There’s nothing worse than a cold shower.
Thank goodness for water heaters. Because of them, the average household has hot water whenever it needs it for cooking, cleaning, and of course, showering.
So, what’s the problem? Water heating is the 3rd largest user of energy in the home (after space heating and cooling), accounting for 14% of a home’s energy (US Energy Information Agency). But why is that number so high if you’re not running a hot water faucet all day?
Even when you’re not using hot water, your heater is warming it up. If no one is showering, washing their hands, or cleaning the dishes, and even if no one is home, a water heater is still draining money and energy to heat water that no one needs in that moment.
That’s where water heater timers come in. They are programmable devices that allow you to turn your water heater on and off, depending on when you’ll actually need it.
But how do you pick the right water heater timer? What will it do for your home and your wallet? And do you really need one?
Check out this ultimate guide to water heater timers for everything you need to know about what they are, how they work, and why they might be the next thing in your shopping cart.
This might seem like a basic question, but it’s necessary to have all the basics down before diving into everything you need to know about water heater timers.
The premise is simple: a water heater warms up the water that the average household uses for everyday tasks, like showering, cooking, and dish washing.
Next time you head down to your basement or out to the garage, pay your water heater a visit. Most heaters look similar: they’re a big, cylindrical tank or drum with a heating mechanism attached (although you may see tankless heaters in some new homes). Heaters have a thermostat control that you can adjust depending on how hot or cold you want your water.
That’s the right question to ask, and it’s why you’re here! Traditional storage water heaters try to stay hot all the time, even though we don’t use hot water all the time.! That drains both energy and money for no reason. There are likely many, many hours of the day where no one in a household is using hot water, especially if kids go to school and parents go to work.
To see real cost and energy savings when it comes to your hot water, one of the easiest and most effective solutions is to use a water heat timer.
Smart homeowners have been using timers to control their water heaters for decades to cut down on their energy usage and expenses.
An electric water heater timer is a small device that attaches to your current water heater. It can be programmed to keep your tank off during your known or expected periods of non-use, or when power is more expensive, saving you money and reducing your energy usage.
A water heater without a timer will run an average of 1.5 to 2 hours a day. If you use a lot of hot water, or the tank is poorly insulated or a bit older, that time can increase. When turned off, water heaters usually take about 30 to 45 minutes to heat the water in the tank, and the water stays heated for 6 to 12 hours.
If left to its own devices, a water heater will heat what’s inside 3-4 times throughout the day (about 30 minutes each time), when realistically, you may only need water heated once a day or not at all, especially if no one is home.
We can’t write an ultimate guide to water heater timers without addressing this little pet peeve! We at Aquanta love to teach people that “hot water heater” is a bit redundant (the word “hot” does the same job as the word “heater.”) So, if you want to sound like a true expert, put “hot water heater” to rest and just say “water heater”!
If you’ve got a storage water heater, then you should look into getting a timer. It’s that simple. The cost savings, energy efficiency, and positive environmental impact will help make your home, your wallet, and even the world more comfortable. Plus, there are timers out there for nearly every type of water heater, and if your heater is an older model, you’d especially benefit from the addition of a timer.
A water heater timer can help save money in two key ways. First, it can keep your tank from re-heating to make up for “standby loss” (which is a fancy way of saying that the water inside of your water heater is getting cold, just like your coffee gets cold in your coffee mug over time) while the water heater is not in use. The physics can be a bit complicated, but in summary, a cooler object loses energy more slowly than a hotter one, so keeping your tank off for an extended period, even though the tank has to re-heat eventually to make up for the standby loss, results in less energy lost.
Second, if your household or business is on a Time of Use or other variable rate with your power utility, you definitely want to keep your water heater and other major appliances from using energy during the “peak” price periods to the greatest extent possible. A water heater with timer will do just that, and shift the energy used by your tank to lower-priced times of the day.
The average water heater runs for one and a half to two hours a day, which can cost an average of about $36 a month for a household of four people. Suppose you spent around $300/year on heating water. If a smart water heater control saved you 15%, that'd be $45/year. The cost savings from a water heater timer are dependent on many factors, from occupancy to the weather outside, but many consumers attest to a smart control’s money-saving benefits. And with water heating being the third-highest expense in a home, the savings add up, and the timer eventually begins to pay for itself.
Like with money saving benefits, the amount of electricity saved with a water heater timer can vary based on several factors, from weather to the heater’s age. The general consensus among consumers is that the use of a water heater timer results in less energy loss.
Like most appliances of this sort, a conventional water heater is heated with electricity or by burning natural gas, leading to greenhouse gas emissions as it runs. When it’s turned off, these emissions stop.
