Palo Alto Utilities spokeswoman Catherine Elvert said the city has launched a pilot program to educate and encourage residents to replace their traditional gas water heaters with heat pump water heaters (HPWH) that operate with electricity and are more energy efficient. Those who convert to heat pump water heaters are eligible for rebates ranging between $500 and $1,200.
The push to go electric is part of the city's goal to decrease its greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2030.
The city of Palo Alto has among the most aggressive sustainability goals of any city nationwide, according to Christine Tam, a senior resource planner at Palo Alto Utilities. Residential water heaters and space heaters account for 44 percent of the natural gas use in the city, Tam said.
Electric heat pump water heaters powered by Palo Alto's carbon neutral electricity have a zero carbon footprint, according to the city's website.
Elvert said if the city can get residents to start thinking about their water heaters, they can begin to consider options well before the 10-year lifespan on their traditional gas water heater is up.
"The challenge is that when your water heater goes out it's an emergency. People often don't do research in advance. When it stops working, it's a crisis," Elvert said.
About 90 percent of Palo Alto residents have water heaters fueled by natural gas, said Hiromi Kelty, a utility program manager for Palo Alto Utilities.
Kelty said calling gas "natural" is kind of a misnomer. Natural gas, which is actually a fossil fuel, leaks from homes and other buildings into the atmosphere and contributes significantly to greenhouse gases.
As electric power is being generated by cleaner and cleaner sources, the scales are tipping in favor of electric power and thus many utilities are promoting electrical home appliances over gas ones.
A heat pump water heater works like a refrigerator or air conditioner, but in reverse, Kelty explained. It takes the warm air out of a room and uses it to heat a tank of water. At the same time, by taking the warmth out of the air, it also cools the immediate area around it. This type of system is very energy efficient.
"For every unit of energy input, you get three units of output," Kelty said.
The main trick with heat pump water heaters is they need air space around them (about a 2-foot minimum all the way around) to draw ambient air into the pump, which is used to heat the water. A furnace or dryer nearby can heat the nearby air and help with the water heater's efficiency.
Heat pump water heaters work best in places like garages, but its possible to install them in water heater closets that are vented to the outside, or indoors in utility rooms, as long as there is a way to vent the air.
The U.S. Department of Energy recommends installing the water heaters in a space with excess heat, such as a furnace room, because the HPWH system works more efficiently in a warm climate.
Kelty said not only are electric water heaters more cost efficient, but they are easy to use. HPWH have a "very friendly user interface" that can be adjusted remotely and put on different modes, depending on the needs of the household.
New Palo Alto homes are not mandated to have this new type of water heater, but Tam said:
"We all agree that electrification is the wave of the future."
For more information about the Palo Alto Utilities' HPWH pilot program, go to bit.ly/PAHPWH.
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