Texas Remodeler Recommends Heat Pump Water Heater to Help Cost-Conscious Client Go Green

Twice as efficient as a standard electric model, new technology expected to yield up to $300 in annual savings, making the decision a “no-brainer.”

Finding a homeowner ready to "go green" primarily for the sake of a better environment is not so easy in today's struggling housing market. Builder-remodeler Matt Risinger of Risinger Homes in Austin, Texas, has found this to be especially true of older clients whose economic futures are not what they used to be.

“A lot of our baby boomer customers couldn’t care less about the virtues of green construction,” says Risinger, a 15-year building-industry veteran who launched his namesake firm in 2005. “But while these older customers may not be into ‘saving the planet,’ these folks do care about lowering their monthly energy bills.”

Risinger prides himself on building and remodeling “efficient, healthy and durable homes.” He even pens a blog dedicated to those core values: “Matt Risinger and the Green Building Blog.” So how does he square his passion for sustainability with customer resistance to the upfront costs of green products? Simple – by focusing on the issue his customers care about the most, home economics.

“These boomers realize that, at some point, they will be living solely off their assets,” which have taken a nasty hit in recent years. “Utility bills will command a substantial and growing portion of their monthly overheads,” Risinger notes. “If I can show how those costs can be lowered significantly, that’s a very big deal, and they’re more than happy to listen to what I recommend.”

Economic “stimulus”: A recent remodeling project by Risinger Homes offers a good example of the importance of energy conservation in consumer decision-making. This spring, Risinger put the finishing touches on a $500,000 renovation project on a residence overlooking Lake Travis in the Austin suburb of Lago Vista. Built into a terraced hillside adjoining the water, the original house was a single-story structure with an open and not terribly attractive crawl space beneath. The crawl space height measures from seven to 15 feet, depending on the distance from the hillside.

Risinger’s task was to expand the interior by roughly 900 square feet by creating more living space on the lower level, plus a master bedroom and a studio above. He is also created 1,500 square feet of outdoor living space, including a swimming pool and a patio with an outdoor kitchen and fireplace.

The expanded interior also included two more bathrooms to supplement the existing pair. The owners, an older couple, wanted the extra space — and facilities — to accommodate family and friends who spend summer weekends at the lake house. Meeting the hot-water demands of all those bathrooms and weekend visitors meant that the home’s 12-year-old electric water heater had to go.

Looking for a more cost-effective way to generate hot water, the couple pondered solar, but dropped the idea when they saw the front-end cost. Rather than defaulting back to a conventional tank product, Risinger suggested a new technology that he had just read about in an industry trade magazine: heat pump water heating, a solution that offered double the efficiency of a standard electric model.

The product he recommended was introduced only in September 2009, a Rheem HP-50, a “hybrid” product that combines an air-source heat pump with conventional electric technology as a backup. The system transfers heat from the surrounding air to the 50 gallons of water in its storage tank. By using the ambient air to supply most of the heat, a heat pump is a highly efficient way to raise and maintain water temperature. (It is also the only type of electric water heater eligible for ENERGY STAR® certification, which the HP-50 has earned.)

The HP-50 has enough capacity to meet the family’s hot water needs most days, even on busy summer weekends, according to Risinger. But because the owners insisted on taking no chances, a second unit was installed in tandem with the new HP-50: — a “low-boy” 40-gallon standard electric. “We figured with 90 gallons of capacity, the household would have all the hot water it needed and then some, even during the busiest of times,” says Risinger.

The low-boy backup is situated in a closet on a stairway landing in the crawl space, with just a few feet of pipe connecting it to the heat pump water heater, positioned just outside the closet. “There wasn’t enough room on the landing inside the closet to put the two water heaters side by side,” Risinger explains, noting that Rheem recommends 1,000 cubic feet of space around the HP-50 to give it the necessary amount of makeup air. The 10-foot ceiling height of the crawl space where the heat pump water heater is located leaves plenty of room for its 75-1/2-inch height.

