Hannah Wilber

This article is the fifth installment in a series of tips and best practices for making your home more sustainable. Check out the first article on behavioral changes you can make to live greener at home, the second article on programmable thermostats, the third article on energy-efficient lighting. and the fourth article on overhauling your appliances.

Water heating typically accounts for about 18% of your utility bill, meaning it uses enough energy to be a great source for improvement in your home's environmental footprint. Check out the chart below detailing, on average, how much water is consumed by different appliances. Next, think about how often these appliances get used in your household, and how many gallons of water need to be heated in order to meet your behavioral patterns on a monthly basis.

The amount of energy required to enable your hot water needs is certainly substantial, but the good news is there are four simple ways to cut your water heating bills:

1. Use less hot water: For starters, don't let the faucet run unnecessarily—leaving the water running during your morning shave or while you brush your teeth can waste up to eight gallons per day! On a bigger scale, stick to short showers and cut back on long baths. Have a dishwasher or washing machine in your home? Make sure you only run them when they're full.

2. Turn down the water heater's thermostat: Many manufacturers set water heater thermostats at 140ºF, however most households usually can get by just fine with a thermostat set at 120ºF. Not only is this temperature considered safe for the vast majority of cases, it also slows mineral buildup and corrosion in your water heater and pipes. 

Savings gleaned from lowering water heater's thermostat are based on the amount of heat transferred from the water heater to the surrounding area (standby loss), and the amount of water used in your home (consumption). At 140ºF, you could be spending an extra $36 to $61 annually on standby heat losses and over $400 in consumption losses!

3. Insulate your water heater: Another way to cut back on excess cost due to heat loss is to insulate your hot water tank, just like you'd insulate your walls or roof. If you have a brand spanking new water tank chances are it's already insulated, but if you have an older model do some investigating to see if a little DIY action is needed.

How, you ask? Check the tank label to see if it has insulation with an R-value of at least 24. Can't locate the R-value? Touch the tank—if it's warm to the touch it needs additional insulation.

Insulating your water tank can reduce standby heat losses by 25%–45% and save you about 4%–9% in water heating costs. This means it should pay for itself in about a year (pre-cut jackets or blankets typically cost around $20). Follow these handy instructions when you're ready to give your tank an insulation upgrade.

4. Buy a new, more efficient model: While most water heaters can last about10-15 years, if you're looking to stay as energy-efficient as possible it’s best to start thinking about a new one once your current model celebrates its seventh birthday. There are several different kinds of heaters out there, including:

  • Conventional storage heaters
  • Heat pump heaters
  • Tankless or demand-type heaters
  • Tankless coil and indirect heaters
  • Solar heaters

Each variety has its perks, but when on the market for a new water heater you'll want to consider things like the fuel source for your heater and the size that is most appropriate for your home; these factors will help narrow down the options. Here's a great resource if you're looking for the ins and outs of choosing the right heater for you. Opting for an especially energy-efficient water heater can even earn points toward LEED certification.