The cost of electricity, stability of the national grid and the awareness to sustainable living have forced many consumers to turn to renewable energy technology for heating water. The national building regulations also require that at least 50% of water heating be done with something other than an electrical element. As with many products on the market, one can find a considerable number of contradicting claims with regards to the different technologies. Many of these claims are nothing more than marketing jabber and opinions and have no facts behind them. At ITS we have therefore decided to try and shed some light on the main water heating technologies and the saving that can be achieved.

A Background to the Technologies

Instantaneous gas water heaters use LP Gas to heat water instantaneously and therefore no geyser (hot water storage tank) is needed. 1kg of LPG “contains” about 13.6kWh of energy and therefore can produce 11.5kWh of thermal energy if the gas heater has an average efficiency of 85%.

Solar PV water heating element uses solar electric panels (PV panels) to power an electrical heating element. An electrical element is close to 100% efficient. In other words, if it is a 1kW element it will consume 1kW of electricity to produce 1kW of thermal output. This power now comes from a PV panel. PV panels must be installed facing North and at a horizontal angle equal to the Latitude of the location and it is critical that there is no shading on the panel. Shading as little as 5% of the panel surface can result in more than 50% panel output reduction.

The efficiency of the PV panels is around 18% (under lab conditions with the cell at 25°C). In real life with the sun shining on the cell, it will heat up and cause a decrease in output power of about 8% (0.4%/°C with 20°C NOCT). Panel ageing will typically result in a maximum degradation of 2.5% in the first year and up to 10% in 10 years. Next you need a MPPT to ensure optimal power transfer from the panels to the element. A very good MPPT is typically be around 95% efficient and therefore you lose another 5% of the available power.

Solar thermal water heaters use the radiation from the sun to generate heat. The size of the solar panel will determine how much energy can be collected from the sun. If we, for example have a 2.5m2 solar panel connected to a geyser, this might give us 60°C water at the end of a warm sunny day, but during cooler days with less sunshine, it might only be able to heat the water to 35°C. The solar controller will then use Eskom to heat the water to 60°C. If we have a solar panel that is only half the size (1.25m2) we would only get out half the energy and an electrical element will need to do the rest.

A good quality flat plate solar thermal collector has an efficiency of around 73%. The output of a solar thermal collector de-rate based on the temperature difference between the water in the collector and the ambient temperature. Working on an average temperature delta of 17.5°C (heating water from 15°C to 60°C @20°C ambient) will give about a 10% reduction in output. Piping thermal losses on the insulated pipes connecting the solar panel to the geyser is about 10W/m.

Domestic hot water heat pumps use a small amount of electricity to extract a lot of energy from the surrounding air. A heat pump also uses the energy from the sun, although only indirectly, allowing the unit to work day and night, winter and summer. The efficiency of a heat pump is called COP (coefficient of performance). A COP value of 4 means that the heat pump produces four times the amount of thermal energy as it uses electrically – in other words a 75% saving on the water heating bill.

The COP of a heat pump is dependent on the ambient temperature and the water temperature and so, in real life, a realistic annual average COP value is 3 – in other words a 66% saving on the water heating bill.

A Practical Example

A family of 4 that use water moderately uses about 200L of hot water per day. To heat 200L of water from 15°C to 60°C requires 10.4kWh. The standing loss of a B-rated 200L tank is 1.6kWh/day in the lab but with installation piping included it is typically around 3.6kWh/day. Therefor the total energy requirement for this family’s hot water is 14kWh/day. If they are paying R3/kWh for electricity their water heating is costing them R1260/month. Assuming that water heating typically makes up 50% of the total electrical bill we are looking here at a family that spends about R2520 per month on electricity. Let’s now look at what the different water heating technologies can do for them.

An instantaneous gas water heater would save them the standing losses on the geyser but the cost/kWh is actually higher than electricity. They will therefore only need 10.4kWh of thermal energy per day. With an 85% average efficiency unit they will burn 0.9kg of gas per day. At R38/kg the monthly cost will be R1026. Assuming a 10% annual electrical tariff increase as well as a 10% annual LPG price increase, they will save R17025 over the next 5 years on their water heating bill.

A solar PV water heating element system typically installed on a 200L geyser consist of 3 x 330W or 4 x 330W PV panels. If they are perfectly facing we should in theory be able to get a maximum of about 5 hours of 990W out of the 3 x 330W panels (annual average -in winter you will have less because the sunlight hours are fewer and in summer you will have more which is unfortunately mismatched for when people use the most hot water). We therefore have a theoretical maximum of 4.95kWh but with panel temperature de-rating, 1st year ageing and MPPT losses the power available to the element will be around 4.2kWh/day. The element controller will use Eskom to do the rest of the work and get the tank to 60°C (SANS 151 requires water to be stored at 60°C for Legionella disease prevention). The monthly Eskom bill for getting this system to 60°C will be R882. Assuming a 10% annual electrical tariff increase they will save R28096 over the next 5 years on their water heating bill.

For the 4 x 330W panel system the power available to the element will be around 5.6kWh/day. The monthly Eskom bill for getting this system to 60°C will be R756. Assuming a 10% annual electrical tariff increase they will save R37462 over the next 5 years on their water heating bill. The 3 x 330W panel system requires a North facing unshaded roof space of 6m2 and the 4 x 330W panel system 8m2.

A solar thermal water heater system typically installed on a 200L geyser consist of a 2.5m2 solar panel (flat plate or equivalent evacuated tube). From the TUV Rheinland test reports of the ITS 2.5m2 flat plate solar collector it can be seen that it will give a thermal output of around 9kWh for the same 5 hours of annual average usable sunlight per day as used with the PV example above. De-rating this for differential temperature losses and 10m of installation piping we are left with 7.6kWh/day. The monthly Eskom bill for getting this system to 60°C will therefore be R576. Assuming a 10% annual electrical tariff increase they will save R50841 over the next 5 years on their water heating bill.

