Take advantage of modern technologies and smart-use strategies to save water.
Whether you’re on- or off-grid, household water-saving strategies are a smart idea, both from a resource- and energy-savings standpoint. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “the average household spends as much as $500 per year” on water and sewer bills. By changing the way water is used, the EPA estimates that the average household could whittle their water expenses by about 30%. The EPA says that if water-saving appliances were used in every household, “more than 3 trillion gallons of water and more than $18 billion per year” would be saved. The benefits are wide-reaching—when individual households use water more efficiently, the need for establishing new water-supply infrastructure and wastewater treatment facilities is reduced.
While those not on community water or sewer systems won’t necessarily reap these cash savings directly, they will benefit by decreasing their well-pump run time, saving equipment wear and tear, and helping extend equipment life.
A lot of energy is spent to treat and convey water to our homes. According to the EPA’s WaterSense program, public water supply and treatment facilities consume about 56 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year to convey water from the source to the sink. In a household connected to a public water supply, letting your faucet run for five minutes wastes about 12.5 gallons and uses about as much energy as burning a 60-watt lightbulb for 14 hours.
Curbing your household water use translates into reduced energy demands in supplying and treating public water supplies, which also translates into less pollution, since most of the energy in the United States is generated with fossil fuels. WaterSense also says that:
The savings could be dramatic, so where should you start?
According to the American Water Works Association, the average U.S. household uses 127,400 gallons of water per year. But where is all this water going?
A significant portion—69.3 gallons per person, per day—is used indoors. The graph (lower left) breaks down household usage by category.
Flushing Toilets. Toilets are the largest water-wasters inside most homes, accounting for about 25% of the daily indoor water use. If your toilet was installed before 1992, it likely uses too much water. Check out your toilet’s vintage by lifting the lid and looking at the manufacturer’s imprint. Sometimes, the stamp will also include a “gpf” (gallons per flush) value, such as “2.2 gpf,” which indicates the amount of water used for each flush.
In 1992, federal legislation mandated that all toilets manufactured or imported into the United States be 1.6 gpf or lower. Today, you can do even better—dual-flush units let you select how much water to use, usually 0.8 gpf or 1.6 gpf. For reviews of low-flush and dual-flush models, check out expert plumber Terry Love’s forums at www.terrylove.com. Although this is a commercial site, the forums offer insight on models that people love, and ones people love to hate.
If you’re not ready to replace your old toilet, there are modifications that can improve its efficiency. The first is a simple adjustment: On some toilets, you can adjust the tank water level by moving the spring clip on the rod that hangs down from the refill valve. This then determines how much water is needed in the tank to shut off the refill valve.
Another inexpensive method is to displace some of the water in the tank with a supplemental bladder or similar device. This reduces the amount of water needed to refill the tank and the amount of water used per flush. At $10 or less, toilet bladders and dams quickly recoup their up-front costs. Of course, your toilet needs a certain amount of water in the tank to flush. You’ll have to experiment to strike a balance between adequate flushing and water savings. Note: Do not try to offset water in the tank with items not designed for the purpose—you can easily end up using more water than you would without them or cause damage to your toilet. Commonly used water jugs can move around, getting in the way of refill parts. Bricks may not have that problem, but they can disintegrate into abrasive grit over time, possibly damaging the flapper valve and causing leakage.
Dual-flush retrofit kits are available to make your old toilet more efficient. You’ll need to have some mechanical skills to tackle this project, since some of the units involve removing and then reinstalling the toilet tank. For $25 to $50, they are a significantly cheaper option than buying a new dual-flush unit. Plus, you’ll avoid putting another toilet in the landfill (though many regions have toilet recycling programs).
A clever toilet-water reduction concept—the toilet-top sink—uses reclaimed hand-washing water for flushing. Upon flushing the toilet, water flows automatically from the sink-top faucet, allowing ample time for hand-washing. The hand-washing water is then routed to the toilet bowl via the overflow pipe. The “light” graywater can then be used a second time—for flushing. Besides reusing water, toilet-top sinks offer a germ-reducing advantage—since water flows from the faucet automatically, there’s no need for touching the fixture.
Composting toilets are the most water-efficient of all, since they use no water. They typically consist of a standard seat that empties into a chamber. “Deposits” are usually covered with peat moss, coconut husks, or sawdust to stymie odors and aid in composting. Once full, the chamber contents can be emptied into a separate, outdoor composting bin or buried around vegetation.
The simplest system is a “sawdust” toilet. Popularized by Joe Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook, it consists of a 5-gallon bucket, sawdust for cover material, and an outdoor composting bin. When the bucket is full, it is emptied into an outdoor composting bin with other yard and food scraps to finish decomposing.
While most composting toilets don’t use water, some commercially produced composting toilets use electricity to run fans or small heaters to evaporate excess moisture. Be sure to check out these requirements before you buy.
In some areas, so long as you have a flush toilet or septic system installed, a composting toilet may be allowed. Check with your local building authority, human health services office, or department of environment.
