As part of the ongoing saga to retrofit my Worcester three-decker to be zero-emission, I recently replaced two gas water heaters with heat pump water heaters. If you haven’t heard of these, grab your loofah, you’re in for some fun..
What’s wrong with gas? Gas has been a miracle energy source in so many ways. My gas boilers are “clean” – meaning soot-free – and therefore low maintenance. My gas stove was fast before I replaced it with induction (which is actually even faster). My gas water heaters were always hot and ready for whatever laundry, showers or pandemic handwashing I could throw at them.
But gas is so last century. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas when it leaks, and it leaks from over 10,000 broken pipes in Massachusetts alone. Burning gas emits carbon dioxide, even in a 100 percent-efficient appliance, because efficiency is about energy usage not byproducts. Gas is the reason the Merrimack Valley lost houses and a young life. And it’s a slow killer. Gas is a key driver of asthma, and almost certainly why I now rely on an inhaler.
Heat pumps are the way forward. If you have a fridge or an air conditioner, you have a heat pump. A heat pump uses the magic of thermodynamics to carry heat energy from one place where it’s not needed to somewhere else. You can carry heat from inside your fridge to the air of the kitchen. You can carry heat from inside your bedroom to outside on a hot summer’s night. And you can carry heat from the basement air into the water you’re about to use for a shower.
Installation Was Challenging
The gas water heater for the third-floor renter failed in July. (It’s always a good idea to replace these preemptively. Set a calendar reminder.) We jury-rigged our owner water heater to supply hot water to the third floor while we looked for an installer who could bring us a heat pump. (Note: this is not unlawful cross-metering. If the owner is paying, it’s fine.)
We looked for an installer. We got badly discouraged. Over the next several months, I quoted with five plumbing companies.
The local plumber I keep on speed dial said, paraphrased, “We’ll charge you $7,000 each, roughly four times what we’d charge for gas, and it will break immediately. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.” That plumber didn’t advertise heat pumps on their website, so I called one that did.
The next plumber said, paraphrased, “You have old gas boilers here. I could install a combination gas boiler and gas water heater system for $30,000 and fix all of your appliances at once.” I talked with that plumber about the state’s goals to be at net-zero emissions by 2050, and how a new boiler would still be emitting past the deadline. They didn’t seem phased.
I went direct to the manufacturer of a heat pump water heater with a good reputation, Rheem, who have been in this market a while (I have no affiliation with Rheem). It’s worth noting, too that the South loves heat pump water heaters because they provide air conditioning as a side effect in the room where they’re installed.
The first three of Rheem’s four distributors for Worcester wanted to install gas. Now that’s tragic. Rheem, an early adopter of heat pump technology for water heaters, can’t get its own distributors to recommend heat pump water heaters in Massachusetts.
I was told it would freeze my basement, that there wouldn’t be enough air, there wouldn’t be enough humidity or that they weren’t cold rated. This was all wrong or irrelevant.
Early Results Show Promise
Despite these challenges, we got two heat pump water heaters installed on Nov.15. They come with built-in energy monitoring. Over the next 20 days, my unit used on average 2.78 kWh per day carrying heat from the basement into the water. I pay effectively $0.28 per kWh including the account fee for renewable supply and delivery, so my daily cost is $0.80 for zero-emissions hot water.
Comparison with gas is difficult, because we have one meter that used to feed the boiler and the water heater simultaneously. The Rheem heat pump has a Uniform Energy Factor (UEF) of 3.75. The old Bradford White gas heater had a UEF of around 0.7, meaning I get about five times more hot water now than I did before for the same energy input. The 2.78 kWh I now pay daily would be equivalent to 47,428 BTU of gas before.
Fortunately for me, you and all human civilization, these 47,428 BTUs in gas form were costing me about $0.90 per day. So, my renter and I are both saving money and reducing our emissions at the same time. And my basement has remained a more or less constant 56 degrees Fahrenheit.
The main difficulty was the up-front cost of capital. Each water heater cost double what a gas heater would have cost. And the rebates were no help, because gas is considered “clean.” The next version of MassSave’s rebates is expected to correct this. Let’s hope it does, because we have a lot of well-loved gas water heaters to replace in Massachusetts.
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.