Water Saving -