Counting Carbon, Dollars When Choosing A Hot Water Heater

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of EarthFix/KCTS. Author credit goes to Katie Campbell.

Springtime meant decision time for Eric Eastman.

It was the kind of decision most homeowners will eventually confront: what to do when the old hot water heater finally gives out.

image via EarthFix/KCTS

But which replacement model should Eastman get for his Bellevue, Wash. home? Stick with electric or switch to one that heats with natural gas?

Exciting or not, Eastman’s choice was kind of a big deal, considering that heating water accounts for 20 percent of the total energy used in a typical Seattle-area household, according to Seattle City Light. So Eastman decided to take a closer look at the differences between heating water with electricity versus with natural gas.

“I didn’t know a lot about natural gas, so it’s been kind of an educational process for me,” Eastman said. “But once I learned about the cost benefits of switching to a natural gas water heater, it became kind of a no-brainer.”

A $950 rebate from Puget Sound Energy to help cover the installation costs and the prospect of lower utility bills helped Eastman choose to convert to a natural gas water heater.

Here’s what the process looked like:

Here are the kinds of questions that Eastman and other hot water-challenged homeowners usually face:

Q: Does heating with natural gas cost less?

A: Natural gas is winning out over electricity when it comes to day-to-day energy costs — especially as new gas-drilling technology is opening up vast, previously inaccessible reserves. Greater supply has been steadily lowering consumer costs for natural gas since 2005, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Even in the Northwest, which boasts some of the nation’s lowest electricity costs, Seattle-area homeowners who switch from an electric water heater to a gas water heater can save between $200 and $400 per year, Puget Sound Energy estimates.

Without rebates or other cash incentives, installing a high-performing gas water heater is more costly: running about $1,300 for those with access to a gas line. That’s nearly double the $700 it costs to install a high-performing electric water heater, according to a 2008 EnergyStar report.

Q: Why would electric utilities want customers to switch to natural gas water heaters?

A: The more a utility company can get its ratepayers to conserve the longer it can go without bringing additional power generation on line. About 47 percent of Puget Sound Energy customers heat their water with electricity, including about 25,000 who are hooked up to natural gas. If all those homes switched to natural gas, the resulting conservation would free up enough electricity to power 5,000 more homes, according to PSE.

Q: What differences would homeowners notice if they converted to gas water heaters?

A: The recycle times tend to be shorter for natural gas hot water heaters. So if you switched to natural gas water heater, you might notice that it would take less time to replenish the hot water tank.

Q: Bottom line, what’s better for the environment?

A: If you just consider efficiency, natural gas comes out on top.

But if you’re counting carbon emissions, it depends how your electricity is generated. Does your utility rely a lot on coal-fired power plants? That matters because natural gas emits just over half as much greenhouse gas as coal, according to the independent research organization Worldwatch Institute.

Hydroelectricity has its environmental shortcomings — chiefly through dams that threaten salmon with extinction. But hydropower emits no carbon to the atmosphere. And Washington is the leading hydropower producer in the nation. Hydroelectric power accounts for nearly three-fourths of the state’s electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

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