Most of the time on this blog, home improvement tips seem to follow a recent learning experience stemming from fixing something that’s broken — such as troubleshooting the furnace, plumbing tips from Dad after getting a leak in the bathroom sink, or evicting a family of a**hole squirrels from my attic. But, every now and then, I find myself looking up information about preventing the next big home repair expense. Because maybe — just a little bit — I should probably start seeing what this “ounce of prevention” adage is all about and leave the rainy day funds for a different, less-foreseeable rainy day.
I dunno… maybe this whole being an adult thing is starting to actually happen.
Anyway, I found myself looking up a bunch of info on hot water heaters lately, and I found a number of tips that you might find useful as well, so I thought I’d pass them along. There’s also the handful of info I knew already but hadn’t yet put into a post together, and I realized that as a home improvement blogger, that’s kind of inefficient and I should probably get around to doing something about it. Oh, the irony. Let’s talk about energy efficiency though, right?
As a bit of a numbers geek, I nabbed a few stats that I thought were particularly interesting (either from government websites like the U.S. Department of Energy or other helpful tip sites). I also wanted to address some of the more popular tips I’ve read online as to their practicality… because some of this “common” advice seems downright weird to me. And last but not least, I partnered up with the Propane Education & Research Council, who has a lot more expertise on the matter than I do and asked them to share a few helpful tips as well on when to consider a water heater replacement (note, however, all opinions expressed here are my own). Don’t fret too much if you can’t get to everything on this list right away — they’re meant to serve as a series of things you can do to help cut costs or increase energy use, but even just one or two of these is a step in the right direction!
Know where to locate the water shutoff valve.
[clears throat] Um, yeah. This seems obvious, but if you’re reading this and you can’t immediately think of the location of where you would go to shut off the water supply to your house, stop reading this right now and go look for it (if you’re reading this at work though, wait until you get home; knowing how to fix your office’s water issues is likely not in your job description). Even if you live with someone else and you rely on them to know these things, just learn where it is anyway. In the event of an emergency, knowing where to turn off the water and power supply (such as the gas line) can prevent a whole heaping mess of property damage and health hazards.
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might recall a time when I actually didn’t know where the shutoff valve to the hot water was in this house, and I had to learn in a panicked state as hot, scalding water was shooting out from a valve that popped off in the master bath. At 6AM, just after a holiday. Not a good time. So, learn from me being an idiot and just grab your label maker and sleep a little more soundly knowing you can shut off the water supply from your house without having to call the fire department.
Know what kind of water heater you have.
Is it tankless or does it have a storage tank? Is it powered by natural gas, propane, or electric? Where is the serial number? If it has a tank, what is the gallon capacity? Most of this can be found directly on the tank on a label, but it’s helpful to at least know where to find it in case you need to call a plumber (they’ll often ask for this info).
Periodically flush your water heater and perform regular inspections.
Draining water from your water tank removes sediment that impedes heat transfer, so removing this helps efficiency. I’m probably not going out on a limb here to say that there are likely some varying steps depending on the water heater you have (such as with a storage tank or tankless), so the best way to know how to drain or flush your water heater (and how often to do it) is likely found on the label of the water heater itself (much like how my furnace has instructions on its label… nice how these companies assume we’ll toss or lose an instruction manual, so they just put it in a place where it’s less likely to be lost and literally glue helpful info to the side, right?). From the websites I’ve read, annual maintenance is a common rule of thumb.
While you’re at it, you should also do a visual inspection. Look for corrosion, rust, residue, soot, etc. If you find any of these things, it’s a good idea to phone a professional and have them come service the unit. Smelling gas is another big red flag — turn the gas off and contact a pro right away.
Energy Saving Tips
Upgrade your old appliances.
We all knew this tip would be on the list, but it’s one of the better (albeit one of the pricier) ways to start getting some energy savings. I upgraded my kitchen appliances, including my dishwasher, to Energy Star models right after moving into the house, took advantage of a huge tax rebate to help offset the costs, and later upgraded the washer and dryer in the laundry room just a couple of years ago. It varies by state, but shopping on tax-free holidays can save quite a bit on bigger ticket items like these, so a good plan is to note when your area might have some good sales and start saving up (I don’t know if this site is accurate or not, but here’s a list for 2016). According to one website, new hot water heaters, washers, or dishwashers can cut water consumption by up to half of the number of gallons the older models use. It’s not a savings you’ll notice right away, but that’s mainly because you’ll be too distracted that your washer now plays a melody every time a load is done (sure, you can turn this feature off, but I like it).
