Spinoff is NASA's annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

With traditional home water heaters, you have to wait for the right temperature to come from the tank but with a clever design by NASA, waiting for hot water could be a thing of the past.

The story begins in the 1970s, when Thomas Harman began working at Lockheed as a NASA contractor. As staff engineer, Harman was deep in the growing field of microelectronics. He helped install mini-computers in testing facilities at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston that would put space vehicles through their paces. This included instruments like a vibration-control system to test equipment under the stresses of liftoff and reentry. In the early 1980s, he became a panel member for the National Electrical Code and helped to create standards used in everything from laboratory testing to home design.

At the same time, Louis Everett was a faculty member at Texas A&M University where he was a consultant for NASA Johnson. Much like Harman, Everett was an expert on microelectronics. Working with NASA engineer Leo Monford, Everett helped develop improvements for the space shuttle's robotic arm.

The Dexterous End Effector (DEE) project made manipulating the shuttle's Canadarm easier for astronauts. Everett and Monford's element was a mirror system called the Targeting and Reflective Alignment Concept (TRAC). A video camera at the end of the arm would look at its refection in a mirror attached to a target object. This mirror was dotted with small markings, with corresponding markings fixed to a monitor inside the shuttle. When an astronaut lined up the pairs on the monitor, the arm was aligned with the target. And when an onboard computer was reading the alignment marks, the arm could automatically orient itself.

In the early 1990s, Everett joined NASA Johnson and as part of the Space Shuttle Columbia 's STS-62 mission, he supported DEE's in-flight tests from the ground. When astronauts maneuvered the arm into position, Everett's programming picked up metal bars and slotted them into place inside the shuttle's payload bay. After Everett left Johnson, he had an idea that could “supercharge” people's homes.

Tankless water heaters have existed since the 1930s but David Seitz, CEO of Seisco, wanted to make their design better for the home. Typical water heater systems use a large tank of water with an electric or gas heater to deliver high temperatures but tank-less water heaters are smaller, easier to install in some homes, only use power when you need it, and only heat as much water as you need. This small size, however, was impractical for a full home.

Seisco water heaters could work in conjunction with an existing heater. The Supercharger's specialized controls assisted in heating water much more quickly than a tank by itself. (Credit: Seisco)

Seitz devised an electric tankless heater that could fully replace or work alongside a home water heater. Seisco's design uses a system of snaking pipes to accomplish its job incredibly quickly. Three gallons per minute of water can flow through the system.

However, Seisco needed digital controls for maximum reliability, so they turned to Harman, asking how whole-home tankless water heaters could work within the bounds of the National Electrical Code. Harman would soon join the team as the company's head of R&D. While developing a control scheme, Harman realized that he could use concepts similar to his vibration-control work for NASA to keep the heater from getting too powerful.

Seisco patented a new design that vised microcontrollers to keep the water from heating to dangerous levels and Everett was the right coder for the job. Although the heater was developed in Houston, it's being vised around the world. The original design for home use has been expanded to heat water in apartments, office buildings, factories, and gas stations.

Seisco's water heaters are well suited to homes and businesses powered by renewable energy. They are less taxing on solar panel systems and have been used in model homes to showcase efficient living. Seisco is no longer making new heaters but its technology helped to open up the market.

Read this and other Spin-Off articles at NASA.gov .


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the May, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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