New standards mean water heaters will cost more but save more energy

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

New energy standards for water heaters may cost you the next time you have to replace yours.

Thereís a silver lining, though: For most people, the water heaters should save enough in energy costs to more than make up the price difference. And the Earth will benefit from reduced demands on energy resources and lower greenhouse gas emissions, supporters of the new standards say.

With most tank heaters, manufacturers will be able to meet the new standards with some fairly small modifications. With larger heaters, however, technologies will be required that could increase the cost of a water heater by hundreds of dollars. And the changes might complicate some installations, hiking the cost even more.

The new standards were set by the federal government in an effort to make water heaters more efficient in their energy use. Itís not a new phenomenon: Ever since the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act was enacted in 1987, the government has set minimum efficiency standards for common household appliances and has periodically raised those standards to drive improvements. Those standards have cut energy use by refrigerators, clothes washers, air conditioners and other products as well as water heaters.

The newest water heater standards, which take effect in mid-April, mean most newly manufactured gas, oil and electric tank heaters will have to use less energy than before to heat the same amount of water. Tankless water heaters are subject to the new standards, too, but most already meet them.

The bottom line is that the next time you buy a water heater, youíll probably have to pay more upfront, even though you may save in the long run. Just how much youíll pay, however, is hard to say.

The most popular types of water heaters ó 40-gallon gas water heaters and 50-gallon gas and electric models ó will see the least change, said Chuck White, vice president of technical and code services for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association. For those heaters, manufacturers can probably meet the new standards by adding insulation, tweaking combustion or both, he said.

The U.S. Energy Department figures the new standards will raise the cost of buying and installing a 40-gallon gas water heater by $92 and a 50-gallon electric heater by $120, on average. It says consumers should recoup that extra cost in energy savings in an average of two years and 2.3 years, respectively.

The department did not provide similar estimates for a 50-gallon gas heater.

White said the changes will probably make those types of water heaters a couple of inches wider or taller, or possibly increase both dimensions.

That size difference wonít be a problem for most consumers. But if a heater is installed in a tight spot, such as a small utility closet, there might not be enough space to accommodate a bigger model, said Mike Foraker, president of Jennings Heating & Cooling Co. in Akron, Ohio. Foraker said that could require structural or venting changes or moving the water heater to a different place, and that would most likely involve added expense.

Marianne DiMascio, however, doubts that will be a big issue. DiMascio is outreach director for the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a coalition that advocates for energy- and water-saving appliance standards. She noted in an article for the political website The Hill that plenty of choices are available in water heaters, so installers should be able to find one to fit a tight space.

The changes will be more significant with water heaters that hold more than 55 gallons. Theyíll have to meet higher efficiency marks than the smaller tanks.

Larger gas water heaters are expected to use condensing technology, which captures water vapor from exhaust gases and uses it to help heat the water. Larger electric heaters are expected to use heat pump technology, which essentially refrigerates the space around the heater to absorb heat from the air and use it to warm the water, White said.

Those forms of technology come at a price. The Energy Department estimates the changes will increase the installed cost of large gas heaters by $805 and large electric heaters by $974, on average. It says payback will take an average of 9.8 years and six years, respectively.

And as with the smaller heaters, there could be complications. For example, heat pump water heaters require a certain amount of air space around them, White said. One manufacturer, he said, requires a space thatís at least 10 by 10 feet and 8 feet high.

Both types will require a place for condensate to drain. That could create an expense if thereís not already a drain nearby, White said.

Foraker said other costs could be involved in installing the new water heaters. Many are expected to have electronic igniters instead of pilot lights and could require an electrical outlet, he said. Heaters probably will have more parts, he said, requiring more frequent maintenance. And existing vents might not match up with new, taller heaters.

Foraker said the change is prompting some customers to replace aging water heaters now, before the new standards take effect. Even after the deadline, youíll still be able to buy water heaters manufactured under the old standards, but only as long as the supply holds out.

DiMascio of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project thinks fears of price increases are misplaced, however. She said water heater prices should come down as the new technologies become more common.

Even the Energy Departmentís predictions are probably high, DiMascio said. She said the last time the department raised water heater standards, it overestimated costs by 26 percent.

White and DiMascio said the energy-saving and environmental benefits of the new standards are significant. Water heating accounts for 18 percent of the typical householdís energy costs, DiMascio said, so making heaters more efficient can have a real impact on energy bills.

"It does have science behind it," White said. "Itís not just a marketing ploy."

Highlights box:

What: New energy-efficiency standards for water heaters

Why: For decades, the government has periodically tightened standards on water heaters and about two dozen other types of appliances and household goods to cut energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Who is affected: Manufacturers only. Consumers will not have to replace non-conforming water heaters.

Expected results: The changes will cut $63 billion in energy costs over 30 years and 316.8 million metric tons of greenhouses gases, according to the Energy Department.