Water Heaters Are the Lowest Hanging Fruit of Energy Efficiency Upgrades

June 15, 2018 | By: Ryan Shanahan

As an above-code certification program, Earth Advantage has to stay ahead of the building code when it comes to energy efficiency and overall sustainability—or our program is not relevant. When we evaluated our current program, and specifically what many of our current builders were building in for energy efficiency, one thing stuck out: the 2017 ORSC code looked a lot like the Earth Advantage certified homes of the past few years. The 2017 ORSC allows many optional pathways to achieve energy efficiency but our guess is that the majority of new code-built homes will feature: intermediate framing, blown in R-23 walls, R-49 flat ceilings, R-38 floors, .30 U value windows, and 95% AFUE furnaces.

Given that so many of the standard upgrades Earth Advantage builders have incorporated into their homes have now become code, it becomes really apparent that the lowest hanging fruit of energy efficiency is tied to the efficiency of the water heater. Luckily, there are high-efficiency products that are readily available for homes, whether they use natural gas or electric.

For the home builder that prefers to use natural gas, the clear winner is a condensing tankless water heater. These units cost more than standard tankless water heaters but make up for that in savings on the installation and increased builder incentives through Energy Trust of Oregon. These units are so efficient that the outgoing flue gases are cool enough to vent with PVC pipe over steel. This translates to an installation savings for the builder and an operational savings for the homeowner.

For the home builder that prefers to use electric water heaters, the clear winner is the heat pump water heater. These units do not yield any savings over a standard electric tank on the installation side, but the higher efficiencies yield an Energy Trust builder's incentive increase that is typically large enough to cover the cost of the upgrade. It's important to note that since these units heat the water by cooling the air around them, the ideal location to place one tends to be in an attached garage. For homes that can't utilize this strategy, certain models can be easily ducted to the outside.

For information on which upgrade makes the most sense on your next home, contact your green building consultant today. If you’re an Earth Advantage home builder already using high-efficiency water heaters, look out for my next blog on how to incorporate ducts inside conditioned spaces.