Nate Traylor

Pacific Gas and Electric, one of the largest utility providers in the nation, is pulling the plug on its long-running rebate program for variable-speed pumps.

To get in under the wire, qualified motors and pumps must be purchased and installed by Dec. 31; rebate applications must be received by March 1, 2018.

The utility company, which serves 16 million people in central and Northern California, said it is retiring the $100 consumer rebate campaign because its “cost-effectiveness … has decreased.”

“Since energy efficiency rebate programs are paid for by all PG&E customers, we need to ensure the rebates we offer make sense for all our customers,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Two-, multi-, and variable-speed pump motors have been the law of the land in California since 2009, thanks to Title 20, which mandates energy-efficiency standards. In PG&E’s view, it no longer makes sense to incentivize homeowners and the trade to comply with an 8-year-old code, said Phil Gelhaus, chairman of the board at the Foundation for Pool & Spa Industry Education in Sacramento.

“Supplementing with a rebate has run its course is what PG&E is saying,” Gelhaus said.

FPSIE certifies service technicians on behalf of PG&E, making them eligible to receive a $200 kickback for installing qualified pumps. That, too, will be discontinued.

He agrees with other service technicians that the decision is premature. While the program helped put a dent in the number of single-speed pumps operating on PG&E’s grid, FPSIE estimates there are about 250,000 that still need to be replaced.

PG&E was the first utility company to begin offering rebates on energy-efficient pool equipment. Dozens of utility providers across 26 states followed its lead, paying pool owners anywhere from $100 to $1,000 to upgrade their pumps.

PG&E is now the first to drop the program.

The future of pump rebate programs across the nation is looking questionable. In 2021, a federal law will require pump manufacturers to meet new efficiency standards that supersede California’s Title 20. There also are concerns that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, which certifies pool pumps as energy-efficient, could get the ax amid federal budget cuts. Either event would change how pump motors qualify for utility incentives. Facing the prospect of re-calibrating their rebate programs in light of these changes, utility companies may decide to abandon them altogether, experts warn.

That would be a blow to many pool pros’ bottom lines.

Ben Honadel, owner of Pools by Ben in Valencia, Calif. estimates his company installs about 150 variable-speed pumps a month thanks to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s $1,000 rebate. The vast majority of his customers are eager to swap out old working pumps to cash in on the incentive and benefit from long-term energy savings. This, he said, has drastically increased the rate at which single-speeds are being replaced, which is easing stress on the grid.

“The rebate sends a signal or message to the homeowner that this is energy efficient, this is something you should spend money on,” Honadel said. “They’re no longer arguing with me or pushing back.”

Without that generous offer, he fears customers will default to the cheapest available option, i.e. non-compliant pumps.

For the time being, at least, some utility companies are doubling down on efforts to spur interest in energy efficient-equipment. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District increased its rebate on variable-speed pumps this year from $200 to $350. And Southern California Edison recently extended its pool-related rebates to multifamily properties, which also includes a kickback on LED pool and spa lights.