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What Exactly is a Hybrid Water Heater?


Over the past few years, the term hybrid has managed to work its way into our everyday conversation. In the most literal sense, hybrid refers to combining two different elements into a single unit. There are hybrid plants, animals, computers, cars, and even regimes, but there has been little discussion about one of the most important plumbing advancements in recent history: hybrid water heaters.


A hybrid water heater is essentially an electric water heater that’s equipped with a heat pump. Plumbing contractors are familiar with these super-efficient units, but they’re virtually unknown to the average homeowner. That partly explains why so many homeowners replace their aging water heater with a new version of the same-old technology, instead of upgrading to a hybrid model. Here’s a detailed explanation of how a hybrid water heater works and why you should consider one for your home.


How It Works

Hybrid electric heat pump water heaters are approximately the same size and shape as standard water heaters, and are installed in a similar manner. They’re engineered to operate on the proven principle that it’s easier to move something than to make something. Hybrid water heaters use electricity to move heat from one place to another, rather than generate heat from scratch.


Integrally mounted on top of each water-heater tank is an electric heat pump. The pump employs a compact compressor and evaporator coil to capture heat from the room air and then transfer it to the cold water entering the water-heater tank. As a result, the electric heating elements inside the tank use much less energy to heat the water to the desired temperature.


Most hybrid water heaters have four modes of operation:

  • Efficiency: Maximizes energy savings by only using the heat pump to warm the water.

  • Hybrid: Based on demand for hot water, the heater automatically switches between heat pump and electric heating elements. This mode is the default setting.

  • Electric: Operates like a standard water heater, only the heating elements warm the water. This is the least energy-efficient mode.

  • Vacation: Places the water heater in sleep mode, which reduces operating costs while you’re away for extended periods.

Big Benefits

As you’ve probably surmised by now, the main reason to consider a hybrid water heater is to reduce your energy usage, which is good for the planet and your pocketbook. A water heater’s energy efficiency is determined by its energy factor (EF), the higher the number the more energy efficient the heater.


Standard electric water heaters typically have an EF between .87 and .95. Most hybrid heat pump water heaters have an EF of 2.3 or higher. That means electric hybrid water heaters are more than twice as efficient, and the savings can be dramatic. On average, it costs about $540 annually to operate a standard electric water heater, as compared to just $226 for a hybrid heat pump water heater.


Now, you do have to pay a premium for such high efficiency. A hybrid water heater can easily cost twice as much as a standard water heater, but most households will recoup that added expense within three to four years through lower electric bills. And state and local energy rebates can reduce your recoup time even further.


Other features to look for include in a hybrid water heater:

  • Mobile updates, which send leak-detection alerts and other notifications to your smart phone

  • Durable stainless steel tank

  • An LED control panel that allows you to easily adjust the water heater’s mode of operation

  • Powered anode rod, a long-lasting non-sacrificial rod that deters rust from forming inside the tank

  • High-quality brass drain valve and fittings

  • Designated as an Energy-Star appliance

Final Word

To fully realize the energy-savings potential of a hybrid heat pump water heater, it must be properly installed and in precise accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations and all plumbing codes.


That’s why it’s critically important to hire a plumbing and heating contractor who’s experienced in installing the make and model of heater you’ve chosen. Most quality-built hybrid water heaters come with very good warranties, but these warranties will become void if the heater isn’t installed correctly. Also, be sure to schedule an annual inspection to keep the water heater operating at peak efficiency for many years to come.

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