Each unit is equipped with its own flip switch, located in a living area upstairs. “When just the husband and wife are home, the smaller unit can be shut off,” Risinger explains. “When no one is home, both units can be shut down — again with just a flip of a switch.”

Smooth installation: Their first opportunity to install a heat pump water heater went “very smoothly” for Risinger and his plumbing subcontractor, Dennis Guthrie of Custom Plumbing in Austin. With its fully integrated heat pump, the unit is heavier than a standard electric water heater (200 pounds versus approximately 125 pounds), as well as 18 inches taller at 75-1/2 inches.

“That extra weight and height makes the location of the water heater an important consideration,” says Danny O’Neal, Custom Plumbing’s installer on the project.

(Note: With a diameter of 21 inches, the HP-50 is also more slender than a standard electric water heater, which makes it easier to install the former in attics and other spaces with restricted access.)

The unit’s integral heat pump is a fully charged and sealed system, just like a refrigerator or a room air conditioner, so an HVAC technician is not required. In fact, the unit installs much like a standard electric water heater, except that the hot- and cold-water connections are situated on the side of the unit — not the top.

Heat pump water heaters, like the Rheem HP-50, have a third connection that distinguishes them from their standard electric counterparts: a condensate drain hookup. As the heat pump draws warmth from the atmosphere, it generates moisture — or condensate — that provides an additional benefit of dehumidifying the crawlspace. This condensate must be sent to a separate drain, but creating the condensate line is not complicated, according to Risinger.

“Because we installed the HP-50 adjacent to the sewage sump in the crawl space, it was a simple matter of running the condensate line right into it, rather than into a distant drain. In the end, the entire installation process took only four hours.”

Attractive payback: But perhaps the easiest part of the job for Risinger was persuading his client to opt for the heat pump water heater when a solar solution proved too costly. At roughly $1,550 before installation, the Rheem HP-50 is certainly more expensive than a standard electric water heater. But, as noted earlier, its annual operating cost is potentially less than half: $234, when operated in the Energy Saver mode (with the heat pump providing 100% of the hot water), versus $520 for a standard 50-gallon electric water heater. (Source: 2007 Department of Energy test procedures, using the DOE national average of 10.65¢ per kilowatt-hour.)

Risinger advised his client to count on a conservative savings of around $250 per year, since the warm Austin climate would likely permit the use of the heat pump most of the time, with only occasional reliance on the electric element as backup. (Even when operated in the High-Demand Mode, with the heat pump and electric element sharing the load as required, the HP-50 still has an Energy Factor of 1.5 and an annual operating cost of $330 — well below a standard electric model.)

“With a savings of at least $250 annually and perhaps as much as $300, it won’t take long for my client to recoup the additional investment,” says Risinger, “and that’s not even counting the tax credit.” Note: The ENERGY STAR®-rated HP-50 qualifies for the energy-efficient building property federal tax credit of up to $1,500.

“At least $250 in savings a year, $1,000 after four years and $2,500 by the end of the 10-year warranty period,” says Risinger, recounting the line of logic he used with his client. “That kind of annual savings more than pays for the equipment, and well before the warranty is up.

“I believe this new technology will prove to be a really efficient way to heat water for this house. In the end, my customer and I both agreed: Going with the Rheem heat pump unit was pretty much a no-brainer.”

For more information on the growing Rheem line of hybrid heat pump water heaters, please visit http://www.rheem.com/hpwh

Rheem Manufacturing Company (www.rheem.com) is privately held with headquarters in Atlanta. In its 83rd year of operation, the company manufactures a full-line of high-quality residential and commercial heating and cooling systems; tank, tankless, solar, and heat pump water heaters; swimming pool heaters and commercial boilers throughout North America and world markets. The company’s premium brands, including Raypak, Ruud and Rheem, have been recognized with countless industry and consumer awards for reliability, innovative design, and high quality. Rheem is the official heating, cooling, and water heating supplier to Kevin Harvick, Inc. and is the primary sponsor of NASCAR’s Nationwide Series “Driver of the Decade,” Kevin Harvick and his #33 car.