Energy Fixer: Heat Pump Water Heaters

How do you make an older house more energy efficient? This year, we’re following Sarah, a PGE employee, as she updates a 55-year-old, 1,500 square-foot, all-electric house, which she purchased in November 2014.

Tanks a lot

With two, busy pre-teen girls at home, there’s a lot of hot water usage at Sarah’s house. But that’s not unusual. Water heating is usually the second biggest energy user in most homes behind heating and cooling.

What is unusual is that Sarah’s house came with not one but two electric water heaters. One 50-gallon tank sits in the garage and another 50-gallon tank is wedged into the closet of the master bedroom, at the opposite end of the house.

“I think they wanted to make sure they always had plenty of hot water immediately in the master bath,” Sarah says.

Upgrade or wait?

Even though the previous homeowner installed the water heaters less than five years ago, Sarah has considered upgrading to a high-efficiency heat pump water heater.

Compared to standard electric water heaters, like those in Sarah’s house, a heat pump water heater saves up to 50 percent on water heating costs.* How? It pulls a heat from the surrounding air and transfers it to the water in the tank.

Right now, PGE is promoting a special offer on GE heat pump water heaters that brings the cost down to as little as $499, which is less than the installed cost of a standard electric water heater. But even with that great price, Sarah is going to delay upgrading.

“It’s a budget thing. Since part of the savings are in the form of a $985 tax credit, I’d have to wait for that money back,” she explains. “It’s a great deal, but I had higher priorities this year — such as the ductless heat pump and insulation — so I’m going to wait on this project.”

She is, however, hoping to make the switch next year.

“I want to replace the two, 50-gallon standard models with one 80-gallon heat pump water heater. I’ll save a lot of money on water heating, plus I can reclaim all of my closet space!”

Other ways to save

While Sarah is watching her pennies and budgeting for the heat pump water heater next year, she’s taking other steps to save on hot water on a daily basis.

She washes most laundry in cold water, and runs the dishwasher only when it’s full.

In addition, she installed a high-efficiency showerhead that met the WaterSense® criteria of 2.0 gallons per minute or less. It came as part of the free Energy Saver Kit she requested from the Energy Trust of Oregon. (You can find reduced prices on a variety of WaterSense showerheads at select retailers thanks to Energy Trust.) There was already a high-efficiency showerhead in the other bathroom.

She also placed a kitchen timer in the girls’ bathroom to remind them to not linger in the shower too long.

“Unfortunately, we’re still working on that one,” Sarah laughs.

*Compared to a standard electric water heater as estimated by Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. Individual circumstances vary.