Adjusting your water heater temperature

Is your hot water, well, too hot? Not quite hot enough? Most homeowners mistakenly believe that their water heater’s temperature is something they can’t do anything about. In reality, your water heater has a thermostat that can be adjusted up or down, all in about five minutes.

In this article, we’ll walk you through what temperature your water heater should be set at, how to tell what temperature it’s set to, and how to adjust your water heater’s temperature in either direction.

What temperature should my water heater be at?

As with many things around your home, there’s no right answer here. Instead, there’s a range: between 120 degrees and 140 degrees. This range exists for a reason: at temperatures lower than 120 degrees, there’s a risk of bacterial growth in the water heater. At temperatures higher than 140 degrees, there’s a greater risk of accidental scalding.

Right out-of-the-box, most manufacturers set their water heaters to 140 degrees. There are a few reasons for this. First, the manufacturer doesn’t know the size of your home, or how far hot water will have to travel to reach your furthest faucet or showerhead. As hot water travels, it loses some of its heat energy. It’s for this reason that many larger homes need the water temperature set a little higher, so that their hot water arrives at the right temperature when it reaches the showerhead on the second floor.

Second, manufacturers don’t want to receive complaints or returns from customers who believe their water heater is faulty just because it’s set to a lower temperature. For better or worse, most homeowners associate “new” with “hot,” even though water temperature is something completely within your control.

What are the benefits of lowering my water heater temperature?

If your water heater is set to 140 degrees, it might be worth experimenting with a lower temperature setting. Here are just a few reasons why:

Reduces Scalding Risk

For most adults, scalding is less of a risk. We instinctively know to feel out the temperature of the water in our shower or tub before we get in.

However, for infants, children and the elderly, scalding poses a much greater risk. For young children—especially those under the age of 3—scalding is a serious threat. Children don’t always know to test the temperature of water before taking the proverbial plunge.

Older adults do, but they may have conditions that limit their ability to feel temperature at a distance. If you have either children or older adults in your home, you should turn down the water temperature for their safety.

Saves Energy

Every degree you turn your water heater down, the more you’ll save. Heating water—and then keeping it heated over time—takes energy. The lower the temperature your water heater is set to, the less you’ll spend on your monthly utility bill.

If you’re looking to save money in your home, experiment with turning the water heater down a few degrees and see if you even notice the difference.

In the average U.S. home, the water heater accounts for about 20% of the total utility bill, so even modest savings here can add up over time.

Perfect for Small Families

When your water heater is set to a higher temperature, your home effectively has more hot water to work with on busy mornings. That’s because hot water is intermixed with cold tap water before it reaches the faucet. The hotter the hot water is, the less of it is needed to mix with the cold water, stretching the supply further.

However, if you have a small family (2-3 people), this probably doesn’t affect you. You’re probably better off turning the temperature down and saving some money.

As you see, the answer to the question, “Is my water heater too hot?” is often: “It depends.” If you have questions about your water heater’s temperature setting, we recommend you talk to one of our experienced plumbers. Taking your home into account, they’ll be able to give you individualized guidance.

Related: How to maintain your water heater

How to adjust water heater temperature

There are probably some people reading this who are a little confused at this point: do people really need guidance on how to turn a knob? If your water heater has a temperature knob or digital temperature controls that you can use to directly control its temperature, you’re right—it’s relatively straightforward.

However, not all water heaters feature such an easy setup. In fact, many electric and gas water heaters hide the temperature controls behind an access panel.

Step 1: Turn off the power at the circuit breaker

Whenever you’re opening up or working on your water heater, you’re going to want to turn off power to the water heater or—in the case of a natural gas system—turn off the gas. For your electric water heater, do this at the circuit breaker and confirm that the system has no power before you move forward.

Turning off the power is something you should do before doing any work, including draining and flushing your water heater or replacing its heating element.

Step 2: Unscrew the access panel and gently remove the insulation

The water heater tank is generally smooth, except for one panel fastened to the tank body by 2-4 screws. Using a screwdriver, remove these screws (taking care not to lose them!) and then gently peel back any insulation that is blocking you from the temperature controls hidden behind this panel.

The insulation around your water heater helps it operate efficiently, so you don’t want to rip this insulation out or bend it to the point where it tears. You should be able to peel and hold it out of the way while you complete the next step.

Step 3: Adjust your water heater’s thermostat

Most water heater thermostats are small and easy to miss. Look for a metal or plastic dial with temperature markings around it. Take note of what your water heater is currently set at—as we noted, most manufacturers set your water heater at 140 degrees, right out-of-the-box—and then use a flathead screwdriver to adjust the dial and the temperature as-needed.

It’s really that simple. Once you’ve completed the next step and reassembled your gas or electric water heater, your system will start heating water to the designated temperature.

Step 4: Seal everything back up and restart the water heater

Now that you’ve successfully changed the temperature of your water heater, re-insert the insulation you peeled back, and then screw the access panel cover back into place. You can now restore power to the system. If you have a gas water heater, you might need to reignite the pilot light in order to get the system working again.

Watch: Adjusting the temperature of your water heater

Check out this video to see a step-by-step guide on how to adjust the temperature of a standard water heater.

When in doubt, call Wagner!

As we’ve outlined in the sections above, changing your water heater’s temperature setting is relatively easy and straightforward. However, if you get stuck at any point—or encounter something you didn’t expect when working on your water heater—you’ll want to bring in a plumbing professional to help you troubleshoot.

Here in Albuquerque, call our team of plumbers. As your home’s best friend, Wagner has been assisting local homeowners with their plumbing projects for nearly a century.