How to Go Green

Get more tips and learn more about water conservation with Planet Green's How to Go Green: Laundry.

Water Conservation Tips

Improving water conservation in your home can help you save not just on water bills, but also on expenses for heating water. Below are some ideas you can try to boost your water conservation efforts.

Remove Sediment Buildup

Draining sediment from a water heater's tank is an energy-saving procedure anyone can do quickly and easily. Periodically removing accumulated sediment helps conventional water heaters operate at optimum efficiency. The sediment consists of hard-water minerals and other debris that enter the storage tank along with the incoming water. As the water is heated, the minerals separate from the water and fall to the bottom of the tank.

Over time, the mineral deposits build up to the point that they act as insulation on the bottom of the tank, isolating the water from effects of the burner firing below (on gas and oil units) and sometimes stacking up high enough to cover the heating element on electric water heaters. The harder it is for heat to get through the sediment layer, the longer the burner has to fire or the electric elements have to run in order to heat the water.

The solution is to remove the sediment layer. You do not have to turn off the power source (electricity, gas, or oil) to the water in order to drain the sediment.

A small drain valve is on the outside of the water heater tank's jacket near the bottom. It looks like a miniature hose bibb on the outside of a house. Attach a short length of standard garden hose to this valve, stick the free end of the hose into either a floor drain nearby or a large bucket, and open the valve.

Water will flow from the bottom of the water heater and out the valve and through the hose, taking sediment along with it. After draining five gallons or so from the tank, shut off the valve, disconnect the hose, and empty the bucket (if you used one) into a sink or toilet. You've not only improved the efficiency of your water heater, but you've also extended its service life.

What is the reason? There is a thin film of water that is trapped between the sediment and the bottom of the tank. When the burner fires, the thin layer of water heats to an abnormally high temperature that deteriorates the tank's glass lining, speeding up its rusting process. Accumulated sediment is also responsible for the popping, banging, rumbling, and percolating noises often heard from a water heater as the burner fires or the elements heat up.

Depending on the mineral content of your water, a water heater tank should be drained of its sediment at least twice a year, and more often in hard-water areas.

Insulate Pipes

What does pipe insulation do? It keeps heat inside the pipes where it belongs, rather than radiating out into the air. The result is that hot water reaches distant bathrooms faster than it would otherwise, reducing the volume of water that has to flow down the pipe for hot water to effectively arrive. And once hot water fills the pipe, it stays there for a long time. So if you use a hot water tap again shortly after the first usage, it's likely that the water will still be sufficiently hot.

In addition, pipe insulation helps reduce "standby" heat losses at the water heater. Standby heat losses occur while the water heater is just sitting there doing nothing at all. Over a period of time, heat radiating from the water heater's tank and the pipes entering and exiting the top of the unit reduce the temperature of the water inside the tank. Eventually, the thermostat is activated and the burner fires or the electric elements switch on. The water heats up again, only to cool down gradually through the cooling effects of the tank and pipes. It's an endless cycle, exacerbated by the heat loss through the pipes at the top of the water heater. So, although the hot water pipes are the logical ones to insulate, insulating the first five feet or so of the cold water pipe at the water heater is a good idea, too. That helps reduce the loss of heat that migrates up the pipe from the water heater tank.

Although insulating the pipes at the water heater might eliminate only one burner firing or element activation a day, at today's gas and electric prices, that can add up to substantial savings over the course of a year.

It may also be worthwhile to insulate another cold water pipe in your house -- the water service entry pipe from a municipal supply or well -- though not for energy-efficiency reasons. Throughout the winter and into the spring, water coming into the house through that pipe is cold. If the air is humid enough, condensation can form on the outside of the pipe and drip down onto carpets, suspended ceiling tiles, and anything else along its path. Covering the exposed pipe with foam insulation isolates the pipe from the humid air, preventing condensation from forming.

