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Hot Water Wizard

American edGE
First of four parts on GE’s energy-efficiency innovations

This year 6 million people will get some version of a rude awakening to a cold shower or a puddle on the floor, signaling their old water heater just died.

Usually hidden away in a utility closet or a dark corner of the basement, the family water heater plays an often-unrecognized role in the family budget. The water heater is the second biggest energy user (after heating and air conditioning) in a typical American household. Operating a conventional water heater can account for between 14 and 20 percent of a household’s annual energy bill.

Hurrying to get the hot water system back up and running, many consumers will choose to buy a replacement water heater just like the old one, and never give a thought to how it works.

A new kind of hybrid water heater offers consumers several water heating options in a single appliance—and the potential for a dramatic reduction in the amount of energy used in the household.

Manufactured in Louisville
Hybrid water heaters use two different technologies to transfer heat to water. The first technology, very common in traditional water heaters, is a heating element in the form of a metal rod. As electricity from the power grid travels through the rod, energy escaping as heat makes the water get hot.

The second technology uses a special kind of heat pump that gathers heat from the surrounding air. A small fan circulates air across coils of tubing that capture and concentrate the heat so it can be used to raise the temperature of the water. Similar to the coils in a refrigerator—but operating in reverse to supply heat instead of removing it—the heat pump section uses much less electricity than the traditional heating element section.

One kind of hybrid water heater is now being assembled in Kentucky by General Electric at its Appliance Park facilities in Louisville. Available in retail stores and from plumbing suppliers since April, the new GeoSpring hybrid water heater gives consumers a new level of command and control over energy consumption.

An eye-level digital control panel on the GeoSpring hybrid water heater lets consumers select not only the exact water temperature, but also how much energy the appliance will use. Decisions are based, in part, on how quickly the hot water must be ready for use.

Keith Burkhardt, marketing manager for Water Products at GE Appliances, says, “Depending on what the consumers’ priorities are, they can select the operating mode that best suits their needs. If the number one priority is energy savings, then the ‘heat pump only’ mode will use the least amount of electricity.”

That setting is fine when hot water demand for showers, laundry tasks, and dishwashing is spread throughout the day and night. But when the need for hot water, and plenty of it, is bunched more closely together, the control panel offers other choices.

Burkhardt says, “If a consumer wants great energy savings, but without sacrificing any performance, then the ‘hybrid mode’ ensures you don’t run out of hot water.” The heat pump and the traditional heating element operate together.

A setting for extra guests
Burkhardt says, “If you know you’re going to be using a lot of hot water, perhaps because you have extra guests for the weekend, then using the ‘high demand mode’ is another choice. It’s still a combination, but favors the heating element.”

Consumers also have the choice to operate the water heater in the most energy-intense mode, turning off the fan in the heat pump section and relying on the traditional electric heating elements.

The control panel includes a “vacation mode” setting that temporarily puts the appliance into an ultra-low energy mode, keeping the water at only 50 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent freezing. The controls can be programmed to return the water heater to one of the other operating modes just before the family returns so that hot water will be available as usual.

Based on U.S. Department of Energy testing procedures, GE estimates that the 50-gallon GeoSpring hybrid water heater can provide consumers with the amount of hot water they want, when they want it—yet use only half as much energy as a traditional electric water heater during a full year.

Burkhardt says that during field tests of the hybrid water heater, consumers typically make a lot of adjustments using the control panel, modifying the temperature and trying the different operating modes to see how much energy each uses and how quickly the supply of hot water is replenished. Burkhardt says, “After the first couple of weeks they find their own sweet spot to be comfortable.”

Next month: The revolution in energy-efficient appliances



Heat pump water heater works anywhere in the house
The heat pump in a hybrid water heater uses the air surrounding the appliance, not outside air. Even in climate zones where the outside temperature often falls below freezing during the winter months, as long as the air around the hybrid is at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit, the appliance’s energy-saving features still work. Hybrid water heaters do not have to be installed in the already heated living spaces of a home; they can be installed in many of the same places as conventional electric water heaters often are, such as basements, attics, and some garages. In the summer months when the air around a hybrid water heater is warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat pump works even better.

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