A domestic hot water heat pump working at average South-African ambient temperatures will conservatively provide an annual average saving of 66% on whatever system it is connected to. The monthly Eskom bill for keeping this system at 60°C will therefore be R420. Assuming a 10% annual electrical tariff increase they will save R62415 over the next 5 years on their water heating bill.

Life Expectancy and Maintenance

All of the evaluated technologies need to be serviced annually to ensure optimal performance and lifespan. Servicing is basically just cleaning the system and making sure everything is working correctly.

The life expectancy of a heat pump and instant gas water heater is estimated at 10 years but we know of systems that are running for more than 20 years and still going strong. Solar thermal and solar PV heating systems are often stated to have a life expectancy of 20 years, keeping in mind that it really is only the panels that is expected to last that long. All PV heating systems and some solar water heating system use electronics, and these will reduce the system life expectancy to around 10 years. Thermosiphon solar heating systems (no circulation pump and differential temperature pump controller) should be life expectancy “winner” if one of course ignores the hot water storage tank needed for all except the instant gas heating system.


The graphs below show the saving the different systems can provide for 150L, 200L and 300L hot water usage per day:

An instantaneous gas water heater in our view makes sense in places where there is no electricity available. Gas heating at current pricing is more expensive than electrical heating but you save a few kWh in standing loss per day since there is no storage of hot water involved. The completed installed cost of a proper unit is only a few thousand less than a flat plate with geyser and the saving from the solar system is almost double for 200L hot water usage. Gas water heating is not influenced by Eskom load-shedding, but keep in mind that we have had gas supply shortages and that will leave you with cold water.

With storage water heaters load-shedding is normally not a problem unless the outage last for more than a day, since the water can stay warm in the tank for long periods, and re-heating using an electrical element or heat pump takes only a few hours. If you use 200L of 60°C water per day, 9kg of LPG will last you only 10 days and so you will have to think about the gas supply and logistics. Instantaneous gas water heaters are also great backup options for solar water heaters installed in locations with no electrical grid connection. The gas heater in such an installation will only cover the shortfall of the solar water heating system.

A solar PV water heating element in our view makes sense only when the geyser is situated far from the solar panels, like in a multi-story building. The thermal losses in the piping of the normal solar thermal system in such an installation will reduce the output to such a level that the PV heating could be more cost effective. For standard installations where the geyser is within 10m or so from the solar panel, the flat plate system will provide a much better return on investment.

A 3 x 330W installation is slightly more expensive than a 2.5m2 flat plate installation, but the flat plate will save R23k more over 5 years, in our example. Most solar PV element systems we see installed are completely undersized and is done by people that are simply trying to get away with the cheapest possible option. A PV thermal system that will give you almost the same output power as a 2.5m2 flat plate will need 5 x 330W PV panels, resulting in an expensive system that requires 10m2 of north facing, non-shaded roof space. Should the client at some stage want to install a PV electrical system to become more independent from Eskom, he might not have enough roof space left. Another great concern with PV element systems is the current lack of regulation of the installations and equipment. PV element systems operate at lethal DC voltages, and installing it cheap and nasty could potentially be deadly.

A solar thermal water heater system will provide a great return on investment but it is important that it is installed correctly. Unfortunately, we are also seeing installers that are pushed for price going for undersized systems. If we for example look at the 200L system, using an ITS 2m2 flat plate collector, your saving will be R40137 over 5 years. By going for the slightly bigger 2.5m2 flat plate, your installation cost will increase by about R400, but your saving over 5 years will increase by R10703 to R50841. A 2.5m2 flat plate is also by no means too big for a 150L system and so a 2m2 flat plate is only really making sense for bigger systems where you require multiple panels.

A domestic hot water heat pump will provide the best saving in this example. An ITS 3.6HD heat pump installation will cost you about R6k more than a 2.5m2 flat plate installation, but will result in an R11.6k better saving after 5 years.

A solar system can provide a bigger saving than a heat pump, but for that the solar system needs to be oversized and water usage patterns needs to be adjusted. Typically, you need double the volume of hot water that what you would need for a normal electrical geyser or a heat pump system. In coastal areas like Cape Town however the winter irradiation is much lower than summer irradiation. This means that even if your solar system was sized for 100% of your solar usage in summer you will have only about half the thermal output you need in the winter, and the electrical element would need to do the rest. Winter is also when people use the most hot water, so a heat pump would almost always be a better solution in areas like Cape Town.

Solar PV and Thermal systems can only “harvest” energy while the sun is shining. The system sizing is done to give you a certain percentage of your energy requirement per day, which is based on how many liters of hot water you use per day. If some friends visit and stay over the extra hot water required will need to be heated using Eskom. With a heat pump system, the heat pump will simply continue heating as you use more, while providing around 66% saving on whatever you use. The same ITS-3.6HD heat pump used in the 200L example can easily heat 300L per day. At 300L usage per day the heat pump saving over 5 years become more than R85k!

To get the most out of solar PV and solar thermal heating systems, it needs to be used correctly. If you use most of the hot water in the evening, you will need Eskom to have hot water in the morning. If you are not using a lot of water in the morning, the solar system is heating a tank that is already almost on temperature and so you will not use all the energy available from your solar system during the day. With a heat pump it makes no real difference when and how you use the water.

A heat pump is also the best option for clients wanting to go off-grid. Off-grid PV systems will require a lot of roof space and a backup generator and since a heat pump like the ITS-3.6HD draws only about 1kW it can easily be powered by something like a 5kW inverter or generator.