The Elusive Search for an Energy-Efficient Water Heater

February 01, 2016
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March/April 2016
This online-only article is a supplement to the March/April 2016 print edition of Home Energy Magazine.
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My Sunday kayak adventure with my wife and friends on Lake Tahoe was magic. Paddling that beautiful lake relaxed me to the point where, by the time I reached home, I was ready for a long nap. When I opened the garage door, however, I was greeted by a less-inviting lake—this one on the garage floor. My aging water heater was leaking and had my full attention.

Having written about energy-efficient appliances for years, I knew that Energy Star-certified water heaters offered significant energy savings, and we could probably get a good rebate from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). Up until now It hadn’t been a priority to get a new water heater. Now that the situation had declared itself, I stopped the leak with a drain valve cap and called a plumbing company to have someone assess the situation. The guy who came out said it would be an easy replacement, so I called his office to make an appointment.

“Sure, we can come out on Thursday,” said the scheduler.

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The installed unit.

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My new Energy Guide label.

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Screenshot of the Energy Star website.

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Kayaking at Lake Tahoe.

“Great,” I said. “I want to get an energy-efficient Energy Star-certified water heater. What do you have?”

She named a brand, which was the only water heater brand they carried. “But the energy-efficient ones are really expensive.”

“They are?” I asked. I had checked prices before, and I didn’t think they were exorbitant. She offered to have the owner call back, and he did. “The energy-efficient water heaters are expensive, and they aren’t much more efficient than the other ones,” he said. “And if you’re looking to get a rebate from PG&E, those are hard to get.”

I was confused. When I talked to engineers, utility representatives, and federal energy agency staff about efficiency, rebates, and Energy Star appliances, it seemed simple, but now I was getting the impression that everything I knew was wrong.

I told him I had heard differently. “I know they cost a little more up front, but they cost less to operate, so you make up the difference over the years,” I reasoned. “And I think I can get the rebate.” Mentioning the emissions savings from using less natural gas didn’t seem like it would get me any closer to a new water heater, so I left that alone.

The owner said he would check a few options and get back to me with prices. In the meantime, I started my own research.

Where to Begin?

First, I checked the PG&E website to see what energy factor (EF) the unit would need to have to qualify for their rebate. PG&E’s 2015 Residential Rebates list showed that I could get a $200 rebate if I installed a high-efficiency natural-gas storage water heater with an EF of 0.67 or greater. So I checked out the Energy Star web page for Energy Star certified water heaters. On the day I checked there were 694 models in the gas storage category alone, so I used the search filters to narrow my options. Selecting Gas Storage and 50–79 gallons-brought the number of Energy Star water heaters down to 455. There was no filter for EF, but it shown for each model listed, and none was below my 0.67 target, so I still had 455 choices. I wanted to search for water heaters using information from the Energy Guide label, which would tell me how much each unit would cost to operate per year, but that option wasn’t available.

I checked out the other Energy Star search filters.

Brand name. I had no preference, and since more than 50 brands were listed, I didn’t feel compelled to make comparisons.

Maximum gallons per minute. My small family showers at different times of the day and uses only one hot-water appliance at a time in the evening, so that wasn’t a big consideration.

Input rate (kBtu/hr). I was curious—what did input rate indicate? According to the website, it was the burner size of the water heater, in Btu per hour. It took a lot of internet searching to figure out that it roughly meant how fast the water in the tank could heat up. The higher the number, the better.

The Energy Star site allowed me to compare up to four heaters at once, so I tried that. The resulting table was helpful, giving me information on dimensions and other information that would be useful for the installation. But the key missing information—price—was still missing. Without prices for these units, I couldn’t make a choice.

It was then that I realized I was approaching this from the wrong angle; I really needed to determine which water heaters were available in my area in my price range. I checked websites for a couple of local water heater suppliers, but neither carried energy-efficient models. We live in a rural area, and we like to buy local, but we sometimes have to go elsewhere to find what we want. I checked websites for a couple of big-box stores half an hour’s drive away. Sure enough, I found what I wanted—a water heater at each store that that had an energy factor of 0.67 and was in my price range. I estimated that, with the PG&E rebate, either would end up costing only slightly more than the less-efficient models.

The owner of the plumbing company called back the next day. “I found a couple we could order, but the cheapest one I could find is $1,500. The other is more than $2,000.”

I told him I had found a water heater for about $700 that I thought would work.

