To the surprise of many, water heating is the third largest energy expense in the home behind space heating and cooling. On average, water heating represents 17% of energy use in the home. Water heating in the Northeast is dominated by three main fuels; natural gas, electricity and oil. While exciting efficiency opportunities exist in products fueled by gas and oil, game changing technology is re-emerging in the electric water heating market - heat pump water heaters (HPWH). Newly designed HPWH that meet the ENERGY STAR® criteria boast efficiencies achieving 50% savings over the incumbent electric resistance water heating technology. With 5.1 million homes or a quarter of all homes in the Northeast heating their water with electricity, there is reason to be excited about the potential energy savings if new and replacement electric water heaters can migrate to heat pump technology.
With such clear advantages in efficiency you may be wondering, “Why don’t all new electric water heaters in the region have heat pump technology?” The answer to this question has some complexity. The technology itself actually has a long market history of over 30 years, marred by unsuccessful starts and stops involving poor product offerings from small niche manufacturers. Fortunately, the entrance of the major water heater manufacturers into this market a few years ago breathed new life into the technology. Higher quality products are now available, but challenges remain.
Operating HPWH in the colder climates of the Northeast present a number of additional challenges for both the performance of the technology (i.e. meeting hot water demand) as well as to consumer comfort and satisfaction (i.e. cold exhaust, noise). HPWH also carry a higher upfront cost compared to the traditional electric water heater. In order to achieve the exciting savings potential that exists through the use of these products, we must find solutions to the barriers. One of the key challenges is being able to differentiate between the “good” and the “bad.” The Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) has begun to address this issue through the developments of a special cold climate specification that adequately identifies the products that can perform well in a northern climate application - the specification offers the Northeast a strong model to consider.
In order to address these and other challenges, NEEP believes regional approaches and solutions offer the Northeast the strongest likelihood of long term product uptake. To this end, NEEP has begun a project to develop a regional strategy for heat pump water heaters to ensure a successful introduction of this water heating technology. The strategy will provide guidance to important stakeholders who are crucial to making this effort work. NEEP is determined to help accelerate the market uptake of this product by identifying the key barriers and developing strategies to overcome them. The efficiency community should not let this opportunity slip by. Dissemination of poor product in the wrong applications could turn off consumers from this technology for many years and sacrifice significant amounts of energy savings in the process.
Contact Dave Lis (djlis at neep.org) for more information about the development of a Regional Strategy for Heat Pump Water Heaters.