Water heater manufacturers appear to be well-prepared for new energy-efficiency rules from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that will take effect on April 16. However, many plumbing contractors, designers and engineers are still assessing how the new requirements will affect the replacement, remodeling and new construction markets.
“Contracting firms will need to get their employees up to speed on the new technologies,” said Chad Sanborn, product marketing manager, Bradford White, in an interview with Perspective Media. “Training on the new products will be critical, as well as education on the details and reason for the change.”
Leading manufacturers like Bradford White, Rheem and A.O. Smith have been developing new models and platforms for several years in preparation for the new standards incorporated in the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA). “Along with launching a new product line, we have also been educating customers and consumers in order to make this transition as smooth as possible,” said Stacey Gearhart, director of product and channel marketing for Rheem’s Water Heating Division, in a recent interview. “Our industry is absolutely ready for April 16.”
The new DOE rules mandate higher energy factor (EF) ratings on virtually all residential water heating products, including gas-fired, oil-fired, electric, tabletop, instantaneous gas-fired and instantaneous electric.
While all affected models will see an increase in the EF requirement, the most dramatic changes are in larger capacity models (see accompanying chart). That’s because the only technologies that meet the EF requirements over 55 gallons are electric heat pump water heaters and high-efficiency condensing gas water heaters.
The DOE estimates that the new 2015 standards will result in approximately $63 billion in energy bill savings for products shipped from 2015-2044. The standard will avoid about 172.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of about 33.8 million automobiles.
“Homeowners will have a lot to gain from the new NAECA guidelines with some saving as much as $365 per year in energy bills,” said Sanborn. “On the other hand, a new type of water heater may need to be considered in order to meet the NAECA guidelines.”
While the operating cost of the new water heaters will be less because of their increased energy efficiency, the homeowner’s maintenance costs may be affected by other factors, such as the integration of electronics, blowers, fans, condensers, or other components.
Another potential drawback is that a new water heater is likely to have lower hot water deliverability than prior models. “For example, a model with less input may be required to achieve the higher efficiency, which will ultimately result in less hot water delivered,” Sanborn said.
On the positive side, homeowners the energy savings from the new technology can help offset some of the product and installation costs. Also, some platforms, such as electric heat pump water heaters, may provide supplemental cooling and dehumidification benefits to the owner.
Design and installation issues
While residential consumers will be happy about the prospective cost savings with the energy-efficient technology, plumbing designers and contractors need to consider other issues associated with the changeover. For example, achieving a higher EF rating often means adding more insulation to the tank, making it larger and thicker. In addition, more insulation may be required for piping and fittings.
Therefore, a post-April 2015 water heater may be larger than the current model and require more space for a replacement or a new installation. “In some rare cases, water heaters may have to be moved to another location if their new sizes cannot be accommodated within the current space,” noted Sanborn.
In other cases, multiple tanks might be necessary to deliver an sufficient supply of hot water to the homeowner, added Gearhart.
Another installation issue is that condensing gas water heaters are usually significantly heavier than standard models. They may also require flue dampers or electronic ignition. Oil-fired products may also need extra insulation, as well as flue dampers or new combustion systems. For contractors, that means many installations that were once a one-person job may now require two people. Service trucks may also need to change to accommodate transporting the taller, wider and heavier equipment.”
Because gas water heaters also have electronic control systems and require 120-volt service, contractors may need to purchase multi-meters for smooth installations as well as trouble-shooting. They may also need to price in the additional time and components, including venting materials and condensate pumps when pricing new or replacement jobs.
Designers, engineers and contractors must also adjust their plans for gas-fired models to include a venting system and a drainage system for disposing of condensate. That means the prior location of a water heater may not be the best site for a new model, which typically requires a large room or a duct to an adjoining room. With electronic cycling, the new EF models are also likely to produce more noise than standard models.
The commercial market
In a prior interview, Sanford said the upcoming EF mandate will have little effect on most of the commercial market. “The change only affects water heaters with inputs of 75,000 BTU/hr or less, which are typically installed in residential applications,” he said. “However, some light duty commercial applications, such as small office buildings or small apartment complexes, will fall under this category.”
Since plumbing engineers typically specify commercially rated products on their projects, the impact will be minimal for those installations. However, some small businesses with low hot water demands use a small residential water heater to save on equipment costs.
Large apartment and condo developments will be affected by the new rules if the design calls for individual water heaters for each unit. Builders and developers of these projects will have to work with their designers and architects to make sure residences are designed with adequate space to accommodate the new platforms.
Learn the new landscape
Water heating professionals encourage contractors to learn all they can about the new product lines and the NAECA standards. “Consumers will rely on their contractors to determine how to get the largest amount of hot water for their homes,” said Gearhart. “Becoming familiar with these platforms allows you to determine the best solution for each installation, and answer your customers’ questions.”
Sanford said Bradford White has been sharing information with industry partners and customers since 2011. The manufacturer also opened an International Technical Excellence Center (iTEC ) to help educate customers and business partners about current and future products.
“Along with our manufacturers’ representatives, we have been conducting NAECA seminars for the past three plus years,” he said. During that time, the company has had NAECA information available on its website and distributed more than 100,000 brochures on the topic.
But as recently as the January 2015 AHR show in Chicago, Sanford spoke with some plumbing professionals, who said they were just starting to pay attention to the matter in detail.
Summing up the situation, Sanford said, “Be prepared! If you deal with water heaters on any level and you are not familiar with NAECA and its effect on products, then speak with your preferred manufacturer, wholesaler or professional installer. The new standards will present some challenges, but they will also present opportunities for those who are ready to help their customers through the transition.”