Wash clothes in cold water.
I don’t really do this when it comes to clothes that need to be cleaned after a mud/obstacle race, but for the most part, I wash all my clothes in cold or warm water. Now that I have a new washer and dryer set, I don’t really even notice since the unit is pre-set to colder water by default. They make detergents for washing clothes in cold water and it saves energy; what’s not to like?
Take showers, not baths.
This is the “dumb” tip I referenced earlier, so I’m only mentioning it because I find it funny that it’s still on these lists; most people I know over the age of ten regularly take showers and not baths, so this tip seems kind of moot. I guess knowing that you’re making a water-sensible choice on a regular basis, without really trying, is good? Of course, people don’t often mention that this is in relation to short showers… standing in the shower and belting out the Adele album does not save more water than taking a bath, even though I can totally relate to you wanting to finish the song before getting out. To make it easier to turn the water off, keep the bathroom door closed (especially in winter) to trap the heat and avoid those stubble-inducing cold drafts. You can also install low-flow showerheads and faucets for some added water savings (apparently, new showerheads can save 25-60% more than pre-1992 models).
Consider a water heater upgrade.
It’s hard to upgrade on things that haven’t actually broken yet, but if you’re knowingly wasting hundreds of dollars every year on an inefficient system, waiting to upgrade until your current water heater fails can cost you money. If you’re close to the 7 to 10-year mark, it might be time to start looking into your options; this quiz on KnowYourWaterHeater.com, can help calculate when you should pull the plug.
If you do decide to replace (and uh, hire a pro for this!), it’s important to note that as of 2015, new federal standards went into effect, which basically increased the minimum energy efficiency requirements for hot water heater models in homes in the U.S. This may mean that some newer models for specific types of tanks (such as standard efficiency tanks for electric storage water heaters) will no longer fit into the same spaces (they can be taller/wider/heavier) as they once did.
In other words, not only should you look at the annual cost and savings of making the switch from a long-term value perspective, but you might also need to consider eliminating the need for a tank altogether. From what I’ve read, propane or natural gas-powered “on-demand” and tankless models can deliver lower annual ownership costs up to 30% than tank models using electric/heating oil in many parts of the country, so space and savings are two very important factors to look into. The fuel type you already have in the home will largely impact what type of new hot water heater you shop for, but in terms of saving floor space, getting better efficiency (which also impacts annual heating costs), and still getting abundant hot water, propane-powered water heaters often perform better over their electric counterparts. Tankless models can cost more than the standard ones, but they can also last 5-10 years longer.
You won’t find me often talking about carbon footprints on the blog, but I did spy some info on that as well: standard electric storage tank water heaters (all of these water heater types are a mouthful, but I’m trying to make sure I have the phrases correct) can produce up to two times greater emissions than tankless units, such as the ones running on propane. So… if that’s a factor for you as well, there you go!
If your older water heater tank doesn’t have an R-value of at least 24, adding a water heater insulation blanket around your tank can reduce heat loss by 24-25% (and should pay for itself in savings of water heating costs in about a year). It looks like a pretty straightforward DIY project, but some utilities may also provide these to you at no cost or even install them for you, so check your local area. Note: this isn’t for newer tanks; they are likely to be already insulated. And while this seems like an easy and inexpensive improvement (from what I read, it’s like $30), you should still check your water heater’s warranty prior to installing to make sure it doesn’t void your coverage.
Stop the leaks and drips.
Leaky faucets waste a huge amount of water, not to mention cause all sorts of damage that you have to repair later if they drip behind walls — or in my case, directly onto my ripped out bathroom floor!
Check the thermostat.
Take a look at the temperature gauge on your water heater; if it’s higher than 120°F, lower it down for reduced heating costs while still providing a comfortable level of hot water for most uses. For every 10ºF reduction, you save about 3-5% per year on water heating costs.
There you have it. Lots and lots of tips, but hopefully you learned something new (I did!).