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Lorin Thwaits A geek says what?

Over a million Japanese homes have a cutting-edge appliance that I'll bet you (along with 95% of America) have never even heard of.  No -- it's not a singing toilet seat with a remote control, butt warmer, and built-in bidet.  Why... here's one of those gleeking now:

So I bet that most of you have heard about -- and some out there even used -- that particular Japanese contraption.  Instead, the contraption I speak of is a heat pump that you add on to your water heater.  It saves about $350 a year on the electric bill!  The Japanese models are quite sleek, and resemble the condenser unit of a split air conditioner, as seen on the left in this picture:

That larger thing to the right is the hot water tank itself.  They make 'em rectangular over there, not cylindrical.

The Japanese models are fairly advanced, and the refrigerant of choice is actually not freon but instead CO2!  You know the slight cooling effect you feel when you first crack open a 2 liter and the "air" rushes out of it?  Well, that effect is put to work in a Japanese HPWH.  Here's a diagram:

They have a fun name for these CO2-based heat pump water heaters: "Eco Cute".  And you know the Japanese -- when they're excited about something they draw up cartoons with corny mascots -- in this case "Tankman" and "Pumpu"!

Even though there are more than a million of these installed in Japan, strangely here in the States these awesome CO2-based models are not available.  Instead over here there are only a handful of very small shops making heat pump water heaters (commonly abbreviated HPWH) using standard refrigerator compressors, so they use R-22 or R-134a.  Most of those shops seem to be struggling to make enough sales to keep afloat.  I think if only people knew more about the technology then the market would explode, since the payback happens in only about 3 years.  After that it's saving you money.  At any rate, being the environmental nut that I am I wanted in on this trend.

After Googling around awhile for HPWH I found a guy in Florida that was selling some American-made units for just $550 each, and sent him a fat cashier's check.  A couple weeks ago the thing arrived, and last weekend I got around to trying it out.  Here's a look under the hood:

Water gets pumped in from the tank with that brown pump on the right, circulates through the black oval-shaped heat exchanger in the middle, and goes back to the tank.  The heat exchanger is kept hot from the R-22 being pumped into it by the compressor.  Heat is dumped out through the curved evaporator with all its fins, seen in the bottom of this pic.

Most HPWH models are designed to be connected to an existing electric water heater, and this was no exception.  Here's the important electrical connections to deal with:

At first before connecting everything to the water heater I just wanted to turn it on and see it work.  So I put the unit in a bucket of cold water and connected just the 220V electrical connections.  Nothing happened.  I was pretty discouraged, and got out the multitester and schematic diagram.  Then I found out that in order to run this HPWH unit at all, it must, must, must be connected to a resistive load on the other side.  Turns out all I needed to do was just put the hot water heater in the circuit, which allows the 5-minute timer to get energized and actually do its thing.  5 minutes later a little relay tripped, which in turn juiced the coil for the main contactor, and everything jumped to life.  It was very welcome to feel tons of cold air pumping out the top of it.  Within a few minutes that bucket of water was pretty hot.

So now it's been installed for a week.  I need to make a better mount for it in my garage, and vent the cold outlet air to the outside for the winter months.  Seems to be doing the trick anyway.

Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2008 4:05 AM Gadgets , Efficiency | Back to top


Comments on this post: Want to cut your electric bill by $300 a year?

# re: Want to cut your electric bill by $300 a year?
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Fantastic post!

I've been wanting to do something like this ever since we moved into our new house about 8 months ago.

My frustration is the the hot pipe taking the freon out to be cooled by the compressor runs right past the water heater and I've wanted to redirect that into the water heater to do exactly what this unit does.

On top of that our garage gets fantastically hot in the summer and this heats the main bedroom above it and causes the a/c to have to work overtime to cool the house. This unit that you've just blogged about should keep the garage cooler and reduce the house's overall cooling bill as well as heating the water.

Very keen to hear how this works out for you. Please post again after it's been in use for a few months.

In the winter it's a problem because you have to vent the cold air, but in the summer can you use that cold air to cool the house or improve the efficiency of your a/c?
Left by Guy on Feb 29, 2008 8:03 AM

# re: Want to cut your electric bill by $300 a year?
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Hey, nice job. Never knew this existed, and I'm a professional building inspector!
FTR, "3-phase 220" is an oxymoron. Can't get 220 with 3-phases, only 208. And would need 3-wires for 3-phases. So...I think you mean plain old (single-phase) 220. Especially since residential buildings are not supplied with 3-phase power.
Thanks again,
gerard, toronto
Left by gerard on Mar 26, 2008 9:24 AM

# re: Want to cut your electric bill by $300 a year?
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I am fascinated by this system. Where would I get something like this here in AZ. How do you think it would do in our extreme heat.
Left by Jose Padilla on Jun 25, 2008 7:35 AM

# re: Want to cut your electric bill by $300 a year?
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Do they make things like this for gas-powered water heaters? Or are they precluded by the differences of the technology?
Left by Ted on Dec 09, 2008 10:24 AM

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i think it's right
Left by ed hardy shoes on Aug 12, 2009 8:57 AM

# re: Want to cut your electric bill by $300 a year?
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I Tried the toilet when i was in Japan, and it's great, really enjoyed using it, hop It will be in the US stores soon.
Left by resveratrol supplements on Aug 24, 2009 3:45 AM

# re: Want to cut your electric bill by $300 a year?
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If you're into environmentalism, look at the info at http://practicalaction.org/home. Look up the construction instructions for their "zeer pot fridge" and "fireless cooker". These are ultra low-tech stuff originally designed for the poor people in Africa, but if you're not afraid to get your hands dirty you can make them yourself. They've got other interesting stuff on their website, too.

"Practical Action" also have a donation program.
Left by Oil Rig Jobs on Oct 24, 2009 4:54 PM

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It's good to know how to save the energy because i will save the environment and budget as well.
Left by Toiletry Bag on Nov 18, 2009 9:14 PM

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really enjoyed using it, hop It will be in the US stores soon. watch a single man online | watch did you hear about the morgans online
Left by watch avatar online on Dec 23, 2009 8:17 AM

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Another great little invention from the Japanese and there model looks rather smart, although I am sure it will not come cheap. Great coverage as usual from yourselves, with the addition of all those great pics.:D
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Left by Kettles and Toasters on Dec 29, 2009 7:50 PM

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Interesting gadgets! I sure am interested in such technology to save some bucks! In the futue energy will cost a lot more and we will all have to use such money saving products.
Left by Cartobias on Jan 11, 2010 6:51 AM

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Conservation of electricity benefits you personally as you will pay lower bills. Consider:

1. Doing an energy audit. This will tell you how and when you use energy and where the wastage lies. You will be able to make an "energy savings plan" by pinpointing exactly how you can cut back on energy consumption. Some ideas may be as simple as don't leave the coffee machine on at all times.

2. Think about resetting the thermostat ten degrees lower during the night. If you can do this for say approximately eight hours a day you will save 10% on electricity without sacrificing comfort. Insulate the home in winter by drawing shut the drapes.
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220V electrical connections is what the Chinese people use.
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Left by jack on Jul 29, 2010 2:54 AM

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Left by auto ecologice on Aug 07, 2010 6:50 AM

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lol, my mom has one of those toilets.
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