While not exactly the plumbing industry’s answer to Cash for Clunkers, homeowners can get a rebate on their old water heater when they trade it in for a model qualified under the EPA’s Energy Star program. If you’re a plumbing contractor selling water heaters, make sure your customers know about these rebates before the money runs out.

With close to 27 million U.S. households with a water heater at least 10 years old, chances are excellent that many of your customers would benefit from a more efficient water heater and would be eligible for a rebate. In mid-July, the Department of Energy announced the availability of almost $300 million in economic stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for energy-efficient appliances.

Qualifying water heaters include Energy Star-rated tank, tankless and solar models. DOE expects most of the money to be awarded by Nov. 30 and, unlike the rebates for replacing gas-guzzling autos, you probably shouldn’t count on another infusion of cash for appliance rebates.

The short-term benefits of this program to your plumbing business probably are obvious. We encourage you, though, to consider the long-term benefits you can gain by associating yourself with energy-efficient products in your customers’ mind.

As you’re aware, an increasing number of consumers are willing to invest in green technology as a way to help the environment and to save on their energy bills. You should become your customers’ expert on energy- and water-efficient plumbing and heating products, if you’re not already.

Not that many years ago, I saw a study conducted for a government agency on higher efficiency water heaters. The research sought to find out why the technology - which was readily available - did not enjoy a larger market share than it did.

The higher price of the more efficient equipment was a factor. So was the relatively cheap price of energy. Many customers didn’t see the payback, and that still may be the case today for some of them.

What troubled me most about the study was that it singled out plumbing contractors as an obstacle to higher efficiency water heaters gaining market acceptance. The study indicated that plumbing contractors preferred to sell less efficient, less expensive models.

Today, your cost for an Energy Star tank-style water heater is 10 to 30 percent more than the older model you’re replacing. On the other hand, these products give you the opportunity to talk with your customers about the 2 1/2-year payback and the increase in their unit’s energy efficiency of 7 to 14 percent.

You can talk dollars and cents too. Your customers can save up to $30 per year with an Energy-Star-rated tank model, $115 with whole-home tankless models and up to $220 with a solar water heater.

Your customers can see you as an advocate for energy savings and green technology. The rebate program can open the door for products that extend beyond your customers’ water heating needs.