When fall comes and the weather starts getting colder, it’s tempting to use more hot water to keep comfortable. Unfortunately, hot water doesn’t magically appear from the faucet. Heating water is the second-largest energy expense in a household, accounting for almost 18% of your total energy bill behind space heating. These costs add up quickly, with the average household spending between $400-$600 a year on water heating.
Don’t count on switching to a tankless water heater to save money after accounting for all the installation and maintenance costs if you currently have a storage tank model either.
If opening your monthly electric or gas bill sends a chill down your spine worst than a cold shower in the middle of winter, here are some simple tweaks and some changes in your usage habits that could result in some substantial money savings on your water heating costs.
How To Save Money on Hot Water
Lower the Water Heater Thermostat
Earlier this year I went up into the attic of the office a family member was renting and found the hot water heater’s thermostat was set at maximum. I know it’s a business, so people aren’t taking showers there, but holy cow… no one needs water that hot!
Remember those TV shows where you see someone flushing a toilet and the person in the shower screams bloody murder? What is happening is they have an older form of plumbing and when the toilet is flushed, cold water is siphoned away from the shower to fill the toilet. The person in the shower then gets a blast of hot water. It’s funny on TV, but if your water heater is set too high, that hot water can scald you.
The Department of Energy recommends that you set the thermostat of your water heater at 120 degrees. That is high enough to prevent bacteria from developing in the storage-tank type water heaters, it’s high enough for most household usage, and low enough to prevent excessive mineral buildup.
Get a thermometer and measure the hot water coming out of the tap at the farthest faucet. Gradually turn down the temperature and re-measure until you get 120 degrees.
For every 10 degrees that you turn down the heat, you’ll save 3% to 5% on your heating bill.
Insulate Your Water Heater
Keep your water heater warm by covering it up with a blanket – an insulation blanket that is. Insulating your hot water tank is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to save energy. It’s a one-time cost of about $30 to buy an insulation blanket and it will continue to save you money month after month.
Newton’s Law of Cooling states that the higher the temperature difference between an object and its surroundings, the more heat it will lose. This is especially important when your water heater sits in an uninsulated area of your house, such as the attic, basement, or garage. I can only imagine how much energy the water heater that was set at max up in the attic at the office was wasting.
You will see the most savings if you have an older water heater at your home. Newer, more energy-efficient hot water tanks made after 2015 are better insulated due to new government regulations. But if you live in a colder climate, a blanket can’t hurt and may still offer some savings.
The Department of Energy estimates using a cover can result in up to 16% energy savings a year.
The easiest way to tell if your water heater needs additional insulation is by touching it. An exterior that is warm to the touch means heat from the water is being lost to the surrounding air.
Installing a water heater cover is a simple procedure that you can do on your own. The water heater blanket will come with instructions. Generally, you will want to avoid covering the drain valve, temperature relief valve, and drain tube. For electric water heaters, you will want to avoid the heating element control or thermostat. For gas water heaters, you will want to avoid the temperature control, the flue at the top, and avoid blocking airflow to the burners at the bottom.
Flush the Water Heater Regularly
When was the last time you’ve flushed your water heater? Manufacturers recommend that you flush the storage tank of your water heater every year to keep it operating at it’s best. Same thing if you have a tankless model depending on the hardness of your water.
As the water heater operates, the heat causes deposits and sediments to build up from impurities in the water. For gas heaters, sediment will settle to the bottom of the tank, resulting in lower efficiency and causing hot spots that will shorten the life of your water heater. Don’t think you can be lazy with an electric model either. You will get scale buildup on the heating elements, which will lower its efficiency also.
Insulate Your Hot Water Pipes
The Department of Energy states that insulating your hot water pipes can increase your water temperature by 2-4 degrees higher than uninsulated pipes. That means you can turn down the water heater’s thermostat a bit to save money and energy and still get hot enough water for your needs.
Another benefit of insulating your pipes means you’ll get hot water sooner when you turn on the faucet. Everyone likes that because no one wants to stand in the cold waiting for hot water for a shower.
The estimated energy savings from wrapping your water pipes in foam or tape can result in energy savings of up to 4% a year. Polyethylene foam pipe insulation is extremely cheap at the local home improvement store – about $2 for six-foot lengths.
The best time to insulate would be when the house is being built and the walls are uncovered. After that, the next best time is now and applying insulation on hot water pipes that are exposed in the crawlspace or basement. At minimum, insulate the first several feet of pipe coming from the heater, keeping about six inches away from the flue on gas water heaters.
Fix Leaky Faucets
A dripping faucet might seem like such a small problem that it can be put off till later because they are much more important things to do, like watching The Walking Dead.
I had a leaky bathtub faucet a couple months ago where I put a 2.5-gallon bucket to see how much water was being wasted. That drip filled the bucket full in 4 hours. That comes out to 15 gallons a day, 450 gallons a month, or 5.4 thousand gallons a year! What’s even worse was it was one of those single handle faucets that controlled both the hot and cold water so both may well have been going down the drain.
Taking a look at my county’s water rates, it would have cost me almost $65 in wasted water a year if I didn’t fix the leak. A trip to Home Depot for a $5 Moen cartridge rebuild kit that was basically a bunch of washers, an hour of my time, and the faucet was good as new.
If you have a leaky faucet, don’t ignore it. It is equivalent to money going down the drain. A penny here. A dollar there. It adds up to a lot of money.
Install Low-Flow Fixtures
If you live in a house built earlier than 1992 with the original plumbing fixtures, you can save hot water by replacing the sink faucets in the kitchen, bathrooms, and the showerheads in the shower with low-flow models.
Older showerheads before the new government standards had a flow rate of 5.5 GPM. Newer low-flow showerheads reduce the gallons of water used per minute to 2.5 GPM and some even go as low as 1.5 GPM. If you have a family member who likes to take extra long hot showers, you can cut your hot water usage in half by simply taking 5 minutes to screw in a new showerhead. It is as easy as changing a light bulb.
You can save water in the kitchen and bathrooms by replacing the faucets with low-flow versions. If you are happy with your faucets, you can replace just the faucet aerator for much less money. The aerator is the part that screws onto the end of the sprout. You can find water-saving ones that go as low as 0.5 GPM.
Use Cold Water To Do Laundry
Washers and laundry detergents have improved tremendously and it is no longer necessary to use hot water to get clothes coming out of the wash clean.
As long as your water temperature is at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit and you are using a decent detergent that is not the cheapest no-name brand detergent at the dollar store, you will be just fine using cold water to save energy.
Consumer Reports’ testing have found that detergents have gotten better at removing stains and dirt at lower water temperatures, and are less effective at higher temperatures. They do still recommend using hot water for clothing that is heavily soiled and to use chlorine bleach to kill bacteria.
If you decide to still use hot water, stick with it for undergarments, bed linens, bath towels, and clothing with oily stains. Even choosing to use warm water instead of hot can cut a load’s energy usage by half. Use cold water for the rinse cycle.
Additional benefits of using cold water includes preventing colors from fading, you won’t accidentally shrink your favorite shirt, and hot water can set certain stains into fabrics.
Install Heat Traps on Your Water Heater
Some new storage water heaters will include heat traps built-in. You can test if the heat traps are working or not installed by touching the cold water inlet. If it feels warm or hot to the touch, you are losing heat.
A heat trap can be done by making a loop with flexible tubing, or installing a dielectric nipple with a flap or ball valve. Installing a nipple kit is as simple as draining a few gallons of water, unscrewing the water lines, applying some Teflon tape to the trap nipples, screwing in the nipples, and reconnecting everything.
By installing heat traps on the hot water outlet and cold water inlet, you can reduce wasted heat by as much as 60% and save $15-$30 a year on your water heating bill.
Install A Timer on Your Electric Water Heater
Heating water when you don’t need it is a waste of money. You can install a water heater timer on your electric water heater that turns it off at night or when you are at work.
The biggest benefit of using a timer is when the power company charges more for peak hours versus non-peak hours usage. If you are going to be at work during the peak hours, you can use a timer to shut off the water heater to save some money.
Install A Hot Water Recirculation System
Does it take so long for the hot water to arrive that you or family members would leave the shower running while doing something else like brush their teeth? Each minute you leave the shower running is gallons of water down the drain.
To get instant hot water, you can retrofit a hot water recirculation system if your house doesn’t have a dedicated return line. The recirculation system uses a pump that is activated by a timer, motion sensor, push button, or smart speaker like Google Home or Alexa to pump hot water to the farthest fixture in your house while pushing the cold water back to the hot water heater so the water isn’t wasted.
Use Your Dishwasher Efficiently
Newer dishwashers are probably even more efficient than washing by hand. Due to tougher efficiency standards, today’s dishwashers use about 4 to 6 gallons of water a load. This is probably great news for whoever is manually washing all the dishes in your household.
To save even more money on running your dishwasher, save up your dishes during the day and wash a full load. Then when loading the dishwasher, don’t overfill it, and be sure to load it correctly to avoid having to wash them again. Dishes should always go on the bottom rack, all facing the center of the rack. Cups and bowls should go on the top rack. Oversized item should go towards the sides and back so they do not block the water and detergent.
Take Showers Instead of Baths
A standard size bathtub holds about 40 gallons of water and a garden tubs holds about double that. A survey by Unilever found that the average shower lasted about eight minutes. With a 2.5 GPM showerhead, the average shower would use about 20 gallons of water, or half the amount of water it takes to fill up a standard bathtub.
In the wintertime, it may be tempting to stay in the shower longer because the bathroom is too cold to get out. Keep the door closed to stop some of the heat from escaping, and have a towel nearby to dry off quicker.
You can also save money in the summer by taking cooler showers, which use less hot water and will help keep your body temperature down too.
Manage Hot Water Usage Better
If you do not need hot water for a particular task, use cold water instead. Each time you turn on the hot water faucet, cold water is going into the hot water tank to replace the water. That cold water will then need to be heated. Make it a habit to only turn on the cold water faucet when you are washing your hands or rinsing off an item.
Don’t leave the water running when you don’t need it. Turn it off when you are brushing your teeth, shampooing your hair, shaving, or lathering up the soap.
For sinks with a single-handled faucet, be mindful to push the handle towards the cold side. Otherwise, a single-handle faucet lifted in the center will draw water from the hot water side too. When replacing the faucet at sinks where hot water isn’t constantly needed, replace it with a dual-handled faucet to prevent unintentional hot water usage.
Upgrade the Water Heater
Finally, replacing your old water heater with a newer, more efficient model will lower your overall operating cost. Unless you regularly replace the anode rod in your storage tank water heater, your water heater has a normal life expectancy of 10-15 years.
Most people don’t consider replacing their hot water heater until it fails. Proactively replacing your water heater before it has a catastrophic failure if it is located on the second floor or in the attic could prevent costly water damage to your house.
Hot water is one thing many of us take for granted. Follow the above tips to lower your hot water energy bills. Many of the tips are small things you only have to take the time to do once to reap the benefits of continuous money savings.
Once you’ve made the modifications to your home such as turning down the thermostat on the water heater or installing low-flow fixtures, the rest is simply good conservation habits.
Like all things that are money related, it might take some conscious effort in the beginning to avoid wasting hot water. But after a while it becomes second nature, and you won’t even have to think about it.
What are some ways you’ve saved money on hot water?