New water heater rules bring lower energy bills

Posted on 13 Apr 2015 by Tim Brown

Water heaters are in the spotlight this month as manufacturers respond to updated federal regulations with better insulation and more efficient technologies.

While changes to efficiency minimums may seem minor, the impacts for certain customers may be significant. Some homeowners will find their old water heaters aren’t as easy to replace as they used to be.

Updated minimum energy efficiency levels for residential water heaters take effect in April 2015. “By raising the bar, customers will benefit from units that waste less energy and cost less to operate over time, a meaningful benefit when water heating accounts for one-fifth of household energy costs and hundreds of dollars each year,” says George M. Chapman of the Coalition for ENERGY STAR®Water Heaters. Water heater manufacturers are responding by updating their product lines, and in some cases, discontinuing certain models. These updated products may mean that a water heater replacement is no longer a simple swap out.

One major challenge is tight spaces. Storage water heaters with more insulation are wider and taller, and may not fit through narrow doors or into small closets. Customers have a number of options, such as choosing a smaller tank size or a narrower model. Changing the installation location is a more drastic option. “While most customers will find their new water heater fits fine in the existing space, a water heater replacement is a perfect time to discuss the best, most efficient option for your family with your plumbing professional,” notes Chapman.

A second significant impact affects water heaters that store more than 55 gallons. Electric models will now include heat pumps, resulting in several additional installation considerations. Heat pump models are taller, often 5–7 feet, require sufficient space around them to function optimally, and use drain lines to dispose of condensate. Many gas models over 55 gallons use condensing technology that similarly requires condensate drain lines and corrosion resistant venting. These models typically require access to a power source as well. Most tankless water heaters meet the new standards already and will see few changes.

Consumers have options across a range of styles and efficiency levels. ENERGY STAR, a voluntary program that recognizes energy efficient water heaters made by more than two dozen manufacturers, has updated its criteria too. A plumber can identify which model is best for a home’s layout and hot water needs. Customers will find new options when it comes time for a water heater. “The choice a customer makes regarding a replacement water heater can be made in a minute, but the impacts of that decision on a utility bill can last well over a decade,” says Chapman. The updated efficiency regulations will help ensure customers get the most out of their water heater for whichever model they choose. More information about the updated water heater regulations is available online