New ways to save energy at home; Big savings in hot water

It took several weeks of consistent testing and more showers than Bruce M. Crawford cares to remember. But eventually he found the reduced-flow shower head that was to save an almost incredible number of hot- water dollars for Boston University -- while still providing an invigorating shower for the students in residence.

The head of the university's buildings and grounds department knew he was on the right track, but even he was surprised by the resulting savings -- an estimated $60,000 a year. Indeed, by the time the university was billed, just one month after delivery, the savings in energy already equaled the cost of the 1,600 shower heads.Such then is the magnitude of the dollar savings relative to the cost of hot- water conservation.

Think of hot-water boilers and heaters, in general, as "large boxes that burn money," say John Rothchild and Frank Tenney, authors of "The Home Energy Guide" (Balantine Books). That way you will get the correct perspective on them.

David Delporto, president of ECOS Inc. in Concord, Mass., specialists in water and energy conservation, talks in terms of "hot- water economics." The payback on conservation equipment is dramatically short, he contends, "simply because it costs so much to heat water, particularly with electricity."

For example, a conventional shower head delivers 6 gallons per minute, or 30 gallons of water in 5 minutes. That works out at 120 gallons of hot water for the average family of four every day. To heat that volume of water to 110 degrees F. for a comfortable shower requires 60,000 Btu of energy. With oil at 80 cents a gallon that equals 74 cents; natural gas at 40 cents per therm equals 80 cents; electricity at 6 cents per kilowatt-hour equals $1.10 per day.

So avoiding the tub and reducing shower time is one obvious route to take. As Mr. Delporto puts it, anything longer than 5 minutes in a shower "comes under the heading of recreation." It also helps significantly to turn off the water while soaping up.

Additional savings, such as those that Boston University now enjoys, come from adding a reduced-flow shower head. These shower heads cut hot-water use in the shower by 50 to 60 percent. So without much effort a family of four Can readily cut between $100 and $200 off its energy bill. Such savings will make paying the auto insurance at the end of the year that much easier. Or maybe it will provide some of those extras for the annual vacation.

Many good shower heads are now on the market and the Department of Energy is dispensing free plastic inserts for adapting conventional shower heads. But the latter, while effectively reducing the amount of hot water used, don't always provide as invigorating a shower as many people want, according to Mr. Crawford. Nor does every one of the commercially available reduced- flow heads. Hence the several weeks of testing he undertook.

If possible, ask where you can see a shower head in operation before buying. i recently installed an oxygenating shower head with a simple switch for turning off the water when soaping up. It reduces the volume of water used but provides a very satisfying shower by dispensing it at a higher pressure. Its $9 cost is small relative to the savings.

I also have wrapped a thermal jacket around my electric hot-water heater as well. This is recommended by the Department of Energy for electric and gas water heaters, especially those in areas such as basements, where the temperature often falls below 50 degrees F. In winter, my basement seldom rises above that temperature so that the $19 cost should readily be recouped in saved Btu. The Department of Energy estimates that with electricity AT 6 cents a therm the savings in one year should approximate $28. Over five years the savings, allowing for rising energy costs, would come to $165. With natural gas , savings would be less.

These hot-water jackets are easily installed and readily available. On the other hand, you can just as easily insulate your heater using conventional foil-backed fiberglass designed for use in walls.

According to the Cooperative Extension Service of the US Department of Agriculture, you will need one roll of R-11 (3 1/2 thick) kraft-backed insulation, 15 inches wide (about $9); two 10-yard rolls of duct tape, 2 inches wide (about $3.50). You will also need scissors, gloves, marking pen, tape measure, and a sharp knife.

Preparing the insulation:

* Measure how big around your hot-water heater is. Then add 28 inches to that figure.

* Using the scissors, cut four strips of insulation to length (If water heater measures 66 inches around, the insulation should be 94 inches long).

* Fit one strip of insulation around the tank and mark with your pen the exact amount of overlap, which should be approximately 6 inches.

* Move the strip of insulation to the floor and carefully remove the fiberglass from the kraft backing with a sharp knife -- from the overlap mark to the end of the backing.

* Repeat with the other three strips.

* Cut two half circles out of the remaining insulation and fit together to make an insulation batt for the top of the tank.


1. Install the bottom strip first, making sure it touches the floor. Hold in place with two short pieces of tape.

2. Repeat with each strip, making sure that the overlapping flaps are aligned vertically.

3. Be sure the upper batt extends 3 1/2 inches above the top of the tank, forming a circle into which the two top pieces will fit.

4. Mark the location of the element cover and cut an inspection flap where needed.

5. When all four batts are in place with overlapping flaps aligned vertically , tape the vertical seam.

6. Tape the horizontal seams last, and make sure the tape overlaps by at least 6 inches. This allows the tape to stick to itself as it does this better than to the insulation.

7. Cut grooves in the top pieces so that they will fit snugly around the pipes and press into place. Tape center seam.

8. Draw the upper edge of the sidewall insulation snugly around the top batt and seal with tape.

The extension service calculates the whole operation will take about 45 minutes of your time.

When it comes time to replace your present water heater, be sure to select one that meets your family's need and no more. Oversized heaters simply use energy to maintain unused water at a constant temperature. You might also look into the new tankless heaters. These are attached right next to the faucet and heat the water as it is being drawn. These units draw tremendous amounts of energy in short spurts while the faucet is running. But because they heat only the water that is being drawn, right where it is needed, energy savings are considerable.

If water costs so much to heat, it obviously pays to insulate the hot-water pipes wherever you can. This way less heat will be lost en route to the faucet.

And what about insulating cold-water pipes? Yes, indeed, says Mr. Delporto. If cold-water pipes pass through a warm living area, they constantly absorb heat from the surrounding air, heat that costs you money to generate, whether from your oil furnace or a wood-burning stove. If your pipes are "sweating" (moisture from the warm air condensing on the cold pipes) you are losing valuable heat.

In this respect, the major consumer of heat is the flush toilet. In winter, the five gallon of water comes into the tank at around 38 degrees F., warms up to room temperature, only to be flushed away. Because water is a most efficient heat-storing fluid, it absorbs considerable heat from the surrounding air. "Do you realize you are flushing Btus down the drain every time you press the handle!" Mr. Delporto says with emphasis.

Use plastic bottles filled with water or pebbles to reduce the amount of water used per flush. (Avoid bricks; they can flake and damage the system). A particularly good approach is to install a pair of flexible toilet tank dams. These hold back between 1 and 2 gallons per flush, while maintaining water height above the pipe where it is needed for good flushing action.

Another option: Old toilet tanks can be replaced by new models that use only 3 gallons of water. Still newer designs have reduced the flush to 2 1/2 gallons , using water pressure to augment the flushing action.

Another plus for this type of conservation is that it reduces the load on your septic system and cuts down on the amount of energy used to pump the water to your home. To eliminate this type of energy loss altogether, try a composting toilet.

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