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Editorial: Thirty Years of Waterbeds and Home Energy Magazine

December 26, 2013
January/February 2014
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Welcome to the 30th anniversary of Home Energy magazine. In commemoration of our 30 years we will be publishing 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.

Alan Meier (Yasushi Kato)

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.

Waterbeds then. (atomictoasters.com)

. . . and now. (betterwaterbeds.com)

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? Send us your ideas (and explain why) so that you can be called a prophet.

Alan Meier is senior executive editor of Home Energy.

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© Home Energy Magazine 2014, all rights reserved. For permission to reprint, please send an e-mail to contact@homeenergy.org.
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