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Energy-Efficient Water Heating

The next time you pay your utility bill, try one simple calculation. Divide the total amount by seven. The result is the amount you spend to heat your water. (If you receive separate utility bills for gas and electricity, use the gas bill for this calculation if you have a gas water heater; use the electric bill if you have an electric water heater.) Of course, you may think this cost is a small price to pay for the convenience of a hot shower. But during the course of a year, this cost adds up. And when you consider that 95 million households in this country pay the same percentage, it is easy to see how much money - and energy - is used to heat water.

Several measures can help you decrease water-heating costs in your home. Some specific actions include reducing the amount of hot water used, making your water-heating system more energy efficient, and using off-peak power to heat water.

Reducing the Amount of Hot Water Used

Generally, four destination points in the home are recognized as end uses for hot water: faucets, showers, dishwashers, and washing machines. Now, you do not have to take cold showers, dine on dirty dishes, or wear dirty clothes to reduce your hot-water consumption. Less radical measures are available that will be virtually unnoticeable once you apply them.

Faucets and Showers

Simply repairing leaks in faucets and showers can save hot water. A leak of one drip per second can cost $1 per month, yet could be repaired in a few minutes for less than that. And some apparently insignificant steps, when practiced routinely at your household, could have significant results. For example, turning the hot-water faucet off while shaving or brushing your teeth, as opposed to letting the water run, can also reduce water-heating costs. Another option is limiting the amount of time you spend in the shower.

Other actions may require a small investment of time and money. Installing low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators can save significant amounts of hot water. Low-flow showerheads can reduce hot-water consumption for bathing by 30%, yet still provide a strong, invigorating spray. Faucet aerators, when applied in commercial and multifamily buildings where water is constantly circulated, can also reduce water-heating energy consumption.

Older showerheads deliver 4 to 5 gallons (15.1 to 18.9 liters) of water per minute. However, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 sets maximum water flow rates at 2.5 gallons (9.5 liters) per minute at a standard residential water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch (552 kilopascals).

A quick test can help you determine if your shower is a good candidate for a showerhead replacement. Turn on the shower to the normal pressure you use, hold a bucket that has been marked in gallon increments under the spray, and time how many seconds it takes to fill the bucket to the 1-gallon (3.8-liter) mark. If it takes less than 20 seconds, you could benefit from a low-flow showerhead. A top-quality, low-flow showerhead will cost $10 to $20 and pay for itself in energy saved within 4 months. Lower quality showerheads may simply restrict water flow, which often results in poor performance.

Because of the different Uses of bathroom and kitchen faucets, you may need to have different water flow rates in each location. For bathroom faucets, aerators that deliver 0.5 to 1 gallon (1.9 to 3.8 liters) of water per minute may be sufficient. Kitchen faucets may require a higher flow rate of 2 to 4 gallons (7.6 to 15.1 liters) per minute if you regularly fill the sink for washing dishes. On the other hand, if you tend to let the water run when washing dishes, the lower flow rate of 0.5 to 1 gallon per minute may be more appropriate. Some aerators come with shut-off valves that allow you to stop the flow of water without affecting the temperature.

Automatic Dishwashers

A relatively common assumption is that washing dishes by hand saves hot water. However, washing dishes by hand several times a day could be more expensive than operating some automatic dishwashers. If properly used, an efficient dishwasher can consume less energy than washing dishes by hand, particularly when you only operate the dishwasher with full loads.

The biggest cost of operating a dishwasher comes from the energy required to heat the water before it ever makes it to the machine. Heating water for an automatic dishwasher can represent about 80% of the energy required to run this appliance.

Average dishwashers use 8 to 14 gallons (30.3 to 53 liters) of water for a complete wash cycle and require a water temperature of 140 degrees F (60 degrees C) for optimum cleaning. But setting your water heater so high could result in excessive standby heat loss. This type of heat loss occurs because water is constantly heated in the storage tank, even when no hot water is used. Furthermore, a water heater temperature of 120 degrees F (48.9 degrees C) is sufficient for other uses of hot water in the home.

The question, then, is must you give up effective cleaning for hot-water energy savings? The answer is no. A "booster" heater can increase the temperature of the water entering the dishwasher to the 140 degrees F recommended for cleaning. Some dishwashers have built-in boosters that will automatically raise the water temperature, while others require manual selection before the wash cycle begins. A booster heater can add about $30 to the cost of a new dishwasher but should pay for itself in water-heating energy savings in about 1 year if you also lower your water heater temperature. Reducing the water heater temperature is not advisable, however, if your dishwasher does not have a booster heater.

Another feature that reduces hot-water use in dishwashers is the availability of cycle selections. Shorter cycles require less water, thereby reducing the energy cost. The most efficient dishwasher currently on the market can cost half as much to operate as the most inefficient model. If you are planning to purchase a new dishwasher, check the EnergyGuide labels and compare the approximate yearly energy costs among brands. Dishwashers fall into one of two categories: compact capacity or standard capacity. Although compact-capacity dishwashers may appear to be more energy efficient, they hold fewer dishes and may force you to use the appliance more frequently than you would use a standard-capacity model. In this case, your energy costs could be higher than with the standard-capacity dishwasher.

Washing Machines

Like dishwashers, much of the cost - up to 90% - of operating washing machines is associated with the energy needed to heat the water. Unlike dishwashers, washing machines do not require a minimum temperature for optimum cleaning. Either cold or warm water can be used for washing most laundry loads; cold water is always sufficient for rinsing. Make sure you follow the cold-water washing instructions for your particular laundry detergent. Washing only full loads is another good rule of thumb for reducing hot-water consumption in clothes washers.

