Blog Post

A Look at Heat Pump Water Heaters

New federal regulations beginning in mid-April 2015 will require that larger electric water heaters be heat-pump models. It’s time to pay attention to this option.

The GE GeoSpring heat-pump water heater is the quietest model I could find and the only one that's made in America.Photo Credit: GE Appliances

Last week I wrote about “hybrid” water heaters, a relatively new type of water heater that includes features of both storage and tankless models. This week I’ll cover another type of water heater that is also (confusingly) referred to as “hybrid”: heat pump water heaters. These produce over twice as much hot water for each unit of electricity consumed as any other type of electric water heater (storage or tankless).

You’re going to be hearing a lot about heat-pump water heaters over the next few years, because new federal regulations that take effect in 2015 will require heat pump functionality for larger electric water heaters—more on that below.

Why it’s worth considering water heating carefully

Before diving into heat-pump water heaters and what makes them tick, it’s worth spending a minute to say why I’ve focused so much attention on water heating in this blog recently. As a fraction of residential energy consumption, water heating has become more and more significant over the past several decades.

In 1978, water heating accounted for approximately 14% of a home’s average energy consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, compared to 66% for space heating. By 2005, those percentages had shifted to 20% and 41%, respectively. I assume that this isn’t because our water heaters are using a lot more energy, but rather that our houses are better insulated and our heating systems more efficient.


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In an ultra-efficient Passive House (built to the German standard for low-energy homes that is gaining popularity in the U.S.), it’s not unusual for water heating to be the largest energy user in the house, and it can be as much as twice that of space heating.

Electric-resistance vs. heat-pump water heating

Up until recently, almost all electric water heaters relied on electric-resistance heat. Electric current flows through a special element with high electrical resistance, and the electricity is converted directly to heat. The conversion of electricity into heat is virtually 100% efficient—though heat loss from an electric storage-type water heater always results in an overall efficiency lower than 100%. (Note that if we’re looking at primary or source energy that the power plants use to produce the electricity, the efficiency is far lower.)

Heat pump water heaters are very different. Electricity isn’t converted directly into heat; rather it is used to move heat from one place to another. This is counter-intuitive because the heat is moved from a colder place (the room air where the water heater is located) to a warmer place (the water in the storage tank).

This seemingly magic process happens because a specialized refrigerant fluid is alternately condensed and evaporated in a closed loop. This process relies on phase changes of the refrigerant that capture and release significant amounts of heat.

A detailed explanation of the refrigerant cycle is beyond the scope of this blog. Trust me that it works. (It’s the same basic principle used in your refrigerator, which extracts heat from inside that insulated box and dumps it into your kitchen.)

The net result is that for every one kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity consumed, two or more kWh’s of hot water are produced. The energy factor, which is often thought of as a measure of efficiency, is 2.0 to 2.5 for most heat-pump water heaters on the market, while a 100% efficient electric-resistance water heater would have an energy factor of just 1.0.

Growing interest in these water heaters

There are a few heat-pump water heaters that have been on the market for decades, but these never really reached the mainstream. All that has changed in the past few years, however, as the largest water heater manufacturers, including A.O. Smith, Rheem, and GE have all introduced heat-pump water heaters.

While standard electric water heaters have no moving parts, heat-pump water heaters have compressors (to compress the refrigerant vapor causing it to condense into liquid) and fans (to circulate room air across the heat exchanger so that heat can be extracted from it).

Noisier than other water heaters

Be aware that these mechanical components produce noise—often significantly louder than a refrigerator. Heat-pump water heaters I’ve examined have noise ratings from 55 to 65 decibels (dB), which is a large range of variability (65 dB is ten times as loud as 55 dB). Most refrigerators are 40-50 dB.

If you are particularly sensitive to noise and don’t have an acoustically isolated place to install it, the energy savings from a heat-pump water heater might not be worth it.

New water heater regs to require heat-pump water heaters

New federal regulations that are due to kick in on April 16, 2015, will require that electric water heaters larger than 55 gallons have energy factors close to 2.0. The exact energy factor required is based on a formula that factors in the storage volume, but for all sizes in this category the required EF is close to 2—a performance level that can only be achieved with heat pump technology.

The energy factor requirements for smaller water heaters—up to 55 gallons in size—are also rising in April 2015, but will remain below 1.0 and will be achievable with a very-well-insulated electric-resistance water heater.

Heat pump water heaters rob heat from the house

Because heat pump water heaters extract heat from the air where they’re located, with most installations they increase heating loads somewhat. If you have an expensive fuel, such as baseboard-electric and are in a cold climate with a significant heating season, a heat pump water heater may not make sense.

These water heaters can make a lot of sense when there is a lot of waste heat, such as in a basement where an oil or gas furnace or boiler is located.

Size matters

Heat pump water heaters come in various sizes: from 40 to 80 gallons for products I know about. For most families, the larger sizes make sense, primarily because heat pump water heaters heat the water quite slowly—often just eight gallons per hour. Most heat-pump water heaters have different settings that regulate how readily the back-up electric-resistance elements will come on. With larger models, users can operate them on the heat-pump-only mode (the most economic) more of the time. The first-hour rating will give you a sense of recovery time, but which setting the water heater is on makes a big difference.

