Now that you’ve done your hot water usage evaluation, it’s time to talk about some practical things you can do to save your water heating utility dollars. The following tips apply to electric water heaters unless otherwise noted.
Turn it down!
This applies to both electric and gas water heaters. If you can do nothing else, turn the temperature down. It’s quick, easy, and no technician is require. Simply locate the thermostat on your heater and turn the temperature down to 110-120°F (43-48°C). Most thermostats are located behind an easily-removed panel on the side of the unit. Some models even have it mounted on the exterior for even easier access. Units usually come preset in the 140-150°F range which is pretty high for the average household. Often there are separate thermostats on each heating element. Be sure to turn both down.
What’s the downside to turning the temperature down? Almost nothing. Your laundry hot wash cycle won’t be as hot, but your clothes won’t notice. Don’t worry about your dishwasher either. 140°F wasn’t sanitizing your dishes anyway. They’ll be just as clean at 115°F. It takes 165°F or higher to sanitize dishes. You won’t be able to steam up the shower anymore, but you don’t run the risk of accidental scalding either. It takes five seconds to create a 3rd degree burn with 140°F water. At 120°F, that time is 5 minutes. Each year, more than 21,000 children are injured in scalding accidents. Turning down the temperature not only saves money, but may save heartbreak, permanent scarring, or death.
Turn it off.
There are three ways to approach cycling your water heater on and off during the day: manually, automatically, inventively.
- If your breaker panel is conveniently located, inside your utility room, hall, or kitchen, you can manually turn it on and off during the day. Just allow enough time for the water to heat before jumping in the shower.
- For an automated solution, install a timer. For somewhere between $40 and $70, and a few minutes of installation time, you can have a timer turn your heater on 30-60 minutes before you get up and off again when you leave for work. You can even program it to come back on one hour before you return and off again at bed time.
- Knowing that your water heater heats the top half of the tank first, then switches to a different heating element for the bottom half, leads to some inventive, power-saving solutions. If you’re only using half a tank, only heat half the tank. Here’s a Youtube video from Cactus Bob that details the whole idea, Save on electric with little effort or cost.
Wrap it up.
If your water heater is older, about 2002 or older, you can wrap it in an insulating blanket. The cost of less than $25 is easily recouped within a few months by saving 9% of the heat lost. Newer, Energy StarTM models are well insulated and don’t need such blankets. Regardless of how old your heater is, insulate your hot water pipes. Pipe insulation usually cost less than 20¢ per foot. In addition to saving the heat, wrapping pipes makes your home safer. Grabbing a bare hot water pipe will cause a burn within seconds.
If your tank is 20+ years old, think about replacing it. The lime and rust build-up inside the tank is making it hard for the elements to efficiently heat the water. Plus, it’s cutting down on the amount of water available. A new model is not only clean, but better insulated and Energy StarTM compliant. You will recoup the $300-$600 purchase price in 2-3 years.
This next tip is for gas heaters only. If you are replacing a gas unit, consider a tankless model. They give you hot water on demand so you’re not paying to heat water when you don’t need it. The initial cost of $900-$1000 is quickly returned without you having to give it a second thought after installation. These models are computer controlled. When the water starts flowing, the computer adjusts the flame to the appropriate height to meet demand. There are electric tankless models available, but you’ll be disappointed in their performance.
Let it shine.
Converting to solar hot water used to be prohibitively expensive. It required a new tank, expensive panels, and pipe-fitting skills. Today, you can supplement your existing system with some simple add-ons that are affordable, easy to install, and don’t require a complete conversion. For example, Heliatos† is a company selling complete solar hot water supplemental kits. These make it easy to pipe solar-heated water into your existing tank. As long as the sun is shining, your electricity/gas never turns on. If there’s not enough sunlight to heat the water, the electricity/gas kicks in as it always did. Kits will run $485-$1150, depending on the number of solar panels you need. The kit even includes a photo-voltaic panel to run the circulation pump so you’re not trading one electrical device for another. To install a solar hot water system, you’ll need some basic DIY skills and be comfortable on your roof.
What’s right for you?
Only you can determine the right power-saving solution for your hot water needs. One of these tips may be all you can do or all your budget will allow. A combination of these tips could easily lower your utility bill by $20-$50 per month. Evaluating your hot water usage will narrow down your solution list and help you formulate the right plan.
*If you haven’t read Water Heater Usage Evaluation, take a look before you dive head-long into your new project.
†This is not an endorsement of Heliatos, but just an example of solar supplemental retrofit kits available.