Water heating accounts for up to 25% of household energy costs, but there are inexpensive things you can do to increase efficiency and reduce energy bills.
In the fight to save energy, your water heater is a born loser. That's because most houses in this country have a conventional storage-type water heater. That 50-gallon tank in the basement wants to keep water hot, so it will be ready whenever you turn on the tap. But as the water sits, it naturally begins to cool down, a process known as standby heat loss. When it does, the burner or heating element kicks on to warm it up again, in a constantly repeating cycle. According to the Department of Energy, water heating accounts for 14% to 25% of your household's total energy costs. But there are easy, low-cost steps you can take to reduce standby losses-and your hot-water bill, too. Try these five, and you'll start seeing a difference right away.
Wrap your heater in a blanket
Just as you wouldn't send little Susie out into the cold without a jacket, your water heater needs help to stay warm, especially if it's in an unheated space. A fiberglass insulating blanket can cut heat loss by 25% to 40% and save 4% to 9% on the average water-heating bill of $308, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (http://www.aceee.org) (ACEEE).
Insulating blankets are cheap, usually less than $30 at the home center, and it's easy to install one yourself. Follow the included directions, and take care not to block the thermostat on an electric water heater or the air inlet, exhaust, or top of the tank on a gas unit.
If your water heater is fairly new, check the manufacturer's recommendations first. Many newer units already have insulating foam built in; on these models, an after-market jacket could block a critical component.
Install low-flow fixtures
One of the surest ways to cut hot water costs is to use less of it. According to the ACEEE, a family of four uses 700 gallons of hot water per week. By installing low-flow showerheads (http://www.houselogic.com/articles/low-flow-showerheads-how-to-choose/) and faucet aerators, which cost as little as $10 to $20 each, you can cut hot water consumption by 25% to 60%. These devices are easy to install and will save 14,000 gallons of hot water annually, plus the energy it takes to heat it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov) estimates the average U.S. household water bill at $474 a year. By cutting water consumption in half, you'll save more than $200 annually.
Turn down the temperature
Many water heaters come from the factory with the temperature set needlessly high. For every 10 degrees you turn it down, you'll save another 3% to 5% on your bill, according to ACEEE. A setting between 120 and 140 degrees is plenty hot for most uses. Just don't go below 120 degrees, which could lead to the unsafe growth of bacteria inside the tank.
If the thermostat on your water heater doesn't have a numbered gauge, put it midway between the "low" and "medium" marks. Wait a day, then measure the temperature at the tap with a standard cooking thermometer. Keep adjusting this way until you hit your target temperature.
Drain the sediment
Tanks naturally build up sediment, which reduces the unit's efficiency and makes it more expensive to operate. "Imagine an inch of sand inside your water heater," explains David Chisholm of manufacturer State Water Heaters. "When you get a layer at the bottom of the tank, you have to heat up that sediment before you can heat up the water."
Draining the tank is relatively easy. Turn off the water and power to the unit (set the burner on a gas unit to "pilot"). Then connect a garden hose to the spigot at the base of the tank. With the other end of the hose at a lower spot outside the house where discharging hot water poses no danger, carefully lift the pressure-relief valve at the top of the tank and turn on the spigot; water should begin to flow. While most manufacturers recommend draining the tank once or twice a year, you don't have to drain it completely; in fact, the Department of Energy (http://www.energy.gov) recommends draining less water more often-just a quart every three months.
Insulate exposed hot-water pipes
Like blanketing the tank, wrapping hot-water pipes with insulation reduces standby losses. Water arrives at the tap 2 to 4 degrees warmer, which means you won't have to stand around as long waiting for it to heat up, thus saving water, energy, and money. While this isn't an expensive job to do yourself-six-foot-long, self-sealing sleeves easily slip over pipes and cost about $2.50 each-it could take some effort, depending on where your hot water pipes are. Exposed pipes in the basement are an easy target, but if pipes are in a hard-to-reach crawl space or inside walls, it might not be worth the trouble.
Joe Bousquin's work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, and Men's Journal. The owner of a 79-year-old home in Sacramento, Calif., he has a new reverence for his water heater.
As always, your thoughts, questions, or comments are greatly appreciated. Let me know if I can help with any of your Charleston SC real estate needs or questions.
"Carolina Joe" Idleman
This Article from HouseLogic.com