Posted by: Daryl & Wendy Ashby | October 1, 2011

How Do You Get Heated Up ?

Most people require hot water for about 10 minutes in the morning while showering, then another five minutes in the evening to clean the dishes and maybe another two or three minutes for hand-washing throughout the day. And yet most furnace rooms are equipped with 40-gallon hot-water tanks that require a constant supply of electricity to keep their innards at a near-boiling 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), 24 hours a day, which is unnecessarily hot.

One option for those looking to save energy is going tankless: A tankless hot-water system, usually gas-powered, functions on-demand by only heating water as it’s needed — this can save up to 75% more energy than a conventional hot-water tank. The downside, however, is that it can be costly (the Rheem EcoSense model at Home Depot, for instance, is almost $1,200 before taxes).

But if you’re like Rae Koffman, a doctor who works at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and lives in the city with her husband and two young children, there’s an even simpler solution.

“When we moved into our house, we got a new water heater,” says Ms. Koffman, “and one of the first things we did was find the temperature gauge and turn it down.”

Although she appreciated the energy-savings aspect of doing so, she was more concerned about the safety of her children: “Because of my work, I’m obsessed with prevention. Burns happen quite a lot in young children — you often see ‘sock burns’, which is what happens when a kid steps into the bath before the parent has checked the water temperature — and they can be really awful and painful.”

The provincial government agrees, which is why the Ontario Public Health Association distributes educational pamphlets to new mothers before they leave the hospital detailing how to obtain a birth certificate, how to breast feed and how to turn down the temperature on a household water heater.

“It wasn’t easy, actually,” says Ms. Koffman. She managed to remove the panel on the unit, but “all the guidelines say to turn it down to 120 degrees and there were no numbers on our dial — it was just ‘high’ and ‘low’. Then I found a website that said to put a candy thermometer under your tap and let the water run for 30 seconds to see how hot it is, so that’s what we did. But I think it would be good if the industry mandated that every unit had to have a ‘normal’ setting and a ‘child-safe’ setting.”

While some hardcore environmentalists will suggest turning it down even lower, to 110 or 115 degrees, the government strongly recommends going no lower than 120, as bacteria can start to develop when the water is lukewarm and there’s a risk of contracting Legionnaire’s Disease.

“If you have a chronic respiratory disease or a compromised immune system,” says Ms. Koffman, “you should probably be careful about turning it down too low. But if you’re a healthy person, it’s fine. At 120, you’re still preventing bacteria from growing.”

Vanessa Farquharson is a Toronto-based journalist and the author of Sleeping Naked is Green, an environmental memoir chronicling her attempt to make 366 eco-friendly lifestyle changes.

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