The GE GeoSpring™ Electric Heat Pump Water Heater.

The GE GeoSpring™ Electric Heat Pump Water Heater is readily integrated into new and existing home designs. It takes up the same footprint as a traditional 50-gallon tank water heater.

Credit: GE

New Water Heaters Deliver Home Comfort at Lower Cost and Greater Energy Efficiency

A well-functioning water heater helps make a house a comfortable home. Out of sight and out of mind in a utility closet, the humble water heater goes mostly unnoticed until the day it no longer delivers that hot morning shower.

Did you realize that heating water for bathing, cleaning, and laundry represents the second largest household energy expense after heating and cooling the home? According to the Buildings Energy Data Book, heating water accounts for 17% of on-site residential energy consumption. In fact, Americans spent a whopping $33.8 billion on residential water heating in 2010—anywhere from $200 to $600 per household.

For 35 years, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Building Technologies Office (BTO) has spearheaded research and development activities resulting in energy efficient residential water heating solutions. Advances such as electric heat pump water heater (HPWH) technology make it easier and less costly for manufacturers to design and produce reasonably priced and reliable energy efficient residential water heaters. Today, energy-saving residential water heating technologies show significant gains in the marketplace.

Timing and Technology Align to Create Better Products and Raise Standards

DOE launched its initial projects to improve water heater efficiency in the late 1970s, but the market and product support infrastructure at the time wasn't adequate to execute the vision. While the initial prototype HPWH units offered significant improvements, they also experienced operational problems and the product support available was insufficient to address customer concerns. Consumers continued to perceive existing products as more reliable.

Now technology, the marketplace, and the business environment have converged to make reliable, energy-efficient water heating an affordable reality for consumers. In the United States, demand for energy-efficient water heating solutions grew from 625,000 units shipped in 2006 to 1 million in 2009—even while new home starts lagged and the U.S. water heater market shrank.

Some credit for market adoption goes to the ENERGY STAR® program, a partnership between DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). ENERGY STAR qualification means a product meets or exceeds strict energy efficiency guidelines set by the two organizations. In 2008, DOE and EPA released new ENERGY STAR criteria for both electric and gas water heaters, and manufacturers like General Electric (GE), A.O. Smith, and Rheem stepped up to meet the new standards and provide innovative residential water heater options.

DOE-Industry Partnerships Drive Innovation

One of the first successful new ENERGY STAR qualified electric water heater products to come to market is the GE GeoSpring™ HPWH. GE developed its GeoSpring prototype and began testing its new product in house. In 2008, believing that rigorous testing was necessary to successfully bring the new technology to market, the company entered a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which has a unique durability testing facility.

ORNL's facility performs accelerated durability testing on several water heaters at one time. ORNL estimates that 1 year of constant operation in its testing facility is comparable to 3-10 years of service life in a typical residential setting, depending upon the test protocol used. The new GE product underwent successive iterations of testing and design changes, until test results on the final model indicated it could last at least 10 years.

GE launched the GeoSpring—the first product of its kind to receive ENERGY STAR qualification—in late 2009. To make a big splash, GE aired a memorable ad during the 2010 Winter Olympics featuring snow monkeys. According to product specifications, the GeoSpring uses less than half the energy of a conventional 50-gallon tank water heater and has the potential to save a typical household approximately $320 in energy costs per year. The GeoSpring fills the same footprint as a conventional electric storage tank water heater and can be installed the same way.

Because of this tremendous energy savings, weatherization programs are adopting this HPWH—the GeoSpring will be in over 70% of their training facilities nationwide, according to GE. DOE provides funding to state and local weatherization programs which strive to reduce energy costs for low-income families, particularly families with elderly, children, and people with disabilities.

As technology and the market evolve, DOE is working in partnership with its national laboratories and representatives from industry to develop a roadmap for continuous improvements in domestic water heating systems and equipment.

ENERGY STAR Program Encourages Product Excellence and Market Adoption

The five water heating technologies that are eligible to use the ENERGY STAR label offer energy savings from 7% to 55%, depending on the technology used. Upfront costs are higher than old-fashioned water heaters, but in many cases, purchasers receive tax credits while waiting for the energy cost savings to add up.

The ENERGY STAR program exemplifies the nation's public and private sectors working together to accelerate the development and market adoption of new energy-efficient technologies. By providing independent validation of water heater energy-efficiency claims, the program helps manufacturers, retailers, builders, and plumbers offer their customers reliable, affordable products that save money without sacrificing performance.

Visit ENERGY STAR today to find a water heater that will let you enjoy hot showers, clean dishes, and fresh clothes and towels while saving even more energy and money.

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These five water heating technologies are eligible to use the ENERGY STAR label:

  • High-efficiency gas storage water heaters employ the same technologies as standard gas storage water heaters: a burner located at the bottom of the tank heats a glass-lined steel tank. ENERGY STAR labeled models increase efficiency by incorporating better insulation, heat traps, and more efficient burners.
  • Gas condensing water heaters work much like regular gas water heaters. However, instead of venting the combustion gases directly outside, heat from those gases is further transferred to the water thus increasing efficiency.
  • Whole-home gas tankless water heaters apply the same principle to heat water as standard gas water heaters but without a storage tank. They save energy by heating water only when needed, eliminating energy lost during standby operation.
  • Heat pump water heater (HPWH) technology uses electricity to move heat from one place to another instead of generating heat directly. Much like a refrigerator working in reverse, a HPWH uses liquid refrigerant to take the heat from surrounding air and transfer it to water in an enclosed tank.
  • Solar water heaters come in a wide variety of designs, all using the sun's thermal energy to heat water.

Find more information from ENERGY STAR and the U.S. Department of Energy:

A snow monkey.

To introduce this new electric heat pump water heater, GE ran a memorable ad during the 2010 Winter Olympics featuring snow monkeys enjoying a hot soak. 

Credit: GE
Energy Efficient Water Heater Development Timeline Dates: Text below this graphic describes the graphic.

Energy Efficient Water Heater Development Timeline Dates

  • Late 1970s: DOE launches its initial projects to improve water heater efficiency but the market and product support infrastructure aren't yet adequate enough to execute the vision.
  • Late 90s—2000s: DOE team works on electric heat pump water heaters (HPWH) including Arthur D. Little Inc., the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and a manufacturing partner.
  • 2001: DOE team wins R&D 100 Award presented by R&D Magazine for electric HPWH.
  • Early 2008: GE enters a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with DOE's ORNL for testing.
  • April 2008: DOE and EPA release new ENERGY STAR criteria for both electric and gas water heaters.
  • Nov 2009: GE launches GeoSpring.
  • Feb 2010: GE promotes GeoSpring through 2010 Winter Olympic ad featuring snow monkeys.
  • 2010: GE announces GeoSpring will be in more than 70% of local weatherization programs' training facilities; DOE provides funding for and support to weatherization programs.
  • 2011: BTO hosts a stakeholder workshop to identify water heating research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) priorities.