Washing Clothes. The average U.S. family washes almost 400 loads of laundry each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
After toilets, washing clothes consumes the most water in a typical household. This is mostly due to older vertical-axis machines (commonly known as “top loaders”), which may use 35% to 50% more water than newer horizontal-axis machines.
If your machine is 10 years or older, you may want to consider replacing it for both water and energy savings. Choose a model with a high modified energy factor (MEF) and a low water factor (WF). MEF is a measure of energy efficiency that considers the energy used by the washer, and the energy used to heat the water and run the dryer. More efficient washing machines have high MEFs. WF measures water efficiency in gallons of water consumed per cubic foot of capacity. The lower the WF, the more water-efficient the clothes washer.
You can get a list of Energy Star-rated clothes washers from www.energystar.com. But if you’re interested in seeking out higher-efficiency units, the Consortium for Energy Efficiency has developed even more stringent ratings through its CEE Super Efficient Home Appliances Initiative. You can download its list of qualifying clothes washers from www.cee1.org.
Front-loading clothes washers are a bit more expensive than top-loaders, but users will usually recoup the additional up-front cost in a year or so of water and energy savings. Plus, some utilities and local or state governments offer rebates for purchasing efficient clothes washers to offset higher costs (see the Energy Star website and www.dsireusa.org for more information).
Faucets & Fixtures. The fourth largest household water consumer (behind outdoor use, toilets, and clothes washers) is at the tap—kitchen and bath faucets, and showers. Of course, user behavior is tantamount to water-saving success. Things like shutting off the water while you’re brushing your teeth and taking shorter showers are water-saving behaviors that a water-efficient fixture will help, but not shape.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, federal regulations stipulate that new showerhead flow rates can’t exceed more than 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) at a water pressure of 80 pounds per square inch (psi). New faucet flow rates can’t exceed 2.5 gpm at 80 psi or 2.2 gpm at 60 psi. Using these new fixtures can help boost your overall water savings by 25% to 60%.
Showerheads. For maximum water efficiency, select a showerhead with a flow rate of less than 2.5 gpm. Two basic types of low-flow showerheads are available: aerating, which mixes air with water; and laminar-flow, which forms individual streams of water. Laminar-flow showerheads put less moisture into the air compared to aerating ones.
Consider replacing showerheads that are more than 9 years old—before the water-saving standards went into effect. To determine how many gallons per minute your showerhead uses, you can place a bucket—marked in gallon increments—underneath the fixture. Next, turn on the shower at its normal setting. Record how many seconds it takes to fill the bucket to the 1-gallon mark. For instance, if it took 15 seconds to fill the bucket to the gallon mark, your showerhead would have a flow rate of about 4 gpm.
Modern low-flow showerheads include atomizers that deliver water in many small droplets to cover lots of area; pulsators that vary spray patterns; and aerators. Some water-saving showerheads come with valves to reduce or stop the water flow while you’re lathering up.
Faucets. Low-flow faucets designed to federal standards may use sensors, as well as aerators, to reduce water consumption. For households, one of the newest innovations is the touch faucet, which allows users to control flow and operation with a quick touch of the faucet.
Fixture retrofits include simple and inexpensive aerators, which screw into the end of the faucet. At $5 to $10, they are an easy, quick retrofit that offers a quick payback. Total flow adaptors can also help save water by easily allowing you to shut off the tap while sudsing your hands or brushing your teeth, for example, while keeping the water temperature setting the same.
Foot controls allow homeowners to activate a faucet at a set temperature by tapping their foot to a pedal (or pedals), which control hot and cold taps. Although they can save water, most units require electricity to operate, however minimal it may be.
Find & Fix Leaks. The EPA projects that 36 states are expected to face varied levels of water shortages by 2013, which makes water conservation essential. It also reports that water leaks “may now account for more than 1 trillion gallons of water wasted each year in U.S. homes.” Studies have shown homes can waste more than 10% due to leaks, which costs both you and the environment.
If you’re on metered water, you can figure out if your home is a water waster by checking the meter over a two-hour period when no water is being used. If your meter registered that some water flowed during that period, you likely need to track down leaks. Before you start sleuthing, be sure to locate your main water shutoff valve, which controls all of the water coming into your house. Knowing where this is located will be helpful if you locate leaks—you’ll be able to determine whether the leak is inside the house or lies before the main shutoff.
Most household water use—about 30%—occurs outside the home, and goes toward watering lawns, landscape plantings, and gardens. The EPA estimates that more than 7 billion gallons a day are used for these purposes. Some estimates report that up to 50% of commercial and residential irrigation water is wasted, due to evaporation, wind, improper system design, or overwatering.
Irrigation. Most people love their lawns too much, watering too often and for too long. Give your lawn the “step” test: If the grass springs back readily, it can wait awhile for watering. Avoid sprinklers and overhead watering systems—they are big water wasters, losing a lot of water to evaporation.
