For the salmon, the climate, and your wallet
Most of us take water for granted. But using more than we need costs us money and harms the environment by depriving other creatures of this vital liquid. In California, for example, so much water is drawn out of the rivers that some fish species are threatened with extinction. The once-mighty salmon migrations, which depend on rivers, shrank so much in 2008 that salmon fishing had to be banned. But even in water-rich states like Wisconsin, which boasts more than 84,000 miles of rivers, 15,000 lakes, and 1,000 miles of shoreline on two of the world's biggest lakes, the governor recently called a conference on water conservation because the state relies so heavily on badly depleted underground water. No state, city, or private landowner can afford to ignore water consumption.
Also, the more water we use the more energy it takes. It's not something you're likely to think about when you jump into the shower or fill a cold glass from the tap, but your water is pumped from wells, lakes, or reservoirs, then purified, pushed through pipelines and into water towers, warmed in water heaters, and pumped and treated after it runs down the drain. All these processes combined take a lot of energy. For example, almost 20% of California's energy consumption is related to water use. So when you conserve water, you also save another precious resource: energy.
- Fill up the washers. When you use your dishwasher or clothes washer, make sure to fully load them so you don't waste water washing small loads.
- Trick the toilet. Some toilets, especially older ones, use 3.5 gallons per flush or more. To cut down on the water, put sand or rocks in a plastic bottle to weight it down, fill it with water, put the lid on tightly, and place in the toilet tank. Make sure the bottles don't interfere with the mechanisms in the tank. And don't overdo it. If you end up having to flush the toilet twice, your bottle is taking up too much space. There are also devices on the market that do the same job.
- Stop major toilet leaks ASAP. A toilet that keeps running (you can usually hear it) can waste as much two gallons of water every minute!
- Stop "silent" toilet leaks. A "silent" leak in a toilet can waste thousands of gallons a month. To find a silent leak, put food coloring in the tank. Don't flush. Check the toilet bowl after 10 or 20 minutes. If there is color in the bowl, your tank has a silent leak. These leaks are usually from a worn-out fill valve at the top of the tank or flapper valve at the bottom of the tank that fails to shut off when the tank is full. To replace the flapper, shut off the water at the toilet. Next, remove the worn valve and purchase a comparable replacement part. Replacing the top valve is somewhat more complicated, but you can do it if you are reasonable handy.
- Flush less, and be a water miser. Don't flush unless it is necessary. If you toss a tissue into the toilet, there's really no need to waste a couple gallons of water flushing it away. When you run water waiting for it to get hot, put a container under the faucet and save this cold water to use for something else, like watering plants.
- Fix dripping faucets. Drip, drip, drip. It may not seem like much, but it adds up. Just 100 drops per minute of dripping can waste 350 gallons in a month. A leak that's a tiny stream can total 2,000 gallons a month. Most leaks can be stopped simply by replacing worn-out washers inside the faucet. These washers are cheap and easy to install.
- Check for hidden leaks. To find other hidden leaks, turn off all your water taps. Check your water meter and write down the reading. Don't use any water for 30 minutes, then read the meter again. If it shows water has been used, then there's a hidden leak that should be fixed promptly.
- Don't run water when brushing teeth. Many people leave the tap running while brushing their teeth. This can waste hundreds of gallons of water each month. So turn off the tap while brushing, and only use water to rinse your mouth and your toothbrush.
- Use the garbage disposal only when you have to, and run as little water as possible into it. Or consider composting food waste and avoiding the garbage disposal altogether.
- When you wash dishes by hand, fill the sink and dip dishes in water to rinse rather than running a lot of water.
- Use your automatic dishwasher. Believe it or not, dishwashing machines are actually more efficient than hand-washing. Most dishwashers do not require pre-rinsing dishes by hand. Just scrape solid food off with a spatula.
- Take shorter showers, and take showers instead of baths. The longer you linger, the more water you use. But filling a bathtub takes a lot more water than the average shower.
In the yard and garden
- Nix the lawn or shrink it to a more earth-friendly size. In many parts of the country, lawns are heavy water users. Smaller lawns also mean less mowing--and that saves time, money, and CO2 emissions.
- Water lawns less often, but more deeply-and don't overwater. Over half of the average household's water use is outside the house. Lawns are a major guzzler. Watering to the root depth of is best. In clay soil, one-half inch of water should moisten the soil to a depth of six inches. Lawns in very sandy soils need less water but more frequent application. To find out how deeply the water is penetrating, turn on the sprinkler for five minutes, then push a spade in to check your depth. If five minutes moistens the soil two inches down, you may need to water for fifteen minutes to moisten it down to six inches.
- Water shrubs more deeply and less frequently.
- Use brooms and buckets. You can waste a lot of water blasting dirt and leaves off your driveway or sidewalk with a hose. Instead, use a broom. And when you wash your car, use a few buckets of water instead of hosing it off.
- Water as early as possible. Watering early in the morning means that less water is lost by evaporation from the sun. Also, plants are less likely to get diseases if watered at this time, rather than in late afternoon or evening.
