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In wireless sensor networks (WSNs), Energy consumption will be reduced by grouping all the sensor nodes into clusters and letting the data be aggregated at cluster heads(CHs). In this paper, we address the issue of how many tiers in a given clustering scheme are optimal in saving energy. We present a method to calculate the optimal tier number with consideration to the energy consumption both in data transmission and control overhead. We propose a clustering scheme with optimal tiers and energy efficiency for wireless sensor networks, which we term COTE for short. We theoretically analyze the energy consumption, computing complexity and network latency of COTE. COTE not only minimizes the energy consumption by hierarchically organizing clusters with an optimal tier but also has a low message overhead and preferable network lifetime. Simulation results demonstrate that COTE has less energy consumption and longer lifetime with comparison to the existing scheme.