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The Path of Least Resistance

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Anne Dougherty's picture
Co-Founder/Owner ILLUME Advising ILLUME Advising LLC

Anne is a Founding Advisor of ILLUME Advising, LLC. She is a skilled researcher and customer experience design consultant who specializes in the human dimensions of energy technologies and...

  • Member since 2019
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  • Oct 30, 2019

This item is part of the Special Issue - 2019-10 - Energy Efficiency, click here for more

As the founder and co-owner of an energy consultancy that supports the utility industry, I get to interact with industry research through the vantage point of both utilities and their customers. Whether it’s evaluating pilots, deploying surveys, or designing customer journey maps, I feel like I always have the best seat in the house when it comes to seeing the customer experience in real time. But every so often, I get to experience our industry through the most grounding perspective of all…my own. 

A few years back I was faced with the task of installing a new water heater. It seemed like a simple purchase, no? A boring purchase, even. Who knew so much drama could surround such a benign item?

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I love my home. It was built in ’52 by a physician who relocated to, what was then, the small town of Tucson. One of the best parts of the care that went in to building our home is the fully reinforced brick. Incredibly energy-efficient and an awesome feature when compared to new homes built with cheap framing and sheetrock.

Awesome, that is, until we learned that we needed to re-plumb our entire home. To do that, we would have had to run our plumbing along the exterior of the home (catch your breath northerners, it’s Arizona – no risk of pipes bursting). Because our water heater was on one side of the house, it required running pipe along the entire exterior of the patio and tearing up all of the hard-scaping. Or, we could have chosen to buy a second water heater to service that side of the house. See my wonky diagram below:

Finding the path of least destruction.

Our contracted plumber recommended a standard efficiency hot water heater to my husband, Eric. Eric, amazing as he is, knew what I would say to that and asked about an energy efficient model. The efficient, German-engineered electric tankless model, he said, was going to cost us over $2,500!

Since I was traveling while all of this was going down, and dealing with the plumbing was step one on a critical path to a timely remodel, Eric panicked at the cost of the energy efficient model and ordered the standard efficiency model. And he scratched that off the list.

Option 1: Fancy German Model that I didn’t bother to research. - NO

Then we talked.

Hold the phone!!! I said. There’s NO WAY a water heater should cost us $2,500 to heat just two bathrooms!

So, in my stubborn and somewhat controlling way, I set about finding a tankless or efficient hot water heater. I planned to purchase it myself and hand it to the plumber to install.

Easy-peasy, right? Wrong.

First, I searched online. Navigating the ENERGY STAR® website was painful, onerous, time-consuming—I have aftercare enrollment forms to fill out for my kid's school! Not to mention, I could not find any qualifying models that I could buy off the shelf at the local Home Depot or Lowe’s while I was painstakingly cross-referencing ENERGY STAR against local websites. Then, I realized ENERGY STAR only certifies electric heat pump hot water heaters (as far as I could tell).

So, I searched for heat pump water heaters. Our client was sponsoring them in the Northwest and I thought I should give it a go. Why not support their efforts to transform the market down here in the Southwest? Then I saw the price. Out of the box and without a rebate, I was looking at a cash outlay of $1,500 – 2,000. For an unanticipated hot water heater purchase as the first cost in a large remodel, this was far outside of the budget and scary to take on. For that price, I could have redone the entire patio…

Option 2. Heat Pump Water Heater - NOPE

As the clocked ticked, I considered purchasing a solar hot water heater. But to receive a rebate for that, I would have needed a gas hook-up to qualify. How much would it cost me to route a gas line? Just an additional $500… I seriously considered it. But then I thought, if I am considering using solar for the whole home at some point, I would need to retain the electric hook-ups.

Option 3. Solar Hot Water Heater - NOT GOING TO HAPPEN

At this point I was tired, irritated, and needed an easy fix. I went to Home Depot and they had a single tankless electric hot water heater. It was not ENERGY STAR qualified. But I could not wait any longer. So, I reluctantly crossed this option off my list, and purchased it.

Did I make the right decision?


I was just hoping the single tankless option could deliver on its promises. It made me very nervous, but I could not trade-off delays in our remodel (i.e., keeping my family in our tiny rental home longer) to seek out the perfect hot water heater.

I know my story is certainly not unique, but I do think it lends perspective for utility professionals working and designing energy efficiency programs. Despite having a wealth of knowledge about our industry and knowing virtually every customer pain point, my journey shows that even the most benign experience (let’s get a new water heater!) can still be onerous and overwhelming.

So how did Option 4 turn out?

Let me tell you…it didn’t end well. For starters, the energy savings were imperceptible. Which I can live with – I am invested in doing the right thing. But living with this water heater has been a disaster.

First, the water heater is very sensitive to ambient temperature. We are adjusting it every time the weather shifts ever so slightly.

Second, my husband Eric and I have very different preferences when it comes to shower temperature. And this device, it seems, cannot provide a smooth transition between temperatures. So our hot water is either fully on or it’s off. As a result, we each need to adjust the temperature settings before we shower. A massive annoyance.

Third, I’ve lost all credibility when it comes to efficiency.

Is there an upside? Well, I know my husband is feeling particularly loving when he adjusts the temperature for me in the mornings before I shower.

Oh well.


Anne Dougherty's picture
Thank Anne for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 31, 2019

But every so often, I get to experience our industry through the most grounding perspective of all…my own. 

Such an important point-- putting on the hat of the customer can sometimes illustrate aspects of various energy/utility programs that are missed when being designed by the professionals. And if the customers don't like it, the program won't work.

Thanks for sharing your experience!

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