My Turn: Water heater efficiency poised for giant leap

Johanna Neumann

Johanna Neumann FILE PHOTO


Published: 09-21-2023 2:38 PM

Rapid access to hot water is a hallmark of modern society and has made our lives a lot easier. With the turn of a faucet handle, we have hot showers as well as water to wash our dishes and clean our clothes.

Now, the Biden Administration is positioning America to take a big leap forward when it comes to water heater efficiency. If the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) finalizes a proposal to set more stringent efficiency standards for these appliances, they will deliver significant environmental, consumer and public health benefits.

Tucked away in some corner of each of our homes is our humble water heater — a machine whose role is mostly unsung and unseen, but that still plays a big role in our everyday lives. In most households heating water is the second-biggest use of energy, behind only space-heating.

Now, thanks to advances in technology, Americans will have the opportunity to save a lot of energy when heating water. This spring, the DOE proposed a new rule to make sure water heaters aren’t consuming more energy than they need to. The DOE estimates that the proposed efficiency standards for water heaters would save 27 quadrillion Btu (“quads”) of energy from water heaters sold over 30 years. To give you a sense of perspective, the entire U.S. economy consumes about 100 quads of energy per year. Since most of that energy still comes from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, those energy savings translate to very real environmental benefits.

The proposed efficiency standards for water heaters would save more energy than any federal appliance efficiency standard adopted to date.

This rule can have such a large impact because of the ubiquity of water heaters and the leaps involved in electric water heater technology in recent decades.

Today, nearly every household has a water heater, and roughly half of those run on electricity. Most electric water heaters sold in America use electric resistance technology to heat water. Resistance technology relies on electric coils to produce heat, similar to the heating elements you see when you look inside your toaster, and is wildly inefficient compared with heat pumps. By contrast, heat pump water heaters use an energy-efficient compressor that gathers heat from one space and then concentrates it in a water storage tank. For example, in my house, a heat pump water heater in my basement takes the 50 degree basement air, compresses it, and then transfers some of the heat from the basement air to the water in the tank. As a result, the water that my 13-year-old uses for his morning shower is just as hot as it would be if we had a resistance water heater, but takes less energy because the heat pump does the job more efficiently.

Under the proposed DOE standards, manufacturers would be prompted to transition from electric resistance technology to heat pump technology for most electric water heaters.

The environmental benefits of this transition would be huge. If finalized, the proposed water heater standards would cut climate-changing air pollution equivalent to taking 36 gas-fired power plants offline by mid-century. The standards would also reduce other harmful air pollutants — such as nitrogen oxides — that are linked to respiratory and circulatory problems.

Consumers stand to benefit, too. In particular, those consumers purchasing electric water heaters would see large utility bill savings from the improved efficiency. According to an Appliance Standards Awareness Project fact sheet from July 2023, electric water heaters meeting the proposed standards would save households $238 on utility bills every year. Taking into account additional upfront costs, households would save more than $1,800 over the lifetime of the product.

The Department of Energy is accepting comments on the proposed water heater efficiency rule through Sept. 26. You can add your name to a petition to the DOE in support of the proposed standard at and I’ll deliver it to the Department of Energy on your behalf at an event in Washington, D.C.

Reducing energy waste is not only the fastest, cheapest and cleanest way to meet our energy needs, but it’s also a critical step to getting to a future powered by 100% clean renewable energy as quickly as possible.

With the adverse impacts of climate change that we see around us every day, we need every solution we can get. Improved appliance efficiency standards are one of those solutions and can help us secure a cleaner, greener future for ourselves and future generations.

Johanna Neumann of Amherst has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at