- Mulch and compost. Several inches of mulch will keep moisture in the soil while it suppresses weeds. You can use everything from grass clippings to newspapers for mulch. Also, adding compost to the soil helps it retain moisture.
- Check outside for leaks too. Your sprinkler and irrigation systems are the prime suspects.
When shopping, look for
- Native or locally adapted plants. They'll require less watering than plants that are not well-suited to your soils and climate. You'll also save water if you group plants by how thirsty they are.
- High-efficiency toilets. Some high-efficiency toilets take only 1.3 gallons per flush (gpf), or only about a third as much water as older toilets. Some utilities give generous rebates for installation of the efficient toilets--in some cases up to the entire cost. Check with you local utility to find out if rebates are available.
- Low-flow showerheads. Install a water-efficient showerhead that takes no more than the federal maximum of 2.5 gallons per minute. "Low-flow" showerheads can do even better.
- Aerators. Low-flow aerators on your kitchen and bathroom faucets are easy to install and cut down on water use and splashing. A flow rate of 2.2 gallons per minute is good for kitchen faucets and 1.5 gallons per minute for bathroom faucets.
- A water-saving clothes washer. A high-efficiency machine can clean clothes better while using 30% to 50% less water and 40% to 70% less energy than conventional models. Look for a "water factor" label.
- Water-smart irrigation controllers. There are new products that automatically adjust irrigation based on actual weather conditions, shutting off when it rains, sending out more water in hot and dry spells, and reducing runoff from slopes by recycling water that runs down them. You save water, money, and have healthier gardens. Some water districts even offer vouchers for savings on purchases of these new systems. Ask your local district about rebates.
- Drip irrigation. Drip irrigation systems apply water at the base of a plant instead of saturating soil all around it, and therefore they use a lot less water than an overhead sprayer. Slow, accurate application of water to the plant roots prevents water from running off on walkways and into gutters. A well designed drip system is durable. And there are even sub-surface drip irrigation systems for lawns. Ask about rebates for these systems too.
- Hand watering. Drip irrigation uses less water than sprinklers, but for small yards you can save even more if you water with a hose. Studies show that people use less water and water less frequently when they do the job by hand.
- Be aware of sliding-scale rates. To discourage water waste, many utilities charge more if you use above a certain amount. A district might charge a baseline price of a sixth of a cent per gallon for the first 150 gallons. But for every gallon above that baseline rate, the price might go up to a fifth of a cent or more.
- Want to be on the cutting edge of green gardening? Irrigate your yard with gray water. Gray water systems reuse the relatively clean waste water from showers, bathtubs, bathroom faucets, and clothes washers (never from toilets or dishwashers, and rarely from kitchen sinks). The most basic gray water system is a bucket placed under the showerhead or tub faucet to collect water wasted during that annoying wait for the hot water to arrive. You can use the buckets of water to flush the toilet or water plants. More sophisticated setups pipe the gray water from the house through filters and then into the garden or a holding tank. To minimize health risks from contaminants that might be in the reused water, gray water is usually used for below-surface irrigation of nonedible plants. Gray water isn't yet legal in some communities and states, so check with your local building department. Find out more about building a gray water system at www.graywater.net.
- Rainwater harvesting is a time-honored way of making the most of the pure water from the skies. Under ordinary circumstances, rainwater runs off your roof into the sewer or onto paved areas where it can pick up pollutants and carry them into local waterways. A rainwater harvesting system captures that roof runoff and directs it to a storage container, which can be anything from a basic covered barrel to a huge underground tank with a pump to get the water back up to the surface. Harvested rainwater is usually used for irrigation, although if it's appropriately purified, it can also be used for drinking and cooking. If you want to try harvesting, make sure that your roof is made of a material that won't leach contaminants into the water. You should also have a "first flush valve" so that the first few minutes of rainfall is diverted into the normal drainage system rather than into the barrels or cistern. This helps keep contaminants like bird droppings and mold spores out of the harvested water.
...to your wallet
On average, U.S. households consume about 127,500 gallons of water a year. Water is a bargain. The average cost is only about a sixth of a cent per gallon, and the average household's total bill comes to about $200 a year. Of course many people pay more than this, depending on their use and higher-than-average rates in some areas. Many people can cut their use--and their costs--in half without even investing in new equipment. If you go all out, and invest a bit, you can save even more. Studies by the American Waterworks Association (AWWA) have found that in some cases water consumption can be reduced by a whopping 75%.
...to the Earth
The less water we use, the more remains for the nature's creatures to enjoy. Also, the less water we use, the less energy is required to pump and process it. That means less mining and drilling for coal, oil, and natural gas, which damages the environment. Lower energy use also lowers the emission of global-warming gases such as carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
- Look closely at your water bills. If you are spending more than average, or are shocked at the bill, it's especially important to study it. A big change may signal that you have a hidden leak.
- You can find many other water-saving products and ideas at the website of the American Waterworks Association. Many local waterworks also supply practical, money-saving information.