by Nick Gromicko, CMI® and Kenton Shepard
A hot water recirculation system is a plumbing system that moves hot water to fixtures quickly without waiting for the water to get hot. Rather than relying on low water pressure, common in most water lines, recirculating systems rapidly move water from a water heater to the fixtures.
This helps extend the lifespan of the pump. If the home is not occupied, this pump will be probably be unplugged because the seller doesn’t want to pay for its operation in an empty house.
Hot water recirculation systems are most commonly activated by either a thermostat or a timer. Systems that use a thermostat or timer automatically turn the pump on whenever the water temperature drops below a set point, or when the timer reaches a certain setting. These systems ensure that hot water is always available at the faucet.
Do they really save energy and water?
Regardless of whether they are controlled manually or automatically, recirculation systems reduce the amount of water that goes down the drain while the homeowner waits for the desired temperature. This fact allows for the following three advantages over conventional water distribution systems:
If recirculation systems pump continuously, however, they have the potential to use significantly more energy. For a modest-sized pump, this might be 400 to 800 KWH a year if the pump runs all the time. Also, heat loss from the pipes can be significant if the hot water pipes are poorly insulated. This will result in the hot water heater running more. This added heat may be a benefit in the winter, but heat loss may add heat to the house in the summer and may result in higher bills for use of air conditioning.
Some jurisdictions, particularly in areas where water is scarce, offer rebates on the purchase and installation of hot water recirculation systems. The cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, for instance, offer a $100 rebate for homeowners who purchase a hot water recirculation system. The city of Scottsdale, Arizona, offers up to $200 for residential property owners who install theses systems, although they must comply with UL-product and installation standards. Some systems may not comply with efficiency standards set by these municipalities.
Availability and Cost
Hot water recirculation systems are available nationwide from manufacturers, distributors, plumbing wholesale supply warehouses, and at selected retail home stores. The initial cost of dedicated systems may prevent some homeowners from installing these systems, as they require the purchase and installation of a pump and a large amount of piping. Integrated systems, by contrast, require only a pump and fittings. Energy savings will vary, depending on the design of the plumbing system, method of control and operation, and homeowner use. The system is easily installed and costs less than $400.
These systems all require an in-line air valve and shut-off valve. Other requirements will vary with the installation’s configuration, but may include a check valve and an additional shut-off valve. The pump may be connected to a sensor with high and low temperature limits so that the pump circulates water through the loop only when the sensor calls for it.
Inspections should be limited to the system’s proper operation.
In summary, hot water redistribution systems are innovative plumbing systems that can save water and energy in certain circumstances. Note: The terms “dedicated” and “integrated” are descriptive terms invented for the purposes of this article. No universal, suitable terms were found to describe these system types during research.