Biden admin rule to make water heaters cheaper, more efficient
Aug 08, 2023
The Biden administration proposed a rule Friday that would make new water heaters more efficient by setting standards that encourage companies to update roughly 80-year-old technology, the biggest step yet in a series of appliance regulations aimed at reducing Americans’ utility costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
The Department of Energy said its proposal would save consumers $11.4 billion on their energy and water bills each year. To comply with the rule’s efficiency standards, which would take effect in 2029, new electric storage water heaters in the most common size would have to use heat pumps, and some gas-fired instantaneous heaters would have to use condensing technology. The change would reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions by 501 million metric tons over a 30-year period, the department says. It would also save Americans $198 billion over the same timespan.
Regulators and experts say the proposed rule, which could be revised after the department solicits comments and holds a public hearing, is significant because water heating accounts for about 13 percent of U.S. consumers’ annual residential energy use and utility costs. Heat pumps are more than twice as efficient as previous technology.
“Today’s actions — together with our industry partners and stakeholders — improve outdated efficiency standards for common household appliances, which is essential to slashing utility bills for American families and cutting harmful carbon emissions,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm in a news release.
Manufacturers will have to invest in making compliant water heaters, but many have expected to do so for more than a decade, said Andrew deLaski, the executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.
When the Obama administration last updated water heater efficiency rules in 2010, some large electric heaters began using heat pumps to comply, signaling a shift in that direction. The technology is already common in other parts of the world, such as Japan and Europe, deLaski’s group said in an April fact sheet. The manufacturer Rheem has sold water heaters with heat pumps in the U.S. market for about 10 years, said Karen Meyers, the company’s vice president of government affairs.
The old technology many U.S. electric water heaters use was first widely commercialized in the 1940s, making an update overdue, deLaski said.
“This is an example of how standards can drive manufacturers’ investments in innovative technology that saves consumers money and also protects the planet,” he said.
The water heater rule roughly lines up with what many consumer groups, environmental advocates and manufacturers expected. Federal law requires regulators to review efficiency standards for a wide variety of household appliances. Friday’s rule is one of 18 appliance standards the Biden administration has proposed or finalized this year.
Other potential appliance regulations have drawn more controversy, particularly one that addressed gas stoves’ potential harmful health impacts. Federal consumer safety regulators said they were considering regulating indoor air pollution from gas stoves, sparking backlash from Republicans and some Democrats who said the government planned to ban them altogether. The Trump administration had previously attempted to loosen efficiency standards for certain appliances.
The water heater rule is unlikely to cause similar consternation. It may initially make installing new electric heaters more expensive, the Energy Department said, but consumers should recoup those costs and more over the appliance’s approximately 15-year lifetime. Renters in particular stand to benefit because they often bear energy costs without choosing what types of appliances they use, said Johanna Neumann, a senior director at the nonprofit Environment America Research and Policy Center.
Households would save an average $1,868 over the life of their electric heater, the department said. That doesn’t include potential savings from the Inflation Reduction Act’s environmentally-focused tax credits.
“Appliance standards are an unsung hero in our work to address climate change and transition to wiser energy use,” Neumann said, “and this rule is the king of them all.”
An earlier version of this article included an inaccurate quote from an expert stating, "This one standard has the potential to save as much energy as every other efficiency standard before combined." The rule would not have the potential to save that much energy, but would be the single biggest energy saver proposed thus far, according to Energy Department estimates. This article has been corrected by removing that assertion.