I own a whopping eight water heaters between five houses: two at the main house, two at the Utah house, two at the cabin, and one at each of two rental houses. The cabin and one of the rental houses use electric water heaters, so the majority of my water heaters (5 out of 8) run on natural gas.
For those who have electric water heaters, I recently wrote a blog post detailing how to save money on your electric bill by connecting a control module to an electric water heater, which could then be actuated remotely for a vacation house, or put on a timer to save energy by cutting power to the unit during off-peak usage hours. Controlling an electric water heater is a relatively simple proposition, since there are many tools available for remote and timer-based control of electrical circuits (including the one I previously blogged about). But I’d always assumed it was impossible to enjoy the same types of savings and convenience with a gas water heater, since you’d have to somehow automate the physical turning of a gas valve. Every time we’d leave the main house (if I remembered), I’d manually rotate the gas valve on both water heaters to the “Pilot” position to save energy while we’re gone. And then when we got home, one of the first things I’d have to do is turn them back to “Hot.” If I forgot, I’d sure be reminded the next time anyone in the house needed a shower. If only there was a device that could rotate a gas valve knob automatically, which I could control via some sort of remote switch. I started trying to figure out how to rig a small electric motor to some sort of arm that could grip my water heater’s gas valve knob, and then use limit switches to control my “on” and “off” set points.
And then I stumbled across this YouTube video:
The device was called the Gas Water Heater Timer, and I have to admit I was a bit incredulous, because it was exactly the type of device I’d been imagining… only much better than what I’d come up with. I figured it had to be some sort of Kickstarter project that didn’t actually exist yet, but when I visited their website, I knew I had to get my hands on one. I immediately emailed American Pacific (the manufacturer) and had a review unit sitting on my doorstep a few days later. I opened the box with geeky anticipation.
Before I get to my full review, allow me to share with you some of American Pacific’s marketing language concerning their product. First, they sell it direct for $89.95… which seems like a bargain if it does half of what they claim it will do. They claim that a “low demand” family (which uses their product to only heat water between 6-7AM and 6-8PM) could save a whopping 36% in fuel costs. By comparison, a “typical” family (which heated water from 5:15-7AM and 3:15 – 11PM) could expect a more modest (but still welcome) 7% savings.
Their website promises the product will help you conserve energy, reduce emissions, save money, and increase the life of your water heater. They also claim that the average homeowner can install the device in as little as 10 minutes, and that it will fit on nearly every “traditional” gas water heater. That all sounds pretty good… perhaps too good? Can the reality live up to the marketing hype?
It’s hard to determine build quality from online photos, but after unboxing the Gas Water Heater Timer, any concerns about it being a cheapo piece of plastic were gone. While it is mostly plastic, nothing about it looks or feels cheap. It seems sturdy, well thought out, and well put together.
It also seems genius in its simplicity, and I’ve found simple products are generally the ones that are the most reliable. I couldn’t help but compare it to a Glock pistol: most of the components are made of quality plastic for weight and cost savings, only the parts that have to be made from metal are, and it has the minimum possible number of moving parts to maximize reliability. It’s the Glock of the water heater timer world. 🙂
After seeing the Gas Water Heater Timer in person, I started to believe the 10 minute installation claim. The included instructions were in clear English, illustrated, and easy to understand. Here’s a photo of my 75 gallon basement water heater’s gas valve before I got started. Note that I keep the knob turned to the “B” position, which is pretty hot (because we all like long showers):
I tried to pull off the plastic knob on the gas valve using my bare hands, but it wouldn’t budge. A small flathead screwdriver didn’t help much, as it felt like I was going to break the plastic if I pried too hard from the edge. So the first 8 minutes of the installation was consumed by me looking for my channel lock pliers to pull off the plastic knob on the gas valve (spoiler alert: they were hiding in the garage). With the knob removed, I had two minutes left to fall within the promised ten:
Exactly one minute later, it looked like this:
I merely had to line up the metal shaft on the valve with the plastic channel on the timer, clip the plastic arms around the back of the valve housing, and screw down two knobs with my fingers. Here’s a closer look at the arms that hold the unit in place:
The arms have different holes to allow various mounting heights, depending on your gas valve brand. Mine were set properly right out of the box, but even if they weren’t, it would have been a trivial exercise to swap them around.
Two power cords come out from the timer’s main housing: a long one that provides power to the entire unit (including the three-prong outlet on top of the unit), and a shorter one that is designed to be powered only by the outlet on top of the unit. This is an ingenious solution, as it allows for maximum flexibility when it comes to incorporating different timers or home automation control units.
First, I plugged in the long power cable into a wall outlet near the water heater, and left the shorter cable unplugged. The Gas Water Heater Timer whirred to life, and I peeked around the side and watched as the unit rotated the gas valve’s knob stem counterclockwise until a small plastic arm inside the timer hit a limit switch, which stopped the rotation. I removed the timer unit and re-installed the original plastic knob to see exactly where the valve had been stopped. It was right on the “Pilot” position. Awesome. That’s exactly where it should be.