Insulating water pipes used to involve a large roll of itchy fiberglass insulation, a lot of time, and a lot of cutting and fitting the wrapping around obstructions. And even after all that work, the insulation was so thin that it didn't do much good. Insulating the water pipes in your home these days is simpler, quicker, and more effective.

The closed cell foam pipe insulation available at plumbing supply houses and home centers not only insulates far better than the old fiberglass material, but it's also easy to install. Each piece is slit along its length, allowing the insulation to simply snap over the pipe. The foam is so soft that it can be cut with a kitchen knife or a pair of heavy scissors.

Add a Blanket to the Water Heater

New water heaters are being built with better insulation these days, so if you have an old unit, don't be shy about adding an extra layer of insulation. There are water heater "blankets" available at home centers and hardware stores that wrap the exterior of the unit with an additional layer of insulation.

Electric water heaters can be covered top to bottom with insulation. Gas water heaters, however, must not be covered on top or along the bottom. The top contains the flue, and that can get hot enough to ignite flammable materials. The bottom must be left open so air can enter the burner assembly for proper combustion of the natural gas, propane, or oil.

The end of the pressure and temperature relief valve extension pipe (usually running down the side of the unit) on any type of water heater must be left open and exposed as well. This pipe has to be free of obstructions in case the valve activates and releases hot water or steam. Any blockage could interfere with the free release of the pressure within the tank, and that could be dangerous.

Other than that, the more insulation you can wrap around a water heater, the fewer "standby" losses will occur, the less the burner or elements will come on, and the more efficient it will be overall. This is a relatively easy and inexpensive task that pays off every hour of every day from the moment you put the blanket on. Like most jobs involving insulation, it's not glamorous, but it works.

Install Reduced-Flow Showerheads

Nearly half of all water used in a home is used for bathing. Almost all of that water needs to be heated. Therefore, the bathroom is an ideal place to practice energy and water conservation. Since January 1995, showerheads in new homes have been required to dispense no more than 2.5 gallons per minute. If you have a showerhead older than that in your home, it takes but a few minutes to replace it with a showerhead that meets the modern flow rate standards.

Showerheads aren't expensive. Ten to twenty-five dollars will purchase a new one that meets the 2.5-gallon limit. If you have an older showerhead that allows up to 6 gallons a minute and subsequently install a low-flow showerhead, you'll reduce your shower water use by more than three gallons per minute.

Water entering a home in northern states in the winter can be as cold as 38 degrees. Heating water that cold to the 120 degrees or so needed to produce a reasonably hot shower demands quite a bit of energy. So it's easy to understand why taking advantage of 2.5-gallon showerhood technology can save a lot on your utility bill.

A caveat though: Putting a low-flow showerhead into use is not an excuse to spend more time in the shower. In some cases, the length of time a person spends in a shower is exactly equivalent to how long the hot water in the water heater's tank lasts. Once the hot water runs out, the shower is over. If it took, say, ten minutes to exhaust your water heater's capacity with a six gallon per minute showerhead, does that mean you can now stay under the running water for 20 minutes with a reduced-flow showerhead in place? Technically, yes. But that would result in no energy or water savings. If you confine your shower activities to simply washing, rinsing, and then getting out, keeping the shower's length the same as it was before the introduction of the new showerhead, you'll decrease your use of energy and water.

Use Faucet Aerators

Older-style bathroom and kitchen sink faucets can deliver as much at 3.5 to 5 gallons of water per minute. Much of that water is wasted; typical washing tasks can usually be accomplished using less.

Faucet aerators, either supplied on new faucets or as inexpensive retrofit add-ons to older faucets, reduce the flow rate to 0.5 to 1.0 gallon per minute in bathrooms, and 1.0 to 2.0 gallons per minute at the kitchen sink. Because air is added to the water stream at the faucet's tip, the flow seems full although the actual volume of water is substantially reduced. This allows you to do more with less hot water.

In the next section, we'll look at another important step you can take to conserve more energy. If ice dams form on your roof during the winter months, it's important to address the attic ventilation problems that caused them.