There are lots of simple things you can do to cut your household water use. It all starts with awareness. If you know some of the ways people tend to waste water, you’ll be better positioned to conserve.
Here are some common ways in which people waste water – hot or cold – in the bathroom.
Leaving the tap running the whole time you brush your teeth. Try putting the plug in the bathroom sink while you do this, and notice how quickly the sink fills up. Shutting off the water until you’re ready to rinse can easily cut 2-3 gallons a day of water use per person.
Using hot water to brush your teeth. Some people don’t like having really cold tap water in their mouth during the final rinse. In cold climates or in water supply systems fed from the bottoms of lakes (such as parts of the Great Lakes Region in the US and Canada), the water supply can be pretty chilly for the cooler months, and sometimes even in the summer. Instead of running the hot water so you don’t have to rinse your mouth out in freezing cold water, always fill your bathroom water cup when you’re done brushing, so the water has time to warm up for the next time you brush.
Using a flush toilet as a waste disposal device. I’ve seen people who blow their nose with a tissue, then throw it in the toilet and flush it down. This is not a very good use of 2-5 gallons of water! Using a toilet as a waste disposal may be convenient but it’s extremely wasteful.
Using a regular toilet instead of a low-flush or dual-flush toilet. Decades ago, toilets typically had 5 gallon tanks. More than a decade ago standards in North America changed and 3 gallon (13 liter) tanks were the new standard. Recently manufacturers have come out with 1.5 gallon (6 liter) tanks, sometimes in response to tightened building code standards. And there are dual-flush toilets that can flush liquids and toilet tissue with as little as 1 liter or quart of water, while solids still take 4-6 liters (1 to 1.5 gallons). If you have an old toilet, you can replace it with a low-flush model, or simply install a conversion kit; see the resources section for details. Another free way to save water on your toilet is to avoid flushing it when it’s not strictly necessary. For example, in my house when the alarm clock goes on, everyone gets up and has their morning visit to the bathroom; only the last person flushes.
Leaving the shower running when you’re not in it. Sometimes you want the shower to warm up before you hop in. So you might turn on the shower, close the curtain or shower door, and work on some other grooming (brush your hair or teeth, shave…) while you wait for the shower water to heat up. Unfortunately people often lose track of the time, and a minute or more of hot water may wind up just pouring down the drain. One easy solution to this is a water-saving shower valve, which cuts the flow of water to a trickle as soon as the water reaches 95F or 35F. You hop into the shower and pull a cord or flip a lever, and the hot water comes out full force. This keeps the water hot for you without wasting much water while you’re doing other things in the bathroom.
Taking a really long shower. This is a favorite teenager move: drain the hot water tank right before Mom has her shower. There’s really no good reason to spend 10 or 15 or 20 minutes in the shower. A shower is said to use less water than a bath, but that’s not the case when you’re in there 20 minutes. I’ve heard some people say they keep their house cool to save on heating, and so they have to take a long hot shower to get warm. Don’t forget it takes a lot more energy to heat a liter of water than a liter of air – and when that hot water goes down the drain, the heat is basically lost!
If you’re serious about saving water in the bathroom, try putting the plug in your bathroom sink when you brush your teeth, just to see how much water one person’s tooth brushing takes. Or put a plug in the shower or bathtub when you shower, to see how much water a shower uses. Or try filling the toilet tank with a measuring cup, one cup at a time, and then track how many times the toilet gets flushed in a day. You might be surprised to see how much water you use.
You might think the biggest water waster in the kitchen is the dishwasher. In fact, modern dishwashers are far better at conserving water and energy than all but the most diligent, energy-conscious human dish washer. And the worst of us are extremely wasteful. Common practices that waste a lot of water are:
Not putting the plug in the sink when you do dishes – just running the water continuously. This typically requires you to add more dish soap to your scrub brush or sponge after every few dishes, because you keep washing the soap down the sink. Try putting the plug in the sink the next time you try to do dishes this way. You’ll discover the sink fills up pretty quickly – it might even overflow! You can almost always do an entire set of dishes with just a half sink of water, and remember, your dishwasher can do even better.
