How to reduce home water use in an age of drought and climate change
By Sarah Fowler,
Each day, it seems, a new climate-related catastrophe makes headlines.
Salmon are dying in California, because the water they inhabit has been heated to the point that it’s inhospitable to life. The Hoover Dam reservoir is at record-low levels, potentially affecting the water supply to the West Coast. And California is, once again, in a drought.
States and municipalities across the country are asking residents to conserve water as the precious resource is threatened with impending scarcity.
“During normal times, we don’t tend to think about it as much, but, in a drought, it’s important to really look for those extra opportunities to go on a little water diet,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center.
Even if you aren’t facing mandated water conservation efforts, though, there are small changes everyone can make at home. We asked experts for some easy ways to cut back on water usage. Here are their suggestions.
Tips for around the home
Reducing water usage on a personal level doesn’t just help the environment, but it can also help save on household bills. According to Tim Carroll, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency, the average household spends as much as $500 per year on its water and sewer bill. By retrofitting your home with water-efficient fixtures and incorporating water-saving practices, bills could be cut by about $170 annually.
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Being conscious about water usage can go a long way, Hanak said. Even something as simple as turning the water off when you brush your teeth can have an immediate effect. Conscious usage also has an added benefit: You save both energy and water.
“Don’t run a dishwasher with three plates in it; fill up first. And same with laundry. Use those appliances efficiently,” Hanak said.
In the bathroom, low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads have become the norm in California, said Kurt Schwabe, professor of environmental economics and policy and associate dean in the University of California at Riverside’s School of Public Policy.
A regular shower head uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute, while low-flow shower heads use two gallons per minute, according to the EPA. And if you’re worried about not having good water pressure with the low-flow option, both Schwabe and Steven Taylor, a master plumber with Neerings Plumbing & Heating in Salt Lake City, noted that the technology has improved since the earlier models.
Check the EPA’s WaterSense Calculator to determine how much you could save; for example, a family of four who replaces their toilets, faucets and shower heads with low-flow alternatives can reduce their water consumption by about 21,000 gallons annually.
Taylor said that, if your home was built in the past five years, low-flow shower heads and water-saving faucets may already be installed. If not, it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to swap out your shower head with a low-flow model. Many standard shower heads also now come equipped with a low-flow option.
And taking shorter showers, even by a couple of minutes, can help conserve water.
“Don’t sing the full opera in the shower,” Hanak said. “Sing the abridged version.”
Check for leaks
According to the EPA, the average household wastes nearly 10,000 gallons of water a year on leaks, including from running toilets, dripping faucets and other sources. Depending on your washer, that’s enough water for hundreds of loads of laundry.
If your water utility has real-time metering, check to see whether it’s recording water use overnight. If so, you probably have a leaky toilet. If you don’t have real-time metering, hard-water streaks in the bowl could indicate a running toilet. Another test: Put drops of food coloring in the toilet tank. After 15 to 20 minutes, if any of the food coloring has made its way into the bowl, you have a leak, Taylor said.
To check for leaky faucets, put a pan underneath and leave it overnight. If any water collects, it’s “obvious” you have a leak, Taylor said. And don’t forget to check for telltale moisture in kitchen and bathroom cabinets.
Taylor said you can make the needed repairs yourself, starting with replacing the toilet flapper. But if you’re not confident in your skills, hire a plumber.
Turf- and lawn-care options
Depending on what part of the country you live in, it might be worth considering breaking up with the traditional American lawn. Mediterranean-style yards, with rocks and native plants, may be worth exploring. If you live in a dry area, consider landscaping with plants that are more suitable for the dry heat, such as the California redbud.
Hanak said there has been a “big push” in California to only have grass in places where it’s used and is not purely decorative, such as in highway medians, so “precious water” isn’t wasted.
Also consider what size water droplets your sprinkler puts out. Although it may sound counterintuitive, a system that sprays larger drops can conserve water, because less of it evaporates, Schwabe said. Ask whether your local utility offers high-efficiency heads for sprinklers; Schwabe said many give them away at no cost in drought-prone areas.
When you water also makes a difference, he said. If you’re watering during the hottest part of the day, the water will vaporize before it hits the ground. It’s better to water early in the morning or in the evening. And try to shake the mentality that grass needs to be watered every day. “It’s actually better if you water every other day or every third day,” Schwabe said.
In Austin, for example, residents have been asked to water during assigned days and times. “Climate projections indicate that we will face prolonged droughts in the future,” said Kevin Kluge, water conservation manager with Austin Water. “While that’s not the case right now, we are planning on ways to meet water demand for the next 100 years.”
Trading in working appliances may not be feasible, but when it’s time to get new ones, look for models that use less water. Newer appliances tend to be more energy efficient, but many are also more water efficient, Hanak said.
According to the EPA, the average dishwasher now uses about six gallons per load, compared with as much as 10 gallons for older models. Standard-size Energy Star-certified dishwashers may not exceed 3.5 gallons per load, and compact models may not exceed 3.1 gallons per load.
Your washing machine is the second largest water consumer in your home, behind the appliances in your bathroom. According to the EPA, the average washing machine uses 31 gallons per load, compared with more than 40 gallons for older models. Choosing a high-efficiency, front-loading washer can cut water use to as little as 13 gallons a load.
Before you buy, Hanak recommends checking with your water utility company, which may offer a rebate program to help offset the cost of purchasing new, efficient appliances.
Sarah Fowler is a freelance journalist based in Mississippi.