Lower Your Hot Water Bill with a Simple On-Off Switch

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For information about our plans for adapting our"urban homestead" to meet the looming challenges of peak oil, climate instability, and economic irrationality, see Gatewood Urban Homestead, the permaculture design for our home.

When it comes to cutting your hot water bill, many people look at "on-demand" water heaters. One issue with them, however, is their high capital cost for installation.

However, there is one easy and "value priced" hot water option for people with electric water heaters: install an on/off switch. Tank water heaters waste energy when they keep a tank of water hot 24/7/365. On demand water heaters avoid this waste by heating hot water as it is used, but they are expensive. Installing a simple on-off switch on an electric water is a value priced way to finesse this problem without spending as much as on-demand heaters cost.

When we did our Extreme Green Renovation of our 1929 Craftsman bungalow near downtown Oklahoma City, I began researching hot water options. We'd like to go with a solar hot water heater, but like the on-demand water heaters, they are out of our price range at this point.

So we went with the value price option. We also rewired our house during that renovation, we went with an off-the-shelf mid-priced electric water heater from a big box store. And we had the electrician install an on-off switch.

During the winter, we turn the tank on about twice a week, 2 hours at a time. During the summer, when we tend to use less hot water, we turn it on about once a month.

+ Electric water heaters are much better insulated than natural gas or propane water heaters. They don't have a chimney in the middle, so the tank stays hot much longer.

+ We added insulation to the tank by wrapping fiberglass insulation around it and securing it with duct tape.

+ The new switch, installed by itself, without any other electric work, would cost about $200 according to a bid solicited by a public television program that did a documentary about our house (our switch was installed as part of a whole-house re-wiring, and that particular job was not priced separately from the others).

+ When the hot water tank has cooled to the ambient temperature, it takes only about 5 minutes after we turn on the switch to get a stream of hot water.

+ We also installed a low flow shower-head to reduce our hot water usage. We like its spray better than our previous standard shower-head. It cost about $11 at a big box store.

Almost 3 years later (summer 2008), we love our on-off water heater switch and the money it saves us. It was one of the best innovations we implemented during our Extreme Green Renovation.