For those who use oil heat and in other situations where gas is not practical, the most popular option is to use an electric water heater. While standard storage tank electric water heaters are cheaper up front than gas water heaters, their energy consumption is much higher. These types of electric water heaters use an age-old technology: They pass electricity through heating elements that in turn heat the water.
Modern technology offers a better way. Hybrid electric water heaters still use electricity as their power source, while integrating heat pump technology to greatly improve efficiency. The staff at the Energy Star website explain the concept as the reverse of how a refrigerator or air conditioner works.
"While a refrigerator removes heat from an enclosed box and expels that heat to the surrounding air, a [heat pump water heater] takes the heat from surrounding air and transfers it to water in an enclosed tank." This lowers the electric draw during times when demand is low. When demand goes up, standard electrical heating elements are activated to meet that increased demand. Hence, the term hybrid, because two different electric technologies are in play. These types of electric heaters are also commonly called heat pump water heaters.
Heat pump water heaters cost more initially than standard electric water heaters, but that cost will be recouped over time by their energy savings -- up to 50 percent or more compared to standard models. Also, while hybrid electric water heaters are an option for any capacity, the 2015 NACEA regulations make them a requirement for heaters larger than 55 gallons as other types of storage tank electric heaters simply can't meet that efficiency standard.
Among hybrid electric hot water heaters, we see strong feedback for the GE GeoSpring GEH50DFEJSR (Est. $1,000) 50 gallon hybrid water heater. It has a high 2.9 Energy Factor, and is rated to be 67 percent more efficient than a standard electric heater. The GE water heater is also Energy Star Qualified, and according to the Energy Star web site, can save a family of four up to $330 per year in electricity costs -- paying back its initial cost premium in under two and a half years.
The GeoSpring GEH50DFEJSR gives owners a choice of four operating modes plus a vacation setting, which turns the water temperature low to conserve energy while you're away for a few days -- no need to heat water you won't be using. It works in the hybrid mode by default, but you can also set it to heat water via the heat pump only, to rely more heavily on the standard heating elements for times when demand is expected to be high, or to use the heating elements only -- though at the expense of any energy savings. Note that when it is either very cold (35 degrees or less) or hot (120 degrees or more), the water heater will work only using its standard elements. The GE GeoSpring has digital controls, so it's easy to view and change settings when needed.
This hybrid water heater is also Wi-Fi connectable, though an optional GE PBX10W00Y0 Connect Plus (Est. $65) is required for that. When so equipped, you can control the modes and settings of the water heater remotely, and receive alerts and notices, via a GE or Wink smartphone app.
The GEH50DFEJSR is a new model, available only since the start of 2015, yet it has a fairly good track record based on enough reviews to be meaningful. We spotted over 80 reviews at Lowes.com, where it gets a 4.3-star rating. Many of these reviews can also be seen at the GE web site, while others clearly refer to experiences with older models. The GeoSpring GEH50DFEJSR is backed by a warranty that covers parts for 10 years, and labor for one.
If you need a large capacity electric hot water heater, The GE GeoSpring GEH80DFEJSR (Est. $1,700) is similar to the GEH50DFEJSR, but with an 80 gallon capacity. It's attracted only a handful of reviews, but all are extremely positive thus far.
Another good choice with a larger capacity is the 80-gallon Stiebel Eltron Accelera 300 (Est. $2,400). This is another Energy Star Qualified model, with a 2.73 Energy Factor. While most heat-pump water heaters bill themselves as hybrids, Stiebel goes out of its way to label the Accelera 300 as a heat pump. While a conventional heating element is incorporated, it's only used as a "booster" during periods of high demand. That means that there's no user intervention available to set different modes, as is the case with the GE, but it also means that energy savings are maximized. User feedback is limited, as is the case with most high-capacity hybrid heaters, but we spotted more than a dozen at HomeDepot.com, where it earns a 4.7-star rating.
While the energy savings that hybrid/heat-pump electric water heaters offer make them a better buy in the long run, their high initial cost can be a barrier for many. If that's your situation, it's tough to find a better performer, and better value, than the Whirlpool E40R6-45 (Est. $330). This 40-gallon electric water heater is primarily sold at Lowes.com, where it attracts nearly 1,200 reviews (including those originally posted at Whirlpool's site) and stellar feedback -- 4.5 stars, with 97 percent giving it their recommendation. The warranty is not long at 6 years parts, 1 year labor, but this model has been around for several years now, so the abundant and positive user feedback is especially meaningful.
Efficiency is, of course, the big issue with conventional storage tank electric water heaters, but the Whirlpool E40R6-45's ER of .95 means that it complies with the latest NACEA efficiency standards. Up front cost is this electric water heater's biggest virtue as it's otherwise devoid of bells and whistles.
Elsewhere in this report: