Do It Yourself Energy Efficiency Projects: Your Home’s Thermal Envelope (Part 8): Getting into Hot Water

By Vernon Trollinger, February 10, 2010, Energy Efficiency, Home Improvement

There are a few things you can do around your home to save money during the remaining winter months and the hot summer. With hot water, the trick to saving money is knowing how the system works and having enough insulation.

You might believe that work I describe below is beyond your ability. Never fear, these are easy tasks for any average person. Make sure you have a good set of tools. Plus, you might want to look at the Federal Energy Efficiency Tax Credit and save on your taxes, too.

Getting into Hot Water

The most expensive part of doing laundry is using hot water. And while you might be able to switch to using warm or cold water for your laundry, having hot water for bathing or cooking or washing dishes is an important convenience. Currently, the most efficient way to heat water for a home is an on-demand water heater. While these are increasingly popular in the US, most homes still rely on the cheaper old tank-style water heater. Basically, its a 40 or so gallon tank of water that is heated either by natural gas or electric heating elements. True, the method works well but most of the energy used by tank water heaters is just for maintaining hot water on stand-by and ready for use. That means, it's heating water when you are asleep or at work or on vacation. So, a lot of energy is wasted. 

However, you can still improve your water heater.  While the tank is already wrapped with insulation, adding more will save energy.   So, put a water heater blanket around your water heater. These are made of plastic-covered fiberglass and you wrap them around your water heater.  Most water heater blankets at the home center tend to be about an inch thick so that they can be sold in one piece but not be too heavy to be held in place around the heater with tape. In terms of R factors of insulation (R-value indicates an insulation's resistance to heat flow), you will adding about 3 R's worth. 

You can make a water heater blanket with higher R-values. One method is to use reflective aluminum foil insulation (a.k.a. foil-clad bubble-wrap) and cut enough strips long enough to go around your water heater twice. You can then add the store-bought water heater blanket and have an R-value of more than 7.5. With this amount of insulation, you should be able to turn down your heater's thermostat and save even more money. 

For safety, do not block any of the control panels, block off the bottom, or put any of insulation across the top of your water heater. Never obstruct the pressure release valve. 

Keeping your hot water hot doesn't stop at the water heater. Insulating your hot water pipes will also save energy and cut energy costs. Consider this: each time you turn on the tap for your shower, you let the water run until it gets warm. Let's say the pipe from your water heater to your shower is 20 feet long. Now, that might only be a quart but that can turn into a couple of hundred gallons for a family of four in the course of a year. Also, consider that after your shower, there is still hot water in the pipe. By adding insulation, that heated water will cool more slowly. If you insulate your pipes efficiently enough, heat from the water heater will be more efficiently contained in your hot water pipes. You won't need to wait as long for that hot water, you will waste less water, and you will save more money.

Visit the Bounce Energy Education Center for more tips on saving energy. 

Plus, there are also state and federal rebate programs for purchasing energy-efficient replacements for old, less efficient appliances such as water heaters. 
Stay tuned for next time: Just Venting… Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC)

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