You know the drill: Turn on the shower—and wait. Turn on the kitchen sink—and wait. So frustrating! Why on earth does the water take so long to heat up?
Besides trying your patience, waiting for hot water is also costing you money in water and energy costs. Here’s what could be happening and how the pros would fix it.
Why does it take so long for the water to get hot?
It’s a basic principle, really: When you turn on the hot water faucet, the water sitting in the pipes has to be pushed out by the new hot water coming from the water heater, says Mike Mushinski, president of Bluefrog Plumbing and Drain. Ideally, this process doesn’t take too long, but sometimes it hits a snag.
Here are some factors that determine how quickly (or not) hot water gets to your tap:
- Distance: This is how far the water must travel from the water heater to the faucet. “Hot water must travel from the source to each faucet once the hot water is turned on, and, depending on where that source is located, it could take quite some time to get there,” says Mushinski.
- Volume restrictor: Some faucets and shower heads have a device that restricts flow to conserve water and energy. The problem isn’t the restrictor itself, but if there is an existing hot water issue, such as a long distance from the water heater to the faucet, it could mean even a longer wait.
- Pipe size: The speed at which hot water can start pouring out of the tap also depends on the size of pipes you have. “The smaller the pipe’s diameter, the faster hot water runs through the pipes. When you have a bigger pipe, the water that sits in there will cool off, taking more time for hot water to run through,” says Tonya Bruin, CEO of To Do-Done.
- Water heater age: The life span of a traditional water heater is eight to 10 years. As it ages, it might not heat the water as well—or worse, quit suddenly, usually when you’re in the shower before you rinse the soap off!
- Sediment buildup: A crusty layer of dissolved minerals such as calcium and magnesium settles on the bottom of the tank where the heating element or gas burner is, blocking the heating element. Water heaters should be flushed once a year; you can do it yourself or call a plumber.
- Hot water supply: This doesn’t happen that often, but if everyone in the family takes a shower at once, you might use up all the hot water supply in your home. An average 80-gallon water heater may take up to an hour to pipe out hot water again.
DIY shortcuts to get hot water faster
Depending on the scope of the problem, there are two things you can try to get hot water faster before calling a plumber.
- Insulate hot water pipes: Insulation helps keep the standby water warmer for when you need it, which can shorten the wait for hot water. According to Energy.gov, insulating hot water pipes with pipe sleeves or fiberglass pipe-wrap reduces heat loss and raises the temperature 2 to 4 degrees compared with uninsulated pipes. Here’s how to do it.
- Insulate the water heater: Water heaters suck up more energy than all the other appliances in your house combined, accounting for 17% of your home’s total energy usage, Energy.gov says. If your water heater is working harder to keep the water hot, it’s costing you more money. There’s a simple way to test if your water heater needs insulation, Bruin says: Touch it. If the outside of the water heater is warm, then it is advisable to get insulation for it. A water heater blanket can cut standby heat loss by 25% to 45%, not to mention the 7% to 16% you’ll get to keep from annual heating costs.
Things a professional plumber can do
If your water heater isn’t old and insulating the water heater and pipes didn’t help, it’s time to call in a professional. A good plumber will inspect the entire system and install any needed equipment correctly. Bruin recommends two affordable options:
- Recirculating pump: Mushinski says the most practical solution is to install a recirculating pump on your water heater. “This can reduce the wait time for hot water at the faucet by as much as 80%. It works by recirculating the water in the hot water line once it has cooled down back to the water heater, so that it can be replaced with hot water,” says Mushinski. You can choose a recirculating pump that is mounted near a faucet or a recirculating pump that is attached to the water heater.
- Point-of-use water heater: If there’s just one faucet where immediate hot water is needed, a point-of-use water heater is a good solution. This smaller unit is installed near designated fixtures and heats water with an electric heating element or gas burner. It’s ideal for faucets that are quite a distance away from the main water heater.