Meaning, by reducing how much your water heater runs by adding a timer, you’re also reducing the harmful impact on the environment, which adds up. If you can’t get a tankless or solar-powered heater, then adding a timer is the next best thing.
An electric water heater timer is a small appliance that attaches to your electric water heater. There are two primary types of timers: analog, or mechanical, and digital. Analog timers include countdown timers, box timers, switch timers, and programmable timers.
Digital timers generally are remotely controllable via wireless technology such as Z-wave or Wi-Fi . Regardless of which type you have, the premise is the same. You use the timer to set your water heater on a schedule, be that through an app or manually, so that it only heats water when you want it to.
Not every water heater timer available on the market is compatible with every water heater. If you have a household or business with a relatively stable schedule of hot water usage, or have a variable utility rate with fixed high-cost periods (eg between 4-7pm on weekdays), then a timer is a great investment. But when it comes time to purchase a device, be sure to make sure the make, model, voltage, and tank of your water heater are compatible with the timer you’re looking to buy.
When creating a schedule on your water heater timer, think about the times of day that your household or business uses hot water. For example, if everyone is at work or school during the day, then noon is clearly a time of disuse. Conversely, if an entire household takes showers in the evening, then the water heater timer should be set accordingly.
Additionally, a typical tank needs about 30-60 minutes to fully heat up, so a timer schedule should allow for that. Note that for most households, typical hot water usage means that the tank is actively heating only 60-120 minutes a day. Newer water heaters are well insulated, so they hold their temperature pretty effectively; meaning that even if you keep your tank off for an extended period, you will likely still have plenty of hot water.
If you have a recirculation pump, your tank will have to do a lot more heating to make up for the increased hot water usage, so make sure it is also on a timer schedule and is aligned with the water heater timer schedule.
An electric water heater timer is fairly straightforward to install for the typical “handy” homeowner, and well within your reach if you are comfortable with light electrical work. The main thing required is to reroute the power cable of your water heater through the timer, and there are plenty of guides and videos online explaining how to do this.
If DIY projects aren’t really in your wheelhouse, a professional can install your timer quickly and with little hassle. In other words, messy or complicated installation is not an issue when it comes to water heater timers!
While all water heater gadgets have a common premise, there are numerous varieties of timers, and it’s important to know their differences when choosing a water heater timer.
Historically, the most widely used electric water heater timer control devices are mechanical switches similar to the old timers used for Christmas tree lights, with a manual and somewhat clunky schedule-setting clock face. Many power utilities have even had programs where these devices are provided for free as part of a Time of Use program, or are required by code for grid management purposes, like in the ordinances of Austin, Texas.
While traditional analog water heater timer switches can be cost-effective and are widely used, they have their downsides. For one, the clock on the timer tends to drift over time, as the device is entirely mechanical and doesn’t “know” the actual time. This can result in your water heater turning off and on at times you don't intend.
Additionally, their scheduling capability can be limited (e.g. no weekend/weekday scheduling) and not easily updatable (e.g. if your schedule or the utility rate changes, or adjusting to daylight savings time) as it requires physically changing the scheduling clock and mechanism on the timer itself.
That’s where digital water heater timers come in!
A digital water heater timer will, like an analog timer, have a relay inside of it that opens and closes to allow or disallow power to the tank. However, digital timers are controlled by electronic signals, rather than mechanical controls, within the device.
Additionally, nearly all modern digital timers are internet-connected, so they can be scheduled remotely from any connected device (such as your phone, tablet, or computer) for easy access and updating. That means the downsides of analog timers aren’t as much of a concern when using a digital timer.
Wi-Fi and smart water heaters with embedded controls both fall into the category of digital timers. So how exactly do you control a water heater timer with Wi-Fi? A timer like this will likely come with an app that allows you to remotely and easily set your water heating from a connected device like your smart phone or tablet without having to head down to the basement.
Some smart water heater timers, also Wi-Fi-enabled, can detect the usage of water in a household and automatically adjust the water heating schedule accordingly, without manual intervention.
When you decide it’s time to buy a water heater timer, make sure that you’re picking a device that’s compatible with your water heater, convenient to use, and does exactly what you tell it to do at the times you want. A digital timer is a great bet for most households as it allows you to reap all the benefits of having a timer with minimal effort or visits to the basement required.
Water heater timers have the power to save you money and energy, while at the same time keeping your home comfortable. Looking for a water heater timer that actually works?
The Aquanta retrofittable water heater controller brings your electric or gas water heater out of the basement and into the palm of your hand to heat water only when you need it. Aquanta’s user-friendly app enables a much wider range of controls and features. It also reports on your tank status and meters your hot water usage. The handy internet control ensures that your timer is continuously updated to keep the correct time, so the schedule you set is always accurate.
Ready to turn your dumb tank into a smart water heater? Get Aquanta!