Heat pump water heater (HPWH) systems mine the energy content of a heat source, most often air, to produce hot water very efficiently. Depending on cold water and ambient air temperatures and on patterns of hot water use, HPWHs do the same job as standard electric water heaters but use half the electric energy. Heat pump water heaters use a motor to run a compressor (Figure 1). The compressor draws a gaseous refrigerant through an evaporator, raising its pressure until it liquefies in the condenser. This familiar process heats the condenser and cools the evaporator. In wringing the heat from air, HPWHs both cool and dehumidify the air that passes through them, thus helping to meet space-conditioning needs during cooling seasons.
But if heat pump water heaters are so efficient, why aren't more of them being purchased? High first costs, historical reliability issues, and an uninformed design community are the three main culprits. The complexities of HPWHs also make them more difficult to install, raising the price of installation as well as the opportunity for installation errors. This was the case throughout the 1990s and early 2000s for both residential and commercial systems, which led to the declining use of HPWHs. For the most part, the only engineers today with the knowledge to properly design commercial systems are the manufacturers themselves. Residential systems, on the other hand, became simpler to choose and install with the advent of integrated systems. Another barrier to HPWH sales is that very few HVAC distributors carry them, and many contractors are not aware they even exist, so therefore do not advocate them.
HPWHs are available in the U.S. in a variety of capacities, from small residential versions to large commercial systems that can produce more than 3,000 gallons per hour of hot water and over 30 tons of air conditioning. This would be enough hot water production for a large-scale commercial laundry facility. Differences in HPWH technologies include system configurations and efficiencies.
Commercial-size HPWHs are add-on systems, where the heat pump apparatus stands alone (Figure 2). Heat is transferred from the condenser to the water tank via a heat exchanger and a small pump, using the tank's water as a heat-exchange medium.
An add-on HPWH system has the virtue of making use of an existing electric resistance water heater. This means that the capital expense is lower and, in many cases, installation can be more flexible, since there can be some distance between the HPWH apparatus and the water tank. Add-on systems are available in a variety of sizes for residential, commercial, and industrial applications.
Integrated systems incorporate both the heat pump apparatus and the hot water tank into a single unit, with the condenser typically wrapped around the tank, surrounded by insulation. Integrated systems are also called “drop-in” systems for good reason. They are designed to require no special expertise in HVAC installation or wiring; ordinary plumbers can install them without the aid of other tradespeople. More compact than add-on systems, they tend to have the same footprint as ordinary electric hot water systems of the same water capacity. Accordingly, integrated systems tend to be easier to retrofit. Although they’re intended primarily for residential use, with maximum hot water capacities of as much as 20 to 25 gallons per hour, these units can also be adequate for many light commercial applications.
The instantaneous energy efficiency of an HPWH system depends on incoming water temperature, intake air temperature, the heat transfer characteristics of the heat pump, and various conductive and convective losses throughout the system. In most circumstances, the hot water output is useful throughout the year, but the cold air output may not be. Accordingly, there is no simple index that accounts for both outputs and describes overall HPWH efficiency. Instead, the HPWH industry relies on two indexes of energy efficiency: coefficient of performance (COP), which is favored by manufacturers of commercial-size HPWH systems; and energy factor (EF), which is used by manufacturers of residential-size HPWH systems. In both cases, a higher value indicates greater efficiency.
COP is a measure of the instantaneous energy output of a system in comparison with its instantaneous energy input. Standby losses and the interaction of changing water and air temperatures are not reflected in measurements of COP. Accordingly, the COP of a standard electric hot water heater is close to 1, and the COP of a typical HPWH heater may be 3 to 4. Buyers of commercial systems should be aware that COPs quoted by manufacturers may reflect the combination of the production of cold air and hot water in relation to energy input. This is helpful if full use is made of the cold air, but not otherwise.
Energy factor is a more useful measure, because it reflects circumstances that are likely to occur in the field. The test to determine EF is conducted over a 24-hour period with temperatures of incoming water and input air held constant. A measured amount of water is pulled from the system every other hour for the first 12 hours, and no water is drawn for the final 12 hours. Because this test reflects standby losses, the EF of a typical electric hot water system is 0.90, and the EF of a typical HPWH heater may be 2.50. This represents an efficiency improvement of more than 200 percent, even ignoring the cooling benefit.
Match the technology to the application. You may be a good candidate for an HPWH if:
Because HPWHs produce cool, dry air as a by-product of heating water, the best applications are those that take advantage of both outputs simultaneously. Accordingly, HPWHs are especially well-suited for commercial sector applications where demand for hot water is relatively constant and the need for cooling or dehumidification is continuous. Commercial laundries fit this description, as do many commercial kitchens and even fast-food restaurants, particularly in climates where space cooling is essential. The best applications for residential units are homes in hot and humid climates, because cold air is produced whenever there is a demand for water heating.
