Deciding on a Water Heater
Why we chose an electric water heater instead of a solar water heater
As we build more energy-efficient houses, particularly when we go to extremes with insulation and air tightness, as with PassivhausA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. projects, water heating becomes a larger and larger share of overall energy consumption. In fact, with some of these ultra-efficient homes, annual energy use for water heating now exceeds that for space heating — even in cold climates.
So, it makes increasing sense to focus a lot of attention on water heating. What are the options, and what makes the most sense when we’re trying to create a highly energy-efficient house?
Solar-electric vs. solar-thermal water heating
If we had built our new house three or four years ago, I suspect that solar water heating would have been included — or at least very seriously considered. But as costs of solar-electric (photovoltaic(PV) Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. or PVPhotovoltaics. Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic (PV) cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow.) systems have dropped in recent years, more and more energy experts are recommending electric water heating, rather than solar thermal, and using PV modules to generate the electricity — so it’s still solar water heating, but not as direct.
That’s what we have done at our new place. We realized in our planning that we had a great location for PV modules on our barn roof, but we didn’t have a good rooftop location for solar panels on the house. PV panels can be located farther away from where the energy is being used than can solar-thermal panels, because electrons can be easily moved fairly long distances through electrical cables, while piping runs for solar-thermal systems have to be much shorter.
Also, PV systems also don’t have any moving parts to wear out or that require maintenance; freeze protection isn’t a concern; and pressure build-up from stagnation in full sun (if a pump fails or during a power outage) can’t occur. So PV systems are very attractive from a long-term durability standpoint.
And if we’re generating our electricity from the sun why not use some of that electricity for water heating? That’s what we decided to do: install a PV system and heat our water with electricity.
Electric water heating
So if one goes with electric water heating, what are the options? There are three primary choices:
- Conventional storage-type electric water heater. This is an insulated tank that holds 30 to 80 gallons, typically, and includes either one or two electric-resistance heating elements. Better storage water heaters have more insulation, so less stand-by heat loss occurs.
- Tankless water heater. A tankless, sometimes called on-demand or instantaneous, water heater heats the water as it is used. This offers the advantage of eliminating the stand-by loss that occurs with storage water heaters. Whole-house tankless water heaters are most commonly gas-fired, but electric models are also available. The problem with the latter is that they require a huge amounts of electricity. An electric tankless water heater large enough to supply a shower and another use at the same time will require a 60-amp or larger circuit at 220 volts. If a lot of homeowners were to switch to whole-house electric tankless water heaters, it would put a huge burden on the utility companies that have to meet peak demand — particularly in the morning when a lot of people are showering. There are other issues with tankless water heaters that I’ve written about previously and won’t get into here.
- Heat-pump water heater. A heat-pump water heater extracts heat out of the air where the water heater is located (typically a basement) to heat the water. Because the electricity is used to move heat from one place to another instead of converting that electricity directly into heat (as with electric-resistance water heating), the energy yield per unit of electricity input is much greater.
We measure that efficiency as the “coefficient of performance” or COPEnergy-efficiency measurement of heating, cooling, and refrigeration appliances. COP is the ratio of useful energy output (heating or cooling) to the amount of energy put in, e.g., a heat pump with a COP of 10 puts out 10 times more energy than it uses. A higher COP indicates a more efficient device . COP is equal to the energy efficiency ratio (EER) divided by 3.415. — a COP of 1.0 is, in essence, 100% efficient at converting electricity at your site into heat. Most heat-pump water heaters have COPs of 2 to 3, meaning that for every unit of energy consumed (as electricity), at least two units of energy (as heat) are generated.
(Note that if we consider “primary” or “source” energy instead of site energy, energy losses during power generation reduce that effective COP considerably.)
Choosing a heat-pump water heater
A heat-pump water heater is what we decided on for our house. We installed a 50-gallon GE GeoSpring model and, so far, we’re very happy with it. The GeoSpring is currently available only in a 50-gallon size, though rumors suggest that a larger 80-gallon model could be introduced. Because water heaters operating in heat pumpHeating and cooling system in which specialized refrigerant fluid in a sealed system is alternately evaporated and condensed, changing its state from liquid to vapor by altering its pressure; this phase change allows heat to be transferred into or out of the house. See air-source heat pump and ground-source heat pump. mode take a long time to heat water, larger tanks typically make sense. If our two daughters were still in the house, a larger heat-pump water heater would have been more important.
One of the factors that attracted us to the GeoSpring is that it’s now being made in the U.S. GE had made its first-generation GeoSpring in Mexico, but moved that production to the U.S. two years ago.
The GeoSpring doesn’t have the highest performance of any heat-pump water heater on the market; Stiebel Eltron’s 80-gallon Accelera holds that distinction, but the GeoSpring costs a third as much as the German-made Stiebel Eltron. It’s also quieter.
In next week's blog, I’ll say a little more about heat-pump water heaters, including some issues with placement and implications of the fact that heat-pump water heaters cool off the space where they are located — depending on the season, that can be an advantage or disadvantage.
Understanding heat-pump water heaters is important, as they will soon become the standard at least for larger electric water heaters — based on efficiency standards that take effect in mid-April 2015.
By the way, Eli Gould (the designer-builder of our home) and I will be leading a half-day workshop at the NESEA Building Energy Conference in Boston on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. In this workshop, “What Would the Founder of Environmental Building News Do? Adventures on the Cutting Edge of Green Building,” we’ll be reviewing product and technology choices, describing lessons learned, presenting data on performance, and discussing, in a highly interactive format, some outcomes from this project that can be applied much more affordably in deep-energy retrofits. This should be informative and a lot of fun. I’ll also be presenting in the main conference, March 5-6, on “Metrics of Resilience.” Registration information can be found here.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.
- Alex Wilson
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