Set Your Water Heater to This Exact Temperature and Save Some Cash This Winter

This story is part of Home TipsCNET’s collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Nothing beats a hot shower after a long, stressful day. But if you’re like me, your enjoyment is always marred by nagging thoughts of how much that water is actually costing you. That concern isn’t for nothing: According to the Department of Energy, heating water can account for 14% to 18% of an average electric bill.

You must have noticed that utility bills were more expensive than usual this year, especially yours gas and utility bills. And these will increase even more significantly this fall and winter. Families are expected to pay 17.2% more for heating this winter, the highest in more than 10 years, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (PDF). That means saving money is a priority.

If you’re looking to save some money, then considering your water heater (and hot water usage) is a good place to start. Here’s what you should know. For easier ways to cut costs, just try turning off the lights and doing laundry in a cost-effective way. You might also consider buying one smart thermostat or others energy-saving smart devices.

The perfect temperature to set a water heater

If you’re looking for a short answer, it’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit (about 49 degrees Celsius). Many water heaters are set at 140 degrees F according to factory specifications, but lowering the temperature can result in energy savings of 4% to 22% and up to $400, according to the Department of Energy. Even with the lower setting, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting your shower or dishwater hot enough.

And the default setting of 140 F (60 C) may go away. In fact, recent installation manuals for major manufacturers of domestic water heaters call for a starting temperature of 120 F (49 C).

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The lower temperature may have more to do with avoiding scalding than with saving energy. Because 140 F in five seconds can cause second- and third-degree burns, lowering the temperature of your water heater can save you from financial and physical pain.

Changing your water heater’s thermostat should be as simple as turning a knob or entering a temperature. If you’re not sure where your thermostat is or how to read it, you can consult your owner’s manual or speak to a licensed professional.

After you set up your water heater, the Department of Energy recommends that you perform a simple test, as the device’s reading can be inaccurate. Once you’ve made the switch, open the hot water faucet farthest from your water heater and take the temperature with a thermometer. If it doesn’t match your target temperature, adjust the thermostat and try again in two hours.

What’s the catch?

The Department of Energy lists some additional considerations when changing the temperature of your water heater.

Some dishwashers require water between 130 F and 140 F to function optimally. So watch your dishwasher’s performance after changing the temperature. If your dishes don’t come out as clean, you may need to put them back.

There is also a small risk of Legionella bacteria growing in 120 F water, which causes Legionnaires’ disease. The Department of Energy calls it a small risk, but if you or someone you live with has a weaker immune system, you might want to raise the temperature a few degrees. The concern is generally with larger buildings, says a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent guidance from the CDC states that setting your water heater to a higher temperature may kill more germs, but that the risk of scalding, especially for young children and older adults, needs to be carefully monitored.

Here are 23 ways to save on your electric bills now

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Other ways to save hot water

In addition to the thermostat, you should also pay attention to the pipes and tank of your water heater. Insulating the tank and pipes can conserve heat during periods when hot water is not being used. You can also install low-flow faucets and showerheads, reducing the amount of hot water you use without sacrificing your experience.

If you are unsure about making these improvements yourself, contact your utility company. Energy suppliers can offer home energy efficiency fixes for free or at a discounted rate. In some cases someone from the utility company will come and install the insulation and new shower heads for free.

In addition to making adjustments to your home’s hot water infrastructure, you can adjust your habits. Shorter showerswash clothes cold, showering instead of bathing and using a dishwasher can save hot water.

Many water heaters have an expected lifespan of around 10 to 20 years. If you need to replace your water heater, look for an efficient one. You can start with energy starhelping you find energy-efficient Energy Star qualified water heaters and providing buying guides to help you decide on brand, energy source and type, like tankless or storage.

You need to balance the initial cost of a water heater with the savings over time, but water heaters, like many appliances, usually have estimated energy costs that are disclosed prior to purchase.

The final result

An easy way to save money around the house—sometimes up to hundreds of dollars a year—is by lowering the temperature of your water heater and using less hot water. When it comes time to replace your water heater, energy efficient options can help and there are several models available to meet your needs.

After looking at your water heater, move on to your air conditioner, Reconsider the placement of your thermostat or Consider solar energy.

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