Read this before replacing your water heater

New federal regulations will affect the next water heater you buy

Published: March 05, 2015 05:30 PM
Photo courtesy of Energy Star

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Most people don’t think about their water heaters until there’s a problem or they run out of hot water. If that happens in the next few months, you should be aware of new federal regulations that require water heaters to be more energy efficient. While this may be good for your wallet, it could make choosing a new water heater a bit confusing. Here are the details.

As of April 16, water heaters must comply with new Department of Energy efficiency standards. The water heaters used in most homes won’t seem that different and will get a modest boost in efficiency, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. But larger units -- those 55 gallons or more -- will need to shift to new technologies to achieve the efficiency gains. Doing so can cut utility bills by 25 to 50 percent depending on the technology used.

While this may seem like a bit of governmental gobbledygook, it’s good news for homeowners because water heating amounts to nearly 20 percent of a home’s energy costs. The new standards apply to gas (50 percent of U.S. households), electric (41 percent), and oil residential tank water heaters. Most tankless water heaters already meet efficiency standards.

The typical home has a water heater that holds 55 gallons of water or less. For such units, the new standards will increase efficiency by an average of 4 percent. According to the ACEEE, water heaters that comply with the new standards are already on the market, including models from A.O. Smith, Bradford White, and Rheem.

Water heaters that hold 55 gallons or more will see bigger efficiency gains. But this is where it may get a little confusing since to attain those gains the larger water heaters will need to use technologies that are less familiar to consumers including electric heat pump and gas condensing technology. Also known as hybrid waters, heat pump water heaters transfer heat from the surrounding air to the water. The ACEEE says that condensing water heaters are designed to reclaim escaping heat by cooling exhaust gases below 140 degrees F, where water vapor in the exhaust condenses into water.

So what does this mean for homeowners? Simply put, if you’re replacing a water heater that holds less than 55 gallons, the new one may be an inch or two larger and can likely be placed where the old one was unless it was in a very tight spot such as a closet. But if you’re replacing a larger water heater, you’ll have to do your homework as the new units may need more space. Before making a purchase, consult your plumber or contractor.

For more information, check the websites of the ACEEE and the DOE as well as the manufacturer of the water heater you are considering. And for more information on water heaters, check Consumer Reports' water heater buying guide.

-- Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

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