If you have an irrigation system, check it thoroughly before putting it back in business. It’s estimated that, with regular maintenance, watering waste due to irrigation systems could be reduced by about 15%. Irrigation systems can be large water wasters. Inspect your sprinklers and drip sprayers regularly for leaks, and do so during the daytime, when you’re not watering. A telltale sign of a malfunctioning irrigation system is soft, mushy spots in your lawn.
Water during the early morning or late evening, when evaporation will be lowest. Consider installing soil moisture sensors, which sense the amount of water in the ground that’s available to plants. Sensors can be connected to an irrigation system to automatically water when it’s needed.
Lose Your Lawn. Getting rid of your turf—or reducing its size—is one way to drastically reduce your household water use. Consider replacing grass with drought-tolerant and native plants. Once they are established, they’ll need little watering beyond normal rainfall. Native plants usually have the added benefit of being more pest- and disease-resistant.
Xeriscaping is the practice of using water-conserving principles in the landscape so that supplemental watering is greatly reduced or eliminated. It includes using drought-tolerant plants and efficient irrigation equipment, such as subsurface irrigation systems or drip irrigation systems; minimizing turf areas; harvesting rainwater; and using mulch and soil amendments to slow evaporation and hold the water in the soil.
Saving the Rain. Beyond water conservation, consider water harvesting strategies—ways to keep water on-site and reduce stormwater runoff.
Rain barrels, which connect to the downspouts of your home, are some of the simplest (and least expensive) rainwater-saving devices. Most barrels are designed to hold 40 to 75 gallons, and prices usually start at $50.
In areas with consistent rainfall, rain barrels can provide some backup water for hand-watering and limited garden watering. Planning for overflows is important, as even as little as 1/4 inch of rain falling on an average-sized house can easily fill two 100-gallon rain barrels.
Rain barrel volume can be determined by calculating the rooftop water yield for any given rainfall, using the following equation:
V = A2 × R × 0.90 × 7.5 gal./ft.3
V = volume of rain barrel (gal.)
A2 = collection area of roof (sq. ft.)
R = rainfall (ft.)
0.90 = system loss factor
7.5 = conversion factor (gal./ft.3)
Example: One 60-gallon barrel would provide runoff storage from a rooftop area of approximately 215 square feet for a 0.5-inch (0.042 ft.) rainfall.
60 gal. = 215 ft.2 × 0.042 ft. × 0.90 × 7.5 gal./ft.3
For long-term water storage and in areas that receive only seasonal (not year-round) precipitation, larger storage tanks are appropriate. Tanks can be sized using the same formula. For instance, in some parts of Oregon, rainfall is limited to the winter months. For example, one area averages 18.37 inches of precipitation, but most of it (14.87 inches; 81%) falls within a span of seven months. Let’s say we’re harvesting rain from an average-sized home’s roof, in this case, 2,169 square feet, for a little more than half of the year .
Using the formula,
2,169 ft.2 x 1.24 ft. x 0.90 x 7.5 gal./ft.3,
we’d be able to collect about 18,154 gallons during that time period—and need some big cisterns to store it all!
Cisterns can be constructed on-site or pre-manufactured in a range of capacities (and prices, depending on the material).
Graywater (or greywater) is water discharged from bathroom showers and sinks, washing machines, and kitchen sinks. In some areas, this water is permitted to be conveyed separately from toilet water (blackwater), and can be used in the landscape.
If you compost your food scraps, don’t use a garbage disposal, and avoid chlorine and other harsh chemicals, you can safely reuse all of your graywater. However, in most areas where graywater use is allowed, only subsurface irrigation systems are permitted, preventing users from coming into contact with the water. Untreated graywater should never be stored, as it can quickly become anaerobic and carries the risk of pathogen transmission.
For specific, no-nonsense recommendations for designing and implementing graywater systems, visit Art Ludwig’s website at www.oasisdesign.net and read his detailed books, Create an Oasis with Greywater and Builder’s Greywater Guide.
The simplest graywater system that is now allowed in parts of Arizona and California is highly effective and simple. The branched drain-to-mulch basin system routes graywater directly from a washing machine to a filter and then to a pipe that empties into a large basin filled with a thick layer of mulch. Typically, a tree or other planting is established in the mulch basin. More complex subsurface distribution systems can also be used, but at a higher price.
Residential graywater system regulations vary from region to region. Call your county health department, and your local building or plumbing authorities, to determine what systems, if any, are allowed. Locations lacking specific graywater guidelines sometimes allow new systems under an “experimental systems” clause.
A handful of states have rules governing residential graywater systems. If your state doesn’t have any rules and you want to pursue a system, consider sharing the Arizona code rules with your permitting agency to start a dialogue, recommends graywater expert Ludwig.
Home Power Managing Editor Claire Anderson is tackling further water-conservation efforts to optimize her home’s efficiency. Planned projects include a xeriscaped garden and a rainwater catchment system.