What a blessing it is to turn on the faucet and have fresh clean water pour into a waiting glass! I’ll bet most of us take this life-sustaining resource for granted. We don’t even think about it. It’s just there and we use it without abandon. But the abundance of fresh potable water is being threatened world-wide and many parts of the world now face chronic shortages. Sometimes these shortages are short-lived and cyclical, as the good citizens of Texas surely hope will be the case for them. But increasingly, the shortages are permanent and irreversible. It’s time to think about fresh water in a new way, not as an inexhaustible supply but as a dwindling resource we need to protect.
My last article focused on rainwater harvesting. What a wonderful opportunity this past August and September provided to harvest rain! I hope that the deluge of rain doesn’t lull us into thinking there is no longer a need to conserve. And I hope that this article provides ideas and information which will help households conserve water indoors. Conserving water and conserving energy are closely tied and often in the process of conserving one we often conserve the other. So let’s go through our homes and discuss all the ways we use and can conserve water.
Bathrooms are where we use the most water and so they provide the greatest opportunity to reduce water consumption. Consider a few facts:
- Replacing a standard shower head with a water saving model saves the typical family of four about 8000 gallons of water per year, more if your shower heads were installed before 1992.
- Water-saving shower heads save energy because more than 70% of the water that goes down the drain has been heated.
- A family of four using standard shower heads will waste around 5000 gallons of cold water per year waiting for the water to get hot.
- A toilet equipped with dual-flush technology can save 15,000-25,000 gallons of water per year for the same family of four, depending upon the age of the toilet being replaced.
- Low-flow faucets can save 1 to 4 gallons of water per minute. With a low-flow faucet, a family of four could save up to 7300 gallons of water per year if they each brush their teeth for one minute twice per day.
When considering a faucet or shower head replacement, the easiest way to select good fixtures is to follow the EPA’s WaterSense labeling program. It works a lot like the Energy Department’s Energy Star program that we use when buying appliances. A fixture which displays the WaterSense label has been third-party certified to reduce water usage by at least 20% over average products. The level of efficiency each household will achieve depends upon the age of the fixture being replaced. Faucets and shower heads that were installed prior to 1992 use 5gallons per minute (gpm). The new standards are set at a maximum 1.5gpm for faucets and 2gpm for shower heads
Another factor in choosing a faucet is price. Here the old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true. Though just about all faucets today have ceramic washers instead of the old rubber ones, less expensive faucets often develop leaks and wearing of the finish. They may come with a warranty, but who wants to spend time chasing after that? For durability and care-free use, best to buy quality.
If you’re not ready to replace your faucet set, consider installing an aerator. This is a small screened device that fits inside the faucet nozzle, mixing air into water so less is required to do the same task. Replacing shower heads is an economical thing to do, but again, choose quality. Delta has a moderately priced one that reduces water flow to just 1.6gpm and comes with a lifetime warranty on the faucet and finish.
Toilets are the true water-guzzlers in most homes. Unbelievably, toilets from the 80s and 90s use from 3.5 to 4.5 gallons per flush (gpf)! That’s a huge amount of clean drinking water wasted forever. Today’s high efficiency toilets (HETs) typically use a maximum of 1.6 gpf and ultra-low flush toilets use 0.8gpf. I’m sure we’re all in favor of saving that much water to flush a toilet, but who hasn’t experienced low flush toilets that sometimes have to be flushed twice to do the job? Fortunately, technology in this area has improved performance tremendously over the last decade and flushing is very efficient. But again, choose a quality brand name for both performance and durability. Two that have been recently recommended by the green building industry are the American Standard Compact Cadet 3 and the Gerber Avalanche Super Toilet. Dual-flush toilets are really the way to go because the user most often chooses the low volume flush. From personal experience, I can recommend the Kohler dual-flush toilets (1.6 or .9gpf).
