pumps as tools to help balance energy demands during peak periods for consumers across the northwest electrical grid.

“Efficient solutions for hot water heating is an important energy efficiency focus for utilities in the Pacific Northwest,” Babbitts said. “Water heaters are one of the main contributors to the morning, winter peak electricity demand because everyone is showering at the same time each day, so by switching to more efficient technologies, like heat pump water heaters, we can make a big impact not just here in Clark County, but across the region.”

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.