As you would for dishwashers, consult the EnergyGuide labels when shopping for a new washing machine. Inefficient washing machines can cost three times as much to operate as efficient machines. Select a machine that allows you to adjust the water temperature and water levels for the size of the load. Also, front-loading machines use less water and, consequently, less energy than top loaders. However, in this country, front loaders are not as widely available as top loaders. Keep in mind that the capacity of front loaders may be smaller than that of most top-loading machines.

Smaller capacity washing machines often have better EnergyGuide ratings. However, a reduced capacity might cause you to increase the number of loads you wash and possibly increase your energy costs.

Faucets, showerheads, dishwashers, and washing machines are only destination points for hot water in your home. The journey of your hot water before it reaches these outlets can be fraught with opportunities for energy losses. Fortunately, you can reduce the incidence of water heat loss from the point of departure to the point of arrival by applying a few basic measures.

Increasing Water-Heating System Efficiency

Reducing hot-water usage is primarily a matter of common sense and exerting a little extra effort to not be wasteful. Once you have applied a few simple, low-cost measures for reducing hot-water consumption, you may want to consider water-heating system improvements if you wish to further reduce your energy bill.

Lower Your Water Heater Thermostat

One simple step for reducing water-heating energy costs is lowering the thermostat setting on your water heater. Although some manufacturers set water heaters at 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), 120 degrees F (48.9 degrees C) is satisfactory for most household needs. Furthermore, when heated to 140 degrees F, water can pose a safety hazard (i.e., scalding). For each 10 degrees F (5.6 degrees C) reduction in water temperature, water-heating energy consumption can be reduced 3% to 5%.

For a full discussion on lowering the temperature of your water heater, see NH's article on the topic:

Lower Your Water Heater's Temperature... And Save Some Bucks!

Another possibility for electric water heaters is installing a timer that can automatically turn the heater off at night and on in the morning. At a $30 selling price and a do-it-yourself installation, a simple timer may pay for itself in energy saved in about 1 year. More expensive, multi-setting timers are also available. Timers for gas water heaters are not as useful or cost effective as those designed for electric water heaters. This is because the pilot light supplies some heat during the night, offsetting some of the energy savings achieved by using the timer.

If heat traps were not initially installed with your water heater, adding them is another way of reducing water-heating energy loss. Heat traps, or one-way valves, allow water to flow into the tank and prevent unwanted hot-water flow out of the tank. Heat traps cost about $30, but they may require professional installation, which could be expensive. However, if installed at the same time as a new water heater, heat traps are much more cost effective. Most new water heater models have factory installed traps, saving you the time and expense of installing one yourself.

Insulate Hot-Water Pipes and the Storage Tank

When you turn on a hot-water faucet during cold weather, it may take several seconds for the water to become hot. This happens because the water travels through pipes from the water heater to the faucet, and some of the pipes may pass through unheated sections of the house, such as the basement. As a result, the hot water loses some of its heat to the surrounding space.

This heat loss can be reduced by insulating hot water pipes wherever they are accessible - especially in unheated areas. Use quality pipe insulation wrap, or neatly tape strips of fiberglass insulation around the pipes. Eventually the water will cool, but it will remain warmer much longer inside insulated pipes.

Insulating your water-heater storage tank is a fairly simple and inexpensive improvement that can help maintain the water temperature at the thermostat setting. Some newer models of water heaters are well insulated and do not need an added layer, but a heater that is warm to the touch needs additional insulation.

Easy-to-install, pre-cut blankets (or jackets) for electric water heaters are widely available and range in cost from $10 to $20. Your local utility company may offer them at a lower price, give you a rebate, or even install them at no cost. When properly installed, a water heater blanket on an electric water heater will pay for itself in energy saved within 1 year. Installation is more difficult on gas- and oil-fired heaters. Ask your local furnace installer for instructions.

If your water heater is at least 7 years old, you should carefully evaluate your water-heating needs and investigate the types of heaters that could replace your current one. Although most water heaters last 10 to 15 years, early investigation and timely replacement can ensure a wiser purchase.

Using Off-Peak Power to Heat Water

Most consumers use more hot water in the evenings and mornings than at other times of the day. For those who have an electric water heater, this usage contributes to the electric utility company's "peak load," or the largest amount of power demand that they have to meet on a daily basis. Some utilities are required to offer their customers "time of use" rates that vary according to the demand on their system. Lower rates may be charged at "off-peak" times and higher rates at "on-peak" times. You may be able to lower your electric bills if you can take advantage of these rate schedules.

Check with your local electric utility to find out if it offers time-of-use rates for residential customers, and if so, what the rate schedules are. Some utilities even offer incentives for customers who allow their utility to install control devices that shut off electric water heaters during peak demand periods.

Simple Actions, Big Results

Some ways to save on water-heating bills require greater financial investments than others. You may wish to consider the no- or low-cost options before making large purchases. Also allow for circumstances that may be unique to your household when deciding on the appropriate options (e.g., a small-capacity washing machine could meet the needs of a one-person household efficiently).

Although it is not feasible to eliminate water heating in your home, it is possible to substantially reduce water-heating costs without sacrificing comfort and convenience.

Our appreciation to U.S. Dept. of Energy for the use of this excerpted article.

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