Why are hot water heat pumps controversial?

Hot water heat pumps should have an amazing reputation in Australia, but sometimes you hear scary things. 

Opinions can range from “hot water heat pumps will save the world” to “As a plumber, I love hot water heat pumps because I get so much work from replacing them”.

Ordinary households hear these conflicting messages, feel uncertain, and write off hot water heat pumps as an option.

This is a shame, so we want to explain what’s going on. If you’re going to be wary, you should at least be wary of the right things. 

This article is part of our series on hot water heat pumps. See all the other articles here.

Why do we hear good things about hot water heat pumps?

Hot water heat pumps are far more energy efficient than any other water heating system. 

Why should we care? For the average Australian household, 24% of their energy usage within the home comes from water heating. This makes water heating a significant contributor to both energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions and makes hot water heat pumps a key technology that benefits both households and the environment at the same time.

Chart showing appliance energy usage in the home.

Source: Rewiring Australia, Castles and Cars discussion paper

As an example, a 4-person household switching from a traditional electric water heater would save $685 in electricity bills every year.

Unlike solar and EVs where it’s now cool and fashionable to get one, most people haven’t even heard of hot water heat pumps. The concept can feel new and unproven, even though hot water heat pumps have been fairly common in Australia for a few decades already. Australian think tank Beyond Zero Emissions, in their Five-Year Deploy Plan for clean technologies, recommended that we increase the rate of rollout of hot water heat pumps by 37x as it would have a big impact on our national emissions. 

So with big benefits on one hand and low awareness on the other, State and Federal governments have been promoting hot water heat pumps and offering significant rebates for households.

To find out more about rebates read our full article, or get an instant rebates estimate for your household below:

Households are listening

According to the Clean Energy Regulator, about 135,000 hot water heat pump systems were installed in 2023. This was double the amount installed in the previous year. 

People have been drawn in for a bunch of reasons

  • Rebates and the support from state and federal governments. 
  • Greater awareness of climate change
  • New products available on the market
  • The banning of new gas connections in Victoria and the ACT

Many people are evaluating alternative options for the first time. And for the most part, the experience has been positive for households as they experience the savings in their energy bills first-hand.

However, it’s not all sunshine and roses.

Rebate chasing behaviour

Have you come across the promise of a $33 hot water heat pump installation? 

Here’s how they came about. 

  1. Manufacturers saw that government rebates were on offer. 
  2. Some of them set out to make heat pumps as cheaply as possible 
  3. Some of these products were probably..a bit too cheap and came at the expense of quality. 
  4. Some installers realised that if the product was cheap enough, and if they installed things cheaply enough, they could practically offer heat pumps for free
  5. Why $33? Because $33 used to be the minimum co-payment required by households.
Meme: I smell easy money.

Aren’t incentives a good thing?

Government incentives are a great thing and absolutely should drive behaviour in the private sector. 

The problem is when these behaviours result in outcomes that go against the intention of the incentives. 

What’s the problem?

Super cheap installations are only possible if you cut corners.

These installers are incentivised to get as many installations as possible, as quickly as possible. Many of them have no intention of taking responsibility for the installation quality or providing support after the installation. And many actually have no idea how to install a heat pump properly. 

Unsurprisingly, this led to…

Crappy installations

Poor installations aren’t just ugly, they can cause a serious financial hit. 

Your unit might stop working after a few months, and the manufacturer might refuse to honour the warranty. 

Your installer might refuse to pick up your calls and disappear off the face of the earth.

Even if the unit is installed correctly, your installer might have installed a product that’s not suitable for your home, your climate, or your household. 

You might not get any of the benefits that you should get with a hot water heat pump, and get a headache instead.

Worst case scenario – you have to replace the unit with a new one, and you’re not eligible for government rebates anymore. 

Cheap products and crappy installations undermine all the financial and environmental benefits that good-quality units and installations can bring.  

Many plumbers aren’t familiar with hot water heat pumps

Most plumbers have worked with gas & traditional electric hot water systems their entire careers. 

Additionally, with the push away from gas, many plumbers also see it as threatening their livelihoods. 

So imagine that you’re one of these plumbers. Imagine that you keep getting call-outs for problematic hot water heat pumps. It’s not surprising that you start to think they’re a bit of a scam. 

We’ve heard lots of anecdotes from households who have been provided factually incorrect information by plumbers, and have been strongly advised not to get a hot water heat pump. 

This is a shame. Just because a particular product or installation was bad, it doesn’t make all hot water heat pumps bad. 

We salute all the good plumbers out there

There are lots of knowledgeable plumbers who understand the benefits of hot water heat pumps, who understand them, and take pride in installing them properly.

We’re just pointing out that the mixed messaging puts off many households from making a well-informed decision, despite all the benefits. 

A missed opportunity

At the end of the day, it takes a lot of time to learn about hot water heat pumps and feel confident about making the right decision. 

Most households just find it easier to do nothing, or if their existing hot water system breaks, they just choose to replace it with something similar, something “like-for-like”. 

As a result, they miss out on hundreds of dollars a year of energy bill savings and miss out on one of the easiest ways to cut down their greenhouse gas emissions and electrify everything

Meme: When you're waiting for everyone to realise that HWHPS are actually cool.

Next steps

Want to learn more about whether a hot water heat pump is right for your situation? Read on.

Or if you want to know whether a hot water heat pump is worth it for your house, get an instant cost, savings and rebates estimate.