My next water heater will likely be a heat-pump model

I’m pretty sure we’ll install a heat-pump water heater in the house we’re currently renovating. Given what’s on the market today, I will probably select the GE GeoSpring water heater, a 50-gallon model that’s 10 dB quieter and half the cost of the German-made efficiency leader, Stiebel Eltron. I’ll also look at the Rheem Hybrid Electric and the A.O. Smith Voltex, which have the same energy factor (2.4) as the GeoSpring—though noise will be the biggest determinant. The GeoSpring is the only heat-pump water heater that’s made in America.

At an electricity cost of 15¢/kWh, a heat-pump water heater will be significantly cheaper to operate than the highest-efficiency, condensing propane water heater (we don’t have natural gas in southern Vermont)—even if propane were to drop to $2/gallon (far below it’s current price). Where natural gas is available—and assuming the price of natural gas remains so low—heat-pump water heaters will have trouble competing on economic grounds.

A big attraction to me of heat-pump water heaters is that they can be powered using a photovoltaic (solar electric) system. Our new place will be net-zero-energy and we hope to entirely avoid fossil fuels in the house.

Be aware that heat pump water heaters aren’t cheap. That GE GeoSpring I mentioned above lists for about $1,200, plus installation, and the Stiebel Eltron model costs about $2,500. Unlike electric-resistance water heaters, heat-pump models require condensate drains, which can add cost. By comparison, a standard electric or gas storage water heater can cost as little as a few hundred dollars.

Looking for a heat pump water heater of your own? Check out GreenSpec's guidance here.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. He also recently created the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

Published September 19, 2012

(2012, September 19). A Look at Heat Pump Water Heaters. Retrieved from

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November 21, 2014 - 11:42 am

i've been looking at these water heat pumps and the hidden costs and considerations are installation requirements (30A circuit), location of demand points, noise (huge factor because many garages in san diego are located below a bedroom), and the initial costs. I had wanted to build a house with PV cells + water heat pumps. Whether it's one large one or several small ones around the house closer to faucets and showers. Looking at it from several angles, I can't seem to justify it even though it's what I want to do because I love the coolness factor. It's not really as straightforward as installing solar panel. In addition, the size of the family unit is important. Large families require will probably be better off with a gas water heater. There are so many factors. I don't think the public including myself are informed enough to make the right choice.

November 22, 2014 - 11:20 am

I did ultimately install a Geospring in the basement of my house ( I can't hear it at all in the living space but the basement ceiling is quite heavily insulated. For me - since I was building basically a new house - the cost of the wiring was more than offset by not needing to do the gas plumbing and the exhaust gas ducting.

November 22, 2014 - 11:07 am

Our Geospring water heater is located in our basement, separated from the living space only by an uninsulated floor. If the door to the basement is closed we can't really hear the water heater (about the same decibel level as a refrigerator) from our living space upstairs. I would think in a garage if there's an insulated ceiling above there would be no noise migration at all.

Noise was a factor we considered, though. We installed it in a separate room in the basement that we could insulate if we need to. We also chose the quietest HPWH that was available when I was researching them.

As for cost, it's hard to compete against natural gas--right now. Will the cost of natural gas always stay low? Maybe, but I wouldn't want to bank on that. With our solar system providing all of our electricity we're pretty well protected from rising costs down-the-road.

March 25, 2015 - 3:42 pm

Thanks, Alex, for this incredibly helpful article. I'm a fellow Vermonter (up in Barnard) looking to replace my old propane-fueled water heater. Have some very reasonable quotes for capping off the propane and running the new circuit, so I'm ready to pull the trigger on a new HPWH.

I am curious about the temperature issue. Did you run it in heat pump mode throughout the winter? My basement is dry and tight and definitely stays above 50 degrees.

And generally speaking--are you still happy with the Geospring? Any other, newer options you would seriously consider now if you were doing it this year?
Thanks again. This has been incredibly helpful. -Ben

March 25, 2015 - 9:32 pm

Ben, I'm still very happy with the Geospring. It definitely cools off the basement some, and because the floor between the basement and our living area isn't insulated, that means that the our first floor stays cooler than ideal at floor level--unless we add more heat with our wood stove. There were a few times when I noticed the temperature in the basement equipment room dipping a bit below 50°F, but most of the winter it stays around 51° or 52°. If we had kids at home showering every day, the cooling off of the basement might be more of a problem.

There have been a very few times when I've switched the water heater to the Boost mode—most recently when our daughter got married at our farm last August and a bunch of guests were staying with us.

I saw that GE has just introduced an 80-gallon GeoSpring, as I suspected they would. But for our situation, the 50-gallon model is just right.

September 20, 2012 - 2:31 pm

Do any of these units allow for attaching ductwork to the intake and exhaust?  That would allow for changing the airflow in the A/C season, the heating season and the in-between seasons.