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What is a Heat Pump Water Heater?

This is an in-depth look at the heat pump water heater, how it is installed, what makes it different than the other heaters and how it saves energy.

A close look at a heat pump water heater setup.

Every homeowner has to make a decision about the type of water heater they want to have. Water heaters that run on gas or electricity are considered to be pretty standard, but that doesn’t mean you have to choose this option. Heat pump water heaters are more energy-efficient and they may be the better option for your home. Knowing what makes this type of water heater different will help you make the right choice.

How Do Heat Pump Water Heater Work?

Heat pumps in water heaters are powered by electricity. The heat pump actually works by pulling heat from the air around the water heater. It then dumps that heat into the water heater tank in order to heat the water. You can actually get heat pumps separately and convert conventional water heaters into heat pump water heaters.

The Department of Energy describes the way heat pump water heaters work as refrigerators in reverse. A refrigerator works by pulling heat from inside the appliance and dumping it out into the room around it. A heat pump water heater pulls heat from the air around it and puts it inside the water heater. This is why a room with a furnace or a dryer is an ideal spot for a heat pump water heater. If another appliance in the room is generating heat, the water heater can pull this heat to make your water hot.

Installation

A look at the laundry room of the house with a heat pump water heater system.

Water heaters with heat pumps must be installed to precise requirements. There must be at least 1,000 cubic feet of air space around the water heater. There must also be a pipe for cool exhaust air. These water heaters must also be in a warm room because the heat pumps pull heat from the air around them. The warmer the room, the better this type of water heater will function. If you put this water heater in the coolest room of your house, you aren’t taking advantage of the energy-efficient design.

That’s what sets these water heaters apart, the energy-saving capabilities. This is why many people are choosing this design over more standard water heaters. If you’re looking for a way to get more energy efficiency out of your water heater, this may be the ideal choice.

However, you will need to make sure you have plenty of room around the water heater, including at the top. Many heat pumps are installed on top of the water heater, so rooms with low ceilings or cabinets probably will not work. The room must also be warm. And since heat pumps need electricity to operate, you will definitely need to have access to electricity in the room where the water heater is located.

Energy Efficiency and Cost

Heat pump water heaters are also called hybrid water heaters because they have a cool feature. You can switch them over to electric heat automatically. The water heater will even have a “hybrid” mode so it will pull surrounding heat when it can and use electricity to create heat when it cannot.

The Energy Star government website says that a household of four people can save about $330 annually on their electric bill simply by switching to a heat pump water heater. That adds up to a lot of savings over the lifetime of the water heater. In time, that savings will add up.

These savings can offset the initial cost of buying and installing a heat pump water heater, which is considerable. This type of water heater is more expensive than traditional gas or a standard electric water heater. A heat pump water heater will cost three or four times more than its more conventional counterpart in the same size. That’s a lot of money in upfront costs and for many, it’s the biggest drawback of using his type of water heater. However, this expense will pay for itself in the long term.

A domestic household with a modern heat pump water heater system.

Installation for this type of water heater is also pricey and must be done by a professional. A water heater that is not properly installed can actually lead to a fatal accident, so it’s not worth taking a risk on this. Many cities, states, and counties actually require that you obtain a permit when you have a water heater installed because they are so potentially deadly. You will pay several hundred dollars to have the water heater installed properly.

The plumber will take care of all necessary permits and other requirements to ensure that you have a safe, functioning water heater. Many plumbing companies also guarantee their work for a certain period of time, meaning they will cover the costs of any work if you experience a water heater malfunction before this time period is up.

Heat pump water heaters do last longer, on average than more conventional water heaters. This type of water heater will generally work well for 13 to 15 years. By comparison, standard electric water heaters will typically only last 8 to 12 years. So not only will the heat pump water heater cost you less in utility bills, but it will also work longer than a standard water heater. Ultimately, it is cheaper to have a heat pump water heater. However, the initial cost of buying and installing this type of water heater is a strong deterrent.

Choosing the Right Water Heater

When you’re considering a water heater for your home, think about how much it will cost to run the water heater, how well it works at heating the water, and how much space you have for installation. You’re going to live with your water heater for about 10 years, maybe more, so you want to have one that’s going to perform well, Make sure you think about how big your water heater should be. You want to have enough hot water to fill up your bathtub. If you have a household with many people in it, you may want to go even a little larger to ensure that there is enough hot water to go around.

Choose the right water heater based on your home and your needs and you won’t go wrong with the final decision you make.

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Written by KC Morgan

KC Morgan has been a professional freelance writer since 2006. Over the last decade, KC has published thousands of articles and blog posts that have been read by millions. A DIYer in her free time, KC has written hundreds of how-tos, guides and tutorials for different DIY and improvement projects around the house.
KC’s articles have appeared in “Popular Mechanics,” and have been featured on Bob Vila’s website. KC has written in-depth DIY articles for Sears.com and Overstock.com, as well as dozens of other websites. When she’s not writing or DIYing, KC enjoys watching college basketball, playing with her cats and experimenting with new cupcake recipes. Follow KC on Twitter @KCMorganWrites.