GE Appliances Camden

The GE Appliances plant in Camden will no longer produce refrigerators. The company is spending $60 million to convert the facility to the production of water heaters in 2020. File

Refrigerators will no longer be roll off the assembly line at the GE Appliances plant in Camden, as the manufacturer shifts its focus to water heaters.

The company is spending $60 million to make the swap at the Midlands factory. It will be the only GE Appliances plant in the U.S. making the new product line, said spokeswoman Julie Wood.

The announcement is part of a larger realignment within the company. China-owned GE Appliances has invested $600 million nationwide making production changes, resulting in 1,200 new jobs since May 2018, Wood said.

The Camden plant will retain its roughly 150 employees, who will tear down the current line and replace it with the new equipment, Wood said. Production on the first water heaters is expected to start in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Kershaw County is glad that GE Appliances is adjusting to "market changes," said economic development director Peggy McLean. She said county officials are developing an incenitve deal that would let the company pay a set fee instead of property taxes in exchange for the new investment.

Of the nine GE Appliances plants nationwide, three are making refrigeration products.

"The water heater market is a big opportunity for us," Wood said, with 8 million units sold annually.

GE Appliances has made smaller, high-efficiency water heaters in the past without much demand. This will be the first time for the company making the more predominant tank-style versions, Wood said.

GE Apppliances will discontinue the line of refrigerators that had been made in Camden. That coincides with a $115 million renovation of the company's refrigeration plant in Decatur, Ala., announced in June 2018.

The South Carolina plant will have one manufacturing line making multiple water heater models of different sizes, Wood said.

The remodel is expected to have a $620 million economic impact on Kershaw County over the next five years, according to a Capital Policy Analytics.

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Water heater production is expected to have "more (production) growth potential than refrigeration had in the past," Wood said.

The Camden plant has been open for about 20 years. It's owned by Haier Group, which was the first Chinese company to establish manufacturing operations in the U.S., according to the state Department of Commerce. Haier bought General Electric Co.'s appliance division in 2016.

In 2016, Louisville, Ky.-based GE Appliances spent $72 million to construct a 250,000-square-foot addition to the Camden facility in order to increase annual refrigeration production to 500,000 units.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.