Next, re-installed the timer unit (I still needed the channel locks to remove the original knob) and plugged the short cable into the top outlet, like this:
Once again, the unit whirred to life, but this time it rotated the shaft clockwise until it hit another internal limit switch. And once again, I removed the unit, clicked the original knob back in place, and checked the location. I probably got lucky, but it was right on the “B” setting, where I like it. But even had I not got so lucky, the tabs inside the timer that rotate around and hit the limit switches are adjustable with a Phillips head set screw, so dialing them in exactly where you want them is very straightforward.
Using the Timer with a Timer
Although the entire unit is called the “Gas Water Heater Timer,” it technically doesn’t have any built-in timer features (and that’s a good thing). It does, however, come complete with a basic “tabbed” electric timer — similar to the one I use to control my water heater’s recirculating pump. By plugging this timer into the unit’s top outlet (which receives constant power from the long cord), you can easily set a schedule for switching when the short cord is powered, which then rotates the gas valve to your desired “hot” setting. When the timer switches off power to the short cord, the valve is rotated back to the “Pilot” position, and you save energy and money!
Kicking It Up A Notch
If you just want to set a schedule for controlling when your gas water heater is allowed to burn gas, the basic electric timer is good enough. But if you want to take it to an even more awesome level, the Gas Water Heater Timer is designed with awesomeness in mind. Remove that basic timer, and replace with with a “smarter” switch of your choice. You could use a ZigBee or Z-Wave switch and operate it via a home automation controller like SmartThings or Vera. But I happened to have a Belkin WeMo sitting around doing nothing (it had previously been powering our Christmas lights), so I decided to incorporate it into this project. Coincidentally, the WeMo happens to be what’s currently suggested for home automation on American Pacific’s own website.
By replacing the included analog timer with a digital WeMo switch, a whole new world of home automation possibilities exist for your trusty old gas water heater. The WeMo essentially puts your water heater on your local WiFi network, which allows to more easily replicate the function of the analog timer with schedules:Fdrawb
But also gives you the ability to manually override the on (hot) and off (Pilot) schedule manually with your smartphone. That’s perfect for if you wake up earlier than normal — the water heater can fire while you eat breakfast or exercise:
And you can even manage your water heater from thousands of miles away using the remote features:
Here’s what my final install looks like, with the WeMo in place and the cords all tidied up:
I always try to be fair and honest with all my product reviews, and that includes trying to find anything negative about a product, even if I really like it (and I really like the Gas Water Heater Timer). I scratched my head long and hard, and could only come up with one “and a half” possible drawbacks.
First, while this product is designed to fit the vast majority of gas water heater valves currently available, it won’t fit 100% of them. There is a small number of newer water heaters with valves that aren’t compatible… and one of my gas water heaters happens to be one of them. My 2014 RUUD 50 gallon unit has an Italian-made SIT 650 Delta valve, which looks like this:
Because the knob it top-mounted and also incorporates an integrated the Pilot button, the current version of the Gas Water Heater timer won’t fit on this valve. My other three gas units have traditional White-Rogers brand gas valves, so they’ll work just fine. But for those of you with these fancy Italian jobbies, you’re out of of luck.
My second potential drawback doesn’t quite reach the threshold of a full drawback, so I’m only counting it as half. American Pacific sells their Gas Water Heater Timer direct, their online store works great, and their shipping was very fast. But I still wish this product was available on Amazon, because I’d like to see this new product be successful, and I think they could get much more exposure selling on Amazon. They’d certainly give up some profit margin by doing so (Amazon likes to make money), but I have to believe that as long as they can still sell the product at a profit, they’d make more in the long run based on volume. But that’s just my old MBA classes talking. 🙂
American Pacific promises their Gas Water Heater as a reliable and affordable method of automatically controlling the gas valve on your water heater… and they completely deliver on that promise. The unit is well made, easily installed, easily adjustable, and worked for me immediately as I expected — straight out of the box.
As for exactly what type of energy savings you can expect from the product, that will differ greatly based on how one particular person or family uses it. Their website has some more tests and data about savings, but there’s simply no doubt that consistently turning down your water heater for any amount of time is going to save you some amount of energy every month, which will save you money, reduce emissions, and extend the life of your water heater because it won’t be firing as often. So as far as those marketing claims are concerned, I’m a believer.
I’ll have keep a closer eye on my gas bill to see exactly how it affects things for me over time, but the sub-$90 price point, the five year warranty, plus the convenience being able to remotely schedule and control a mechanical gas valve from a smartphone — all combine for an extremely low break-even hurdle to get over.
Bottom line: Buying the Gas Water Heater Timer is a no-brainer. If you have a gas water heater, and you don’t have a Gas Water Heater Timer installed on it, you’re losing money down the drain.
I plan on purchasing two more units to install at my Utah house, and connecting them to another WeMo. That way, when I step off the plane, I can turn on the water heaters and have hot water when I walk in the door.
UPDATE: I’ve purchased two more units, installed them in my Utah house, and have them connected (along with my recirculating pump) to a WeMo. I can control them with the WeMo app, or when I step off the plane in Utah, I send an SMS message to IFTTT to turn them on. By the time I get to the house, I have hot water!
If you own a gas water heater, you really should click here right now to buy one for yourself.
ANOTHER UPDATE: The makers of the Gas Water Heater Timer have offered a special coupon code for readers of my blog! Use coupon code NIDAN for a discount of $5 per timer.
As always, I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback below!