Thirty Years of Waterbeds and Home Energy Magazine

The January/February 2014 issue of Home Energy magazine officially kicks off our 30th year in print. In commemoration of our 30 years we will be reprinting some of our earliest articles. We hope that these articles are both entertaining and informative.

This first “Retro” article is about the energy use of waterbeds. Let me tell you what I like about this article. It targets the energy auditor—another nearly extinct species—and provides clear information about an energy-using product based on actual measurements. Then it describes possible conservation measures, along with actual measurements of savings. All this, along with a bit of humor—courtesy of quirky cartoons—probably created a lasting impression on the reader. Those qualities of a memorable article have not changed, even though we now have the Internet, videos, and color to assist us.

These days, who knows what a waterbed is? Yet only 30 years ago waterbeds were popular pieces of furniture. When Home Energy (then called Energy Auditor & Retrofitter) wrote this article, about 15% of American homes had a waterbed. These beds were new and “cool”. Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, installed a huge, fur-covered waterbed in his luxury mansion. But simpler waterbeds were also one of the cheapest and most portable types of bed available, so poor people bought them too. And you could stay cozy through a chilly winter night while dialing down the furnace’s thermostat. As a result, waterbeds were especially popular in rural Maine and other cold locations.

But the heaters under those beds loved electricity! A queen-size waterbed could easily use 1,500 kWh/year, often making it the largest consumer of electricity in the home. And that consumption was basically invisible because the 300-watt heater was hidden underneath hundreds of gallons of water. Home Energy recommended several conservation measures based on actual measurements. One of the most effective measures was to make the bed. Covering a bed with a comforter cut consumption by as much as 30%.

When it came to data about the energy consumption of waterbeds, Home Energy was the source. In fact, DOE adopted Home Energy’s estimates as official statistics in the Residential Energy Consumption Survey. (We’re not sure whether we should be honored or alarmed.) Even today Wikipedia cites Home Energy for its energy numbers, as do many articles that you will find on the web.

In 2014 less than 2% of American homes have waterbeds and the government no longer even collects ownership data on them. (Do you know anybody with one?) The technology has not evolved much since then. Of course the controls are now digital instead of analog, but the heaters are still consuming over a 1,000 kWh/year.

Looking backward made me wonder which of today’s popular energy-related devices will follow the waterbed into oblivion. What is commonplace today that will appear quaint in thirty years? It’s fun to speculate; the incandescent light bulb for sure but what else? Share your ideas (and explain why) so that you can be called a prophet.

- Alan Meier is senior executive editor of Home Energy.

This blog was originally posted on HomeEnergy.org.

 

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Comment by Tom Conlon on January 6, 2014 at 11:37am

Thanks Alan, You're right, waterbeds were affordable, and an awful lot of fun while they lasted (especially after Mr. Hefner's endorsement). Although electric resistance heating is likely to remain passé, I'd love to see a creative design firm bring water furniture back into fashion, only this time as part of a passive (or well-engineered active) solar home. After all, this proven technology remains one of the cheapest ways to add mass inside an existing envelope.

The masses are always counting on us to come up with affordable solutions, the sexier the better.

Comment by Dennis Heidner on January 5, 2014 at 5:46pm

Okay,  I admit... we still have one.  And the solution to the energy use was turn down the temperature even more.  Add additional padding on top of the mattress below the sheets.  Keep the comforter and blankets on it... and the energy use can drop down to a few hundred kWh/year.  Still above an electric blanket.

If I the goal is to make an old water bed more energy efficient... some of the "Passive House" practices would probably work well.  Make the frame large... and add two inches of foam around the outside.. preventing conduction of heat to the frame.  Put two inches of foam under the pad and keep the losses down that way.  Then find the best pad to lay onto of the mattress under the sheets... add a very thick European style down comforter on top and you'd bring those old beds into the 21st century.

Now for the items that will be obsolete in 30 years...

==============================================================

1. The simple glass pot coffee maker.  Those things running all day long -- can easily equal a water bed in the energy use over a period of a year.  I know - I have both and have measured them...  next time we replace the coffee maker - it will be with one that uses a vacuum carafe.

2. In thirty years the CFL will be considered a hazardous waste object... LED's of various types will replace both the CFL and halogen bulbs.

3. Old desktop computers will have long since been moved to the honor of a large door stop... not useable as no one can remember how to boot up and use Windows 11.x

4. Window air conditioners (current vintage) will be museum pieces...  the new window units are thin, quiet and use a fraction of the energy.

5. De-humdifiers - may finally switch to a form of desiccant/solid state electronics. Old compressor units will be assigned places of honor next to the window units in museums.

6. Fiberglass insulation will be considered only as an air filter...  

7. Recessed lights will become surface mount devices...  Old pre-2000 cans not rated for contact with insulation and not air tight will have been banned from sale almost ten years prior...

8. Shaded pole motors used in bathroom fans ceased production twenty years earlier...

10.  The last of the 80% and under furnaces will have been traded in and crushed.  Efficient ECM or PM motors will have been standard for forced air furnaces almost twenty years.

11. Vacuum panel refrigerators and hot water tanks will have long since replace the "high efficiency" products of the early 2010's.. A 27 cuft refrigerator now uses less energy over the course of a year than a 30W bulb.  Tanked hot water heaters loose so little heat... that all those chemicals stored in the same garage closet with them now freeze during the winter...  forcing the home owners to find better locations for storage.  (Perhaps under the water bed?)

12.  Vacuum panel windows - with electronic control of the shading,  emissivity, and solar heat gain are being replaced with the new versions that can also produce a "daylight" effect on demand at night.

And my final prediction...  electric rates will be back down to $0.05kWh after the successful roll out of the new fusion power plants......  (okay its a dream...)

 

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