Why You Run out of Hot Water So Fast (and How to Fix It)

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Is there anything worse than being halfway through a shower and running out of hot water? Probably not. Why does it keep happening and what can be done about it? There's a couple of things you can do besides cutting back on your special time under the spray and some of them might even save you some money. But first, a bit of detective work may be in order.

Need a Bigger Tank?

If running out of hot water has been a long-term, ongoing problem, you may need a hot water heater with more capacity. Hot water heaters come in different sizes from 30 to 80 gallons and are heated with gas (natural or propane), which uses a burner at the bottom of the tank, or with electricity that heats up metal coils inside the tank. If you are running out of hot water on a regular basis take note of when it happens. Is the dishwasher or clothes washer running at the same time? They may be siphoning off your supply.

The US Department of Energy says an average shower uses up 10 gallons of hot water. Shaving uses two, hand washing dishes or food prep uses four, an automatic dishwasher uses six and a clothes washer on the “hot" cycle will use up seven. If your water heater is fairly new, there should be a sticker on the front telling you the water heater's “first hour rating."

That number tells you how may gallons of hot water the heater supplies per hour, starting with a tank full of hot water. The number is calculated by factoring in your tank capacity, source of heat, and the size of the burner or the element.

Baths typically consume more hot water than showers depending on the size of the tub, so if someone draws a bath and you then you immediately try to take a shower, the water in the tank hasn't had enough time to heat back up. If the water heater is working correctly and there just isn't enough, see if you have enough physical space to add a larger capacity tank.

Turn it Up?

Most hot water tanks come with a temperature control that allows the homeowner to adjust the default heat setting. Maybe the tank can be turned up to give you hotter water right from the source. Look on the top or the bottom of the tank for a temperature dial but heed any warnings about scalding. The adjusting knob may be hiding behind one of the access panels on the front of the heater.

Tank Problems

Water tanks usually come with a multi-year warranty but they do wear out. If your water is high in mineral content or sediment, your water heater may be breaking down due to minerals corroding the heating elements or sediment forming in the bottom of the tank.

If you're water heater is fired by natural gas, the burner or thermocouple may be failing. Used in a natural gas-fired hot water heaters, the thermocouple is a heat sensitive sensor that turns the supply of gas off when the pilot light is not on. A failing thermocouple will turn off the flow of gas even when the pilot light is lit— which means no hot water. To take a closer look, you will need to turn the power or gas off to the tank, drain the water out of it, remove the covers and have a look inside. While hot water heaters are not complicated machines, call a qualified plumber if you feel like you're getting in over your head.

Need a Faster Tank?

If there's nothing wrong with the tank, it may be that your water usage is too heavy for the tank to keep up. Besides staggering your times of heavy hot water usage or buying a bigger tank, you can also consider a recirculating pump which circulates the water inside the tank to get things toasty faster. Even though recirculating pumps are electric, if they are cycled on and off correctly they can actually reduce your water-heating bill—which is usually a big chunk of your overall energy costs. The pumps range in price from just over $100 to over $300 and usually require a licensed plumber to install.

Go Tankless

Although it sounds like it could never work, “tankless" water heaters actually make a lot of sense. Rather than a large cylinder of water hanging around in your basement or garage that constantly needs reheating, a tankless system looks more like a box that hangs on a wall and heats up water only as it's needed. They are generally more costly to purchase and install but are actually more economical over the long run and produce a basically endless amount of hot water. Don't get steamed about running out of hot water, with these tips, you'll experience the perfect temperature every time you hop into the shower.