Pick the right size. Picking the right size HPWH system requires estimating daily hot water needs in gallons, just as you would size any other water heating system. However, for HPWH systems, an allowance must be made for high peaks in hot water demands. HPWH systems are quite efficient, but they are slow and steady. A key factor to consider is the rate of hot water production, listed in product literature as the “recovery rate” and measured in gallons per hour. Recovery rates are typically half those of traditional electric water heaters, but the instantaneous power consumption (demand) is typically 40 to 70 percent less. Accordingly, electric demand savings with HPWH systems can be substantial, but only if the use of backup electric resistance heat is quite low.
If you'll be using HPWH systems in applications that require considerable hot water over a short time, choose either a larger tank than a traditional hot water system has or an HPWH system with a high recovery rate. Either choice will help smooth over peak hot water loads.
Look for high energy efficiency. The Energy Star program, which is jointly operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, establishes appliance efficiency specifications above the federal standards. Equipment that meets these specifications is awarded the Energy Star label, which helps consumers and others readily identify high-efficiency products. Check the Energy Star list of HPWHs to find the most efficient models. The current efficiency level for Energy Star was set in 2009.
Perform a quick cost/benefit estimate. The cost-effectiveness of an HPWH is heavily weighted by utility rates and water use. Consistent water loads and a need for year-round cooling and dehumidification make HPWHs a more attractive option for many types of businesses. The initial cost of a commercial HPWH is much greater than an electric or gas-fired boiler, but the annual savings are so large, paybacks typically range between 2 and 3 years. Water inlet and setpoint temperatures, HPWH location, air-conditioning and dehumidification loads, and water consumption rates are some of the parameters a commercial designer takes into account. This makes estimating commercial HPWH economics a trickier process, so contact a vendor or system designer to see if an HPWH is appropriate for your application.
If you have a smaller hot water load, it is possible to use a residential-size HPWH, but the economics are still typically only attractive for facilities that currently use electricity to heat water and draw at least 60 gallons of hot water per day. At higher consumption levels, HPWHs can compete with natural gas water heaters if the price of gas is high and the price of electricity is low. See Table 1 and Table 2 for cost estimates of a residential-size HPWH versus an electric water heater and a gas water heater.
Use our cost-effectiveness calculators. We offer two calculators to help you make the best decision when replacing or installing a new water heater. For a broad overview of expected annual costs for different water-heating technologies based on your specific water use, and to compare otherwise similar gas and electric water heaters, see the Water Heater Fuel Costs calculator. If you already have a general idea about what technology and fuel sources you’re interested in, our Water Heater Economic Comparison calculator provides a side-by-side economic analysis that compares up-front and annual costs, life cycle costs, and simple payback period. By necessity, these calculators make assumptions to simplify the calculations, so use them for initial screening only. For more accurate performance predictions, conduct a more detailed analysis that includes such factors as actual usage patterns, hot water loads, and part-load performance of equipment.
Integrate plant systems. For buildings that use rooftop cooling towers or large refrigerators, it may be worthwhile to harvest waste heat from these units, using the HPWH system both to produce hot water and to help meet the air-conditioning load (Figure 3).
Pick a good location. All HPWH systems should be installed with careful attention to the flow of air across their evaporators. First, because airflow is a necessity (several hundred cubic feet per minute, even for smaller systems), do not place systems in isolated, tight areas. Second, because they produce dry, cool air, put them where their output air will be useful, such as damp basements or spaces that need cooling most of the year. Of course, ducts and dampers may be employed to achieve the needs of source and output air, thus allowing flexibility in choosing a location. Finally, as with refrigerators, the compressor motor on a HPWH system produces some noise, so it may be wise to pick a location where the noise won't be a nuisance.
Perform regular maintenance. Heat-exchange surfaces perform better when clean, and HPWH systems are no exception to the rule. To maintain good energy performance, keep the filter that protects the evaporator's heat-exchange surfaces clean. This is particularly important in kitchens and other areas that contain airborne pollutants.
One developing HPWH technology uses carbon dioxide as the refrigerant instead of a conventional refrigerant such as Freon. Carbon dioxide is much more environmentally friendly than Freon-type refrigerants because it has a much lower “global warming potential.” Carbon dioxide—based HPWHs may also have higher efficiencies and operate at lower ambient temperatures than current systems (as low as 5° Fahrenheit). Although carbon-dioxide HPWHs are not currently on the market in North America, they are marketed heavily in Japan and Europe under the name Eco-cute.