Prerinsing dishes that go in the dishwasher. Remember, modern dishwashers are designed to wash dirty, unrinsed dishes. There should be no need to prerinse. If you find that your dishes don’t come clean unless you prerinse, you either have a dishwasher that is 10+ years old, or there’s something malfunctioning. The pump may be weak, the filter may be blocked with leftovers (we found about 30 olive pits in ours a couple of years ago), or one of the connections to the rotating arms may be blocked or leaking. If you do have to prerinse, an easy way to do so without wasting water is to leave water in the sink after you wash the pots and pans or after rinsing produce, and just scrub the dishes in that water.
Using a sink waste disposal unit. It’s much better to compost your kitchen food scraps than to grind them up and send them down the drain. For one thing, it takes water to wash all that food down the sink. For another, you’re wasting a precious commodity that can be turned into great garden soil. Waste disposal units have been banned in some municipalities because they overload the sewage system and increase water usage.
Not using a faucet aerator. Most modern kitchen faucets come with an aerator installed in the end of the faucet, that draws air in and fills the water with tiny bubbles. These aerators save water by allowing a smaller amount of water to do the job of rinsing dishes or washing hands or fruits and vegetables. Aerators can get clogged up – especially if you have hard water – so if you find you’re not getting a good volume of air in your water, try unscrewing the end of the tap, removing the wire mesh aerator, and cleaning it out. Once you reassemble the faucet you’ll use far less water to wash and rinse.
The top loading washing machine is one of the most water-wasting devices in your home. There have been front-loading washers for decades that use as little as a third the water of a typical top loader. But for some reason North Americans are still using top-loaders, and even still buying them. There are a number of very good reasons for switching to a front-loading washer:
* They use half to a third the water of a front loader
* They use half to a third the detergent of a front loader (and you don’t actually need to buy the “HE” detergent – just buy regular detergent and use a lot less)
* They adjust the volume of water based on how much laundry they detect in the drum. For a small load they use much less than for a large load.
* They are more gentle on your clothes, so your clothes last longer
* Their spin cycle is much faster than a top loader spin cycle. Your clothes come out with less water, so you use less energy in the dryer (if you use one), or the clothes take less time to dry on the line or drying rack.
The other ways in which people waste water on laundry are:
Washing clothes that aren’t actually dirty. You don’t have to throw things in the laundry just because you wore them for one day – especially pants and shirts, which will wear out sooner if you wash them too often.
Washing instead of putting away – using the laundry hamper as a way to avoid putting your clothes away. Kids are especially prone to this. My son would sooner throw his clothes in the laundry than fold them and put them in his dresser, because it’s less work for him. Make your kids do the laundry folding and they’ll be less prone to pull this trick.
Separating whites, lights, and colors. Most clothes are color-fast. Of course it pays to check individual garments when new, but chances are almost all your clothes can be washed together in cold water. If you currently do three loads of different colors, try splitting the brights between the darks and whites and cut back to two.
The first step to saving water
Once you understand the ways in which water is commonly wasted in North American homes, it becomes easier to identify where you yourself might be using more water than necessary, and to cut waste. Remember that keeping a weekly measure of your water usage, by writing down the reading on your water meter, will help you stay on task. When you know how much you’re using, you’ll be more conscious of waste, and more motivated to save. In some areas you’ll realize big financial savings by cutting back; in others, where water is still quite cheap, the savings may seem irrelevant from a financial point of view, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you are helping conserve a precious natural resource.
Robin Green runs Green Energy Efficient Homes, a website dedicated to efficient use of natural resources, especially relating to household energy use. For some specific water saving tips see his articles on shower head valves, dual flush toilet kits, and energy saving washers.