James Pinsky: Keeping ourselves in hot water

James Pinsky


I find myself in hot water often.

This is of course because I am man enough to admit I love a good bath.

Doing my part to save the world can be stressful and few things wash away the rigors of conservation work better than a good soak in the tub.

Baths are a luxury I never enjoyed during my time aboard submarines. There, we ran the water just long enough to get wet. Then, we’d shut off the shower, lather up, and then rinse off just enough to get the suds moving south. Water, fresh, potable water that is, was a man-made treasure we manufactured from seawater while underway. If the water plant broke or other mission requirements mandated we not make water, we couldn’t pull our submarine up to a floating grocery store for a few cases of Aquafina. Hence, when had had water, we rationed it like a gray-haired camel in the desert.

Like I said, I enjoy a good bath. The water’s got to be hot. How hot? Well, my dogs have been known to throw carrots, potatoes and even a few bones in the tub with me as I soaked. I’d like to think they were trying to keep me well fed, but it’s more likely they were thinking Jay soup.

In most bathtubs, hot water comes from some sort of heater. Well water is often cool and refreshing and while it may be superb for waking you up, warmer water does makes for a good bath. It takes a lot more work to make hot water than to get out of it, at least for most of us. Even with today’s modern machines, the energy needed to warm our watery hearts ranks as the second highest energy use in our homes.

In a U.S. Department of Energy report, titled “The Impacts of Water Quality on Residential Water Heater Equipment,” the federal agency said water heating is a ubiquitous energy use in residential housing, accounting for 17.7 percent of residential energy use. Thus, prudent use of hot water in your home can save you a few energy dollars. If you’re diligent enough to feed your water heater the good stuff, water wise, your savings might be even more because your local water quality has as much to do with your water heater’s lifespan as ours.

The Department of Energy sheds some light on this topic for us. “The local water quality is one of the factors that contributes most significantly to the long-term performance and longevity of water heating equipment,” it wrote in the report. “Specifically, highly alkaline water will lead to the accumulation of scale, which will impact the efficiency of tankless and gas storage water heaters and can lead to decreased equipment life. Conversely, soft water increases the risk of corrosion, which can decrease equipment life by more than half if not properly mitigated. Increasing the lifetime of water heaters can improve the cost-effectiveness and increase the amount of savings achieved by an efficient water heater investment. Based on the specific water quality characteristics in a given location, different water heater design parameters and maintenance requirements can be applied to mitigate scale accumulation and corrosion in hard and soft waters, respectively.”

What the Department of Energy is talking about is the effect of hard and soft water on our water heaters. So what exactly is hard water? According to the U.S. Geological Survey Water Science School, “the simple definition of water hardness is the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in the water. Hard water is high in dissolved minerals, both calcium and magnesium.”

There shouldn’t be anything hard about making sure we have enough water, hot or cold, though. After all, what water we have now is all the water we ever will get so conserving its use, protecting its quality and maintaining There shouldn’t be anything hard about making sure we have enough water, hot or cold, though. After all, what water we have now is all the water we will ever get so conserving its use, protecting its quality, and maintaining the equipment we use to enjoy it like water heaters, faucets, bathtubs, and showers, are all simple, water and cost-conserving household best management practices we can and should do. Otherwise, the next bath we take could be costly – or worse, our last.

James Pinsky is the education and information coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.