Replacing toilets is a more expensive proposition than replacing faucets and shower heads. If the budget doesn’t permit replacement, consider using a dual-flush retro-fit kit. There are several kits on the market today which are economical and easy to install. Most will convert existing toilets into dual-flush 1.6/.09gpf toilets. My son-in-law installed the Brondell Perfect Flush for $82.00 with great success in the kids’ bathroom. A less expensive one in the powder room works okay, but not as well as the Brondell. I’ve had recommended to me the HydroRight kit. For under $100 you can purchase a good quality dual-flush kit, install it in 15 minutes, and start enjoying reduced water bills and the satisfaction that comes from protecting a precious resource.
By replacing or modifying existing bathroom fixtures, we can save tens of thousands of gallons of water per year. We must also modify our behaviors as adults and teach our children at an early age. Turn off the water while shaving, brushing your teeth and washing your hands. I love that my 4-year-old granddaughter is the family scold when it comes to conserving water in the bathroom! Also keep in mind that the three shower head “rain shower” or the 110-gallon soaking tub overwhelm the benefits of having chosen low-flow fixtures! Short of denying in these indulgences, there is no loss of comfort or convenience when choosing low-flow faucets and shower heads and low volume or dual-flush toilets.
Kitchens are a different story from bathrooms. A lot of water usage when we’re in the kitchen is filling pots. You need the volume, so low-flow faucets just slow the process without reducing consumption. One area, however, where both hot and cold water can be conserved is in the dishwasher. If you have a dishwasher, use it. Run it only when it’s full, but avoid as much hand washing as possible which uses more water than the dishwasher does. If you’re replacing a dishwasher, check the amount of water usage per load. Brand-name dishwashers today use as little as 1-2 gallons per load!
Washing machines have evolved tremendously over the last 5-10 years. If you have the old, top load washing machine, there’s not much you can do to reduce water consumption. You can choose cold water rather than hot
and conserve energy, but that’s about it. When you replace your washing machine, buy a front loading, high-efficiency washer and buy the highest quality you can afford. The water and energy savings are significant.
Now here is where water and energy conservation converge: hot water delivery. A tremendous amount of water is wasted simply waiting for hot water to arrive at a shower or faucet. Depending upon the length of the “run” between the water heater and fixture, as much as 4 gallons of water can go down the drain before the water is hot. Back to a family of four, even with a low-flow shower head, each year 2500 gallons of perfectly good water goes down the drain just for showers.
In new construction, there are all sorts of ways to address this issue. Like stacking basement laundry, first floor kitchen and second floor bathrooms on top of each other. Installing insulation on all hot water pipes is another. When the tap is turned off, the unused hot water in pipes causes energy to be lost. In our new home, we installed a hot water re-circulation loop. Using an 8 watt pump on a timer, hot water is circulated continuously from the hot water tank through an insulated pipe to each faucet in the house during the daytime hours, effectively eliminating cold water loss and providing almost instant hot water.
If you’re not prepared for a rip-out-the-floors-and-walls re-do of hot water pipes, there are retro-fits available which use a demand-controlled recirculation pump. One such product is the Grundfos whole house hot water recirculation system which costs less than $1000 installed and, from the research I’ve done, is the best choice for eliminating cold water loss and providing instant hot water. Other products install under the sink, and generally require electricity which, in most kitchens and baths, would require an electrical installation. These are typically push-buttons which start the hot water to the tap. Therefore, you wait for hot water to arrive before you turn on the tap. Some internet research and/or a knowledgeable plumber can help determine the best solution for your home. But whatever retro-fit measure you choose and implement, it will have a great impact on the reduction of water loss in your home.
Finally, an obvious but often overlooked way to conserve water is to look for leaks! The EPA estimates that the same amount of water used in a year by the entire population of Los Angeles is lost in the US each year in water leaks!
I hoped I’ve helped you think about the ways you use water in your home and how you can use it more efficiently and responsibly. A lot of the changes we can make are behavioral. Simply being aware of what we are doing can save a lot water. Just ask my little granddaughter! Many of the other changes I’ve suggested are easy and affordable. They are all worth the time, effort and expense to make. You will save money on your water and electric bills and even more importantly, help to ensure we all enjoy clean, fresh water for generations to come.