“Oh, well you should go with that one then,” he said. “But make sure it’s on PG&E’s list, or you won’t get the rebate. Give us a call when you get it in, and we’ll schedule a time to install it.”

So the installation was settled. Now all I had to do was choose between the two, make sure my water heater choice was on the Energy Star certification list, confirm that I could get the rebate from PG&E, take my trailer to pick up the water heater, and call back to schedule the installation. A little more work than I had expected, but I figured it was worth it to get the energy and emissions savings down the line.

Does My Water Heater Qualify?

I returned to the big-box store’s website to get the model number to plug into the Energy Star and PG&E sites. Once back at the store’s site, I realized that it not only included a picture of the Energy Guide label, but also had a link to the PG&E rebate page. Finally, convenience! I clicked the link and up popped the details—two pages about PG&E’s rebates and a one-page rebate form. I was still looking for a list of qualifying water heaters, to make sure my model was on it before buying it, I found a web address (http://pge.com/homemoneysaver/) for a catalog. That took me to PG&E’s Home Money Saver page, with an image of a house with selectable appliances, where I clicked a graphic of a water heater and then another link for Buyer’s Guide. This took me to a Water Heater Buyer’s Guide, with yet more information on selecting a water heater and there, yet another link (pge.com/WaterHeaterList) that finally took me to the Energy Star Certified Water Heaters (http://www.energystar.gov/productfinder/product/certified-water-heaters/) that I had started with. I had been thinking there was a separate PG&E list, but there isn’t—PG&E accepts all Energy Star-certified models. Good to know.

In the Energy Star site, I searched for the model number from the big-box site, and there it was—it qualified. My wife and I brought the water heater home, and I scheduled the installation. Now we just needed to get the rebate.

Landing the Rebate

When I returned to PG&E’s Home Money Saver page, clicking on Apply brought me to the Apply for Your eRebates page. I logged in (you must already have or create a PG&E account login) and was dropped into my Overview page, where, under Ways to Save, there was an eRebates link. I clicked Apply and was led through a few pages of information fields that I filled in to get the rebate. Once done, I printed the results and faxed them and my water heater receipt to the number provided. (They can also be mailed, but faxing seemed easier and quicker.)

I checked back on my PG&E account page a few days later to make sure the rebate request was in the queue. It wasn’t. The website stated that it took a few days for eRebates to appear, so I wasn’t concerned, but when it still hadn’t appeared a day later, I called PG&E.

The representative assured me that they had received it. When I asked how long it would take to get the rebate, he said it wouldn’t take long, once an inspector verified that the water heater had been installed at my house (part of PG&E’s Terms and Conditions). The rep said that an inspector would call within two weeks to schedule a visit, but that sometimes they issue a check without verification. Sure enough, a short time later, the rebate check arrived in the mail—no verification necessary.

And the installation? It went without a hitch. The plumbing company removed my old water heater and installed new lines and a new water heater in a few hours.

What Did I Learn?

  1. Plumbing contractors are not necessarily knowledgeable about energy-efficient water heaters or keen on recommending them. Just because energy-efficient models are available does not mean that companies know much about them or are interested in selling them. And with almost 700 models certified by Energy Star, how can the companies keep track of current information?

  2. Begin by searching for locally available energy-efficient models in your price range. Narrowing the field based on affordability and availability first will greatly simplify your search and make the Energy Star online tools much easier to use.

  3. It’s difficult to use Energy Guide labels for comparison when shopping online. Oddly enough, there is no single website to compare the Energy Guide labels of competing models. If consumers can’t compare Energy Guide labels of different water heaters when shopping online (where many of us comparison shop), the Energy Guides are not much help. Until Energy Star includes Energy Guide labels as a filter option on its list of certified water heaters, the website will be of limited use for online shoppers.

  4. Choosing an energy-efficient water heater is still not commonplace. My limited experience suggests that choosing an energy-efficient water heater is not yet common practice—at least in my area. I needed to call the plumbing company a couple times to reschedule, and the owner didn’t remember me until I said, “I’m the guy who’s putting in the energy-efficient model.” “Oh, yeah,” he’d say. “Now I remember you.” After the second time, it dawned on me that nobody else was asking him for energy-efficient water heaters.

Mark Wilson writes about energy and environmental issues from Nevada City, California. He has written for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, PG&E, EPRI, and other organizations.

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