Waste Not, Want Not: Conserve Energy by Upgrading Your Hot Water Heater

Conserve energy, and dollars, by upgrading your current home’s hot water heater or purchasing a new high efficiency water heater recommended by Energy Star.


| November 16, 2011


The following is an excerpt from Your Green Abode by Tara Rae Miner (Skipstone Books, 2010). Drawn from interviews with experts, intensive research and trial-and-error experiences, the author provides a wealth of information on how you can conserve energy, incorporate eco-friendly products and give your house an overall green makeover from the ground up. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 2, “Save Time, Use Less Energy.”   

Right after heating and cooling, hot water is a typical home’s biggest energy expense. The EPA reports that the average household spends $400 to $600 a year on it. And for all that money spent, you won’t get a lot of well-used energy in return. That old tank buried behind boxes in your basement is most likely losing a ton: only 43 percent of a water heater’s energy goes toward heating the water you actually use; 31 percent is lost to standby heating (keeping the water in the tank hot). I’m talking about a clunky, more-than-a-decade-old hot water heater, the kind many of us — 27 million households — own. Seeing as a water heater only lasts about 10 to 15 years, we’ll have no choice but to upgrade soon. Here’s an opportunity to start thinking about energy-efficient options now, before that hot water runs out.

Conserve Energy First

Before we get to the new showroom models, let’s return to our mantra of conservation. Maybe your budget won’t allow for a big piece of new hardware, or maybe your landlord won’t pony up for the building. There’s still a lot you and your fellow tenants can do. If you’re hardcore, shorten your showers. Or if you don’t have the self-control, reduce your use automatically, and thus your heater’s workload, by installing a low-flow showerhead.

Next, try turning down the temperature. This isn’t as scary as it sounds — you won’t be left with dirty dishes or suffer through washing your hair in lukewarm water. Many hot water heaters are preset to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is too hot for most domestic uses. Ever have to mix your hot water with cold to get just the right temperature? You’re wasting the electricity that was used to heat the hot water in the first place. You probably won’t even notice the difference if you turn down the thermostat to 120 degrees (115 degrees may feel just fine), and you’ll also save roughly 10 percent of the energy it takes to heat your water. Or to look at it from a financial perspective, for every 10 degrees you lower the temperature, you’ll save 3 to 5 percent on your water-heating costs. Don’t forget to turn your thermostat to the lowest possible setting when you’re away on vacation. There’s no sense in heating water for nobody to use.

Insulating your older water heater in a blanket (most newer heaters are already well clothed) is perhaps one of the easiest do-it-yourself energy saving actions you can perform. It’s cheap too: A home-improvement store will likely have one on the shelf for around $25. Swaddling your pipes in conjunction with the tank will save you roughly another 10 percent. This is easier said than done, because of the nature of pipes winding this way and that and disappearing into walls and crawl spaces, but at the very least you should insulate exposed pipes—they sell pipe-sleeve insulation, the thicker the better, just for this purpose.

About to Run Out of Hot Water? 

Let’s say you’ve been conserving and insulating for a few years, but recently your water heater started giving signs that it’s heading for the grave. Now’s your chance (or your landlord’s chance if you can convert her) to purchase a modern energy-efficient model. Energy Star recently gave its coveted blessing to five different types of water heaters; some only came on the market in 2009. There seems to be a model for everyone, in every situation. Four of the options are described below, and solar water heaters are also an option.  

Alfred Green
11/8/2013 9:05:23 AM

"Hot Water Heater"??? A classic oxymoron. As a retired public relations employee of a major New York State electric and gas utility, I know that there is no such thing as a "hot water heater." If you have hot water you don't need a heater. A water heater, however, creates hot water! Simply say "water heater." That is sufficient to tell everyone that it is a device for taking cold water and heating it.


Tim Farmer
10/27/2012 9:44:43 PM

Since we could not afford to change out our water heater my wife and I agreed to simply shut it off at the circuit breaker. When we run low on hot water we simply turn the breaker on for 5 minutes then turn it off. We also turn it on just before taking a shower or washing dishes then turn it off after we are done. When we started doing this we immediately noticed a $50 drop in our electric bill.






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