Contractors need to be ready for water heater market changes

Water heaters above 55 gallons will likely use gas condensing or electric heat pump technology.   The new “Uniform Efficiency Descriptor” will update the Energy Factor (EF) measurement and make it easier to compare residential water heaters with small commercial models. These changes are driving innovation as water heater manufacturers develop new ways to heat water efficiently and minimize wasteful heat loss. 

When Hilary and Jeremy Warder moved into their new home last winter, they were pleased that a new condensing tankless water heater offered endless hot water and low energy costs. While the water heater was perfect, the installation was not. Hilary noticed the burning rubber smell first, and then heard the groan of an overheated motor. A burst pipe really got their attention.

The culprit? The unit’s condensate line piggybacked on an uninsulated air conditioning drain, causing the condensate to freeze when it reached the cold New England winter air. The condensate pump was easy to replace, and the line was simple to reroute via a nearby drain, but the lesson is clear: mastering new technology demands training and experience.

Water heater manufacturers are ready for new residential efficiency standards

That lesson is particularly important as installers prepare for a dramatic shift in the water heating market. On April 16, 2015, manufacturers will stop making their least efficient water heater models. As with many other changes to codes and standards, the minimum standards enacted by the U.S. Department of Energy bring both challenges and opportunities for installers.

Water heater product lines will shift towards more efficient models. Water heaters above 55 gallons will likely use gas condensing or electric heat pump technology.  At the same time, the way energy use is described will be revised.

The new “Uniform Efficiency Descriptor” will update the Energy Factor (EF) measurement and make it easier to compare residential water heaters with small commercial models (which currently use Thermal Efficiency, or TE). These changes are driving innovation as water heater manufacturers develop new ways to heat water efficiently and minimize wasteful heat loss.

Predicting the impact

It’s difficult to predict the water heater landscape two years from now. The least efficient models will no longer be made after April 2015, but some will linger on distributor shelves for months afterwards.

The new standards divide storage water heaters depending on size. Storage models of 55 gallons and smaller will become more efficient, resulting in greater energy savings for the customer, but the installation process probably won’t change dramatically.

Additional insulation may make each unit a few inches wider, a consideration when looking to install in legacy spaces. Gas tankless water heaters will also be more efficient, but will require few new installation steps. Of course, you’ll want to consult the manufacturer instructions to ensure proper installation.

The major shift will be for storage water heaters larger than 55 gallons. For gas units, manufacturers expect that nearly all of these models will use condensing technology that removes extra heat from exhaust gasses. This technology is not new for water heaters, but does require carefully venting cooler flue gasses (often using PVC through a sidewall) and handling the condensate (generally with a neutralizer and appropriate drain).

What about large electric water heaters? Most units above 55 gallons will use electricity to run a heat pump that takes heat from the surrounding air and delivers it to the tank. Heat pump models are rapidly gaining market share, but do require additional installation considerations, including adequate space and a little extra headroom. Altogether, these added concerns demonstrate new techniques that installers need to know.

Recognition levels for Energy Star models will also increase. Energy Star water heaters identify the “cream of the crop”— those high efficiency water heaters that save owners money on every energy bill.

As the minimum standard rises in 2015, the Energy Star program will raise their qualifying level and continue to recognize the most efficient water heaters on the market. Contractors who rely on the Energy Star label to identify energy-saving water heaters will notice new criteria beginning in April 2015.

For all of these changes, just remember: consider the impacts of new equipment so you can deliver a quality installation every time.

Getting the word out

As products change, installers must adapt. Recognizing the need for contractor education related to these market changes, the Coalition for Energy Star Water Heaters is focusing its efforts on explaining how water heater choices will shift in 2015 and how contractors can prepare.

The Coalition, comprised of manufacturers and efficiency programs, has worked since 2009 to educate contractors and consumers about the benefits of high efficiency water heaters recognized by Energy Star. Today, the Coalition is working across the industry to develop and promote a variety of resources that installers can use to get ready.

First, we’re publishing articles like this one to help explain how the standards are changing and what this will mean for model selection and installation. Second, we’re preparing presentation slides and handouts to educate installers and distributors about these changes.

We’ll also provide information to help you inform customers about the benefits of an Energy Star water heater. You can search for high efficiency models, find local utility rebates, and access all of these resources for free on our website

Over the next year, plumbers, mechanical contractors, and other installers will see more and more news about higher minimum efficiency standards for residential water heaters. These changes to water heater product lines may take some time to understand.

Large-volume water heaters using gas condensing or electric heat pump technologies will require training, but it will be worth it. Now is the time to act. Sign up for a training class with your regional trade association, energy efficiency program, or manufacturer’s rep, and be sure to bring your employees too.

As industry insiders have suggested, this market shift will offer professional installers an opportunity to grow by reducing amateur, unlicensed, do-it-yourself installations. But in order to take advantage and build your business, you have to be ready. 

Philip Picotte is a program associate with the Consortium for Energy Efficiency. CEE manages the Coalition for ENERGY STAR Water Heaters, a campaign created by utility efficiency programs, manufacturers, and other partners to educate consumers and contractors about high efficiency water heaters. 

 

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