Water Heater Automation: Ready for Smarter Water?

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Smart Water Heater Automation

Water heaters are strange beasts in the world of home automation: They tend to rely on older sensors and plumbing to work, making it difficult to give them smart features. But the market is starting to change that with water heater automation products that finally bring smart features to this overlooked segment of the home.

The push toward smart water heaters is understandable. According to Energy.gov, water heater activity alone accounts for about 18 percent of the average utility bill after heating and cooling. Automation features targeting that chunk of change can lead to significant savings. Let’s take a look at two of the smart water heater products already out the gate, Rheem’s EcoNet and the Heatworks’ Model 1.

Smart Water Heater Basics

There are two basic types of water heater automation on the market: Separate modules and full models.

Separate modules are designed to work with water heaters that you already have, so you do not have to buy an extra-expensive new heater to replace your current model – just an extra device or app. A great example of this sort of add-on is Rheem’s EcoNet Home Comfort system, which offers wireless connection and control through a hub to a variety of devices, including Rheem water heaters and heat pumps.

Using this separate hub system and its compatible devices, you can take a look at how much water you are using, when you are using it, and where you can save on water heating costs. Specifically, these apps let you schedule heating times wirelessly to coincide with when you wake up, when you get home, and so on. Instead of heating water constantly throughout the day, your water heater will only heat it when you use it – and you save a lot of money in the process. The EcoNet app will also tell you if anything serious seems to be wrong, like leaks or other problems that require immediate action.

The Rheem app also pinpoints a problem with this type of add-on solution: Compatibility may be limited. At the moment, the water heater automation only works with Rheem’s Prestige Hybrid model, and while Rheem intends to add more of its water heaters in the future, the constraints may still be annoying if you are searching for a solution for an older system. It’s just more likely that these water heater-compatible hubs will only work with newer heaters and may be brand-locked as well.

The second option is a completely new water heater model that includes smart features: These tend to be smaller or “tankless” water heaters that are naturally designed to save you money, but add smart technology for remote control and programming. Take a look at the recent (and successful) Kickstarter project for Heatworks Model 1 for a great example of these heaters. You have to replace your current appliance, but once it is in you can control how much energy and water you use throughout the use.

The Model 1 in particular is unique because of its versatile connection with your plumbing. You can use one device for an apartment or small house, or several of the mini water heaters for a large house, potentially with multiple programs ready to go. For a more classic example of this same idea, consider the Energy Smart electric water heater by Whirlpool, which offers similar features (sans wireless, unfortunately) on a full tank.

Water Heater Automation: Pricing and Affordability

Talk about a price gap – there’s a huge difference between the costs for a smart module and a whole new water heater. If you’ve got a compatible model, the Rheem EcoNet hub will only cost you about $99. A single Model 1, on the other hand, will set you back $395 for a single unit – and you may need more than one.

These prices are a far cry from the thousands of dollars a new water heater would cost, but they do pinpoint the extremes of the market at this point. If you have recently bought a new water heater, keep an eye out for automation products designed for it. If you need to upgrade your old model, consider diving into the digital water heater world to start saving extra money in your home.

Photo Credit: JasonWoodhead23

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