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Engineering’s Role in Water Efficiency, Health, and Safety

Sri's Blog

Anytime you transform energy, it has an impact on the environment. And yet, in general, the building construction industry lags far behind many other industries when it comes to emissions—even though buildings are the largest consumer of energy in the world, accounting for a third of global energy consumption and a quarter of CO2 emissions.¹  

The automotive industry, and just about every other industry apart from the building trades, have found ways to build things better, more efficiently, and cheaper. And while there is much discussion in the auto industry about moving toward lower or zero emissions, that conversation was almost entirely absent from the water heating industry. 

When we founded Intellihot, I knew overall home energy efficiency was a high priority for me. When we built our first devices, we were very attuned to making sure we put the least amount of NOx into the air possible. In order to truly have no emissions, our devices would need to be entirely electric. But over ten years ago, when I first looked at powering devices with electricity, I quickly came to the conclusion that to do large scale commercial water heating, we could not power them solely with electricity. Since we couldn’t make all-electric units at that time, we had to use either natural gas or propane—but we designed them to be so efficient they actually cut emissions 40 to 70 percent compared to contemporary devices.

This is in line with our ethos at Intellihot: introducing devices that are not just slightly better, but completely redefine what the device is. We are not just going to introduce a better water heater; we will introduce something that stores energy, heats water, heats and cools space, and provides electrical power all at the same time. We do this because we believe there is a nexus where energy, health and safety all come together, and we believe that engineering is at the heart of that nexus. 

Over the years we have also experimented with creating thermal batteries, and have introduced a thermal battery within our heat pump water heater, called Electron. A thermal battery is exactly like an electrical battery, except it stores heat instead of electricity. We can charge the thermal battery using electricity from the grid, but we can also charge the thermal battery using solar power via a solar panel on top of the unit. This unit will have zero emissions, except for whatever emissions are produced by the grid. If the grid is powered by natural gas, there will be emissions associated with that electricity; if the grid is powered by solar or hydro, there will be zero emissions even when the unit is using electricity from the grid.

Today, with readily available solar technology, the time finally seems right to start moving toward the all-electric units we dreamt of building back when we started the company. But going all-electric doesn’t solve all the issues. Electricity still has to come from somewhere—and we can’t just keep building larger and larger power plants. We have to have some kind of distributed production of energy supported by localized storage and virtual power plants. Restructuring power generation and distribution is going to become critical in the coming years. 

Air, water, energy, machine intelligence, efficiency, health, safety and wellbeing—all of these can come together through strategic engineering.

References:

¹  González-Torres, M., L. Pérez-Lombard, Juan F. Coronel, Ismael R. Maestre, and Da Yan. “A Review on Buildings Energy Information: Trends, End-Uses, Fuels and Drivers.” Energy Reports 8 (November 1, 2022): 626–37.

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