Frugal, Personal Finance, Saving Money, Utilities

In-House Water Heater Control: Strange Ways to Save Money

Your water heater is one of the biggest contributors to your electric bill. It’s usually on all the time, heating water even when no one is home. I learned just how much it contributes to the power bill one summer when I went on a long vacation. I had turned it off at the fuse box when we left for safety reasons. I’d never done that before. When I got home, my power bill was the lowest I’d ever seen it. Even though the A/C and other appliances were off, that bill was about thirty percent lower than any other bill when I’d gone on vacation. I got to thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if I had the ability to control the water heater even when I am home? Unfortunately for most of us, the only way to turn it on and off when it’s not needed is to trek to the fuse box and turn off the breaker. But what if there were another way?

Those on-demand water heaters are nice and would help me save money, but they are expensive and I didn’t want to just toss my perfectly good water heater. I needed another solution. I was inspired by the setup in my motor home. That water heater is gas and there is a switch inside the camper to turn it on and off. We turn it on in the morning, turn it off during the day while we’re gone, turn it on again in the evening when we return and turn it off again before we go to bed. It keeps our gas usage (and bill) low when we’re on the road. I wanted a system like that for the house. I wanted to be able to flip a switch in the morning and let it heat up while I went for my run. When I got home, I could take a hot shower before leaving and turning the water heater off for the day. I could then turn it on again in the evening so I could do dishes and laundry and take a shower. Before bed, I could turn it off for the night.

Luckily I am married to a husband with electrical ability. (If you’re not, this is definitely a project for a professional as it involved messing around in the fuse box and running new wiring. Safety first.) He was able to install exactly what I wanted using about $100 in parts from Home Depot. I now have a switch by my kitchen sink that I use to turn the water heater on and off as needed. I don’t have to trek to the fuse box if I know I’m going to be gone a while in order to turn off the breaker.

Our power bills are now about twenty percent lower than they were before we installed the switch (in some months that’s as much as $50). The cost of the switch was paid back in less than three months and every month since then has been pure savings. (It would take longer to pay back the cost if you had to hire professional help, as electricians can be pricey.) There are some days we forget to turn it off as often as we should, but on the whole we keep the water heater off when not in use. It would be nice if I could find a programmable water heater that works like a programmable thermostat but in the absence of that solution, my switch works well. People comment to me sometimes that it’s odd that I would go through the trouble to set this up, but when I tell them the savings, they start to think about it for themselves.

This is part of a new series of articles which look at strange, offbeat and unusual ways to save and make money. Anything that’s a little odd, uncommon, or contrarian is fair game – as long as it’s legal.

12 thoughts on “In-House Water Heater Control: Strange Ways to Save Money

  1. I have to say, I’m really surprised that this saves you money. I would think that when you turn it back on when you get home, the water heater would have to run for so long to get that big tank of water back up to the desired temperature, it would use as much money as if you had run it all day. I guess not! Makes me want to do it as we have an electric hot water heater and I was really surprised by how much electricity it used when we moved in last year. Unfortunately, we’re renting, so it’s not an option for us right now. Thanks for the great idea!

  2. I used to be on a Time-of-Day rate with my electric co-op, and when they first introduced the program 20+ years ago, they offered a $50 bill credit if we installed a timer on our hot water heater.

    The one we installed had several “pins” in it so that we could set it to come on about 30 minutes before we got up so that we would have hot water for showers and dishes, turned it off about the time we left for the day and turned it back on about 30 minutes before we got home from work leaving it on for a couple of hours for dinner, dishes and laundry. The timer was installed in my laundry room, and I could override it if ncessary but seldom did.

    The TOD rate and the timer together made a stunning difference in our electric bill most of which was from the timer.

    I have a gas tankless hot water heater now, and I love it. As you mentioned, it cost the earth, but the convenience of endless hot water only when I need it is worth it.

  3. We have gas water heaters here, so I’m not familiar with electric ones, but I’m surprised there is not a switch on the heater itself. I guess that circuit is dedicated for the water heater only. If you sell your house, you may need to disclose that non-licensed electrical work was done if it was not checked off by a pro. (There may be home owners insurance consequences, too.) Did your town/county require a permit?

  4. For gas water heaters, we have an energy efficient one circa 2001 (when our house was built). I have marked the levels we like it in summer and winter, and we just put it half way between in the spring and fall. (As far as how “hot” it is). Our gas bill will run $8/month in the summer (+ gas stove and everything).

    I certainly don’t see the point of an “on demand water heater.” You can manage costs a lot by turning on/off, up/down.

  5. P.S. I have to add that has nothing to do with your comfort level, either. IT’s just cutting costs when not using it. We LOVE our hot water. We probably just don’t love it very much when it is 100 degrees outside… 😉

  6. I have to say that this is going to the extreme to save money, but if it works, why not. As a real estate broker, I concur with Joan regarding the permit. Where I live, this action would certainly require a permit, and with the housing market in such bad shape, the lack of a permit could prove to be a deal killer if you wanted to sell your home.

  7. Wow! I’m just thinking of all the money we could have saved over the 6 years we’ve lived here. Our electric bill is killing us, even though we have a new (as of 2004) energy efficient heat pump. Yeah, we had to replace the heat pump the year we moved in. Isn’t that the way it ALWAYS goes?

  8. I have used a timer on my electric water heater for years. It turns on at 5AM, in time for a morning shower, and off at 8AM. The tank is well insulated and I have had hot (just not as hot) water available for a quick shower as late as 9PM. Whenever I go off for more than a day I shut it off at the breaker as well as heat or AC. I feel that I save at least $30 – $40 a month with the timer alone. I am a bachelor and live alone so I don’t need as much hot water as a family with children. But even having a timer with 2 on/off cycles would save quite a bit.

  9. Hi

    I think the timer option is the best “fit and forget” solution to saving money on water heating. I cannot imagine not having one!

  10. My FIL used to have a timer on the hot water heater, on at 5AM, off at 8PM. You knew that if you waited too long in the evening, the shower could get cool, but no one ever remembers completely running out of hot water. But they were a farm family, and did all of the laundry and dishes, etc. during the day.

  11. Sounds interesting. I may give that a shot. I would like to turn the temperature down on my water heater but I have read that you have to keep it at 140 degrees to get your dishes sanitary in the dishwasher if the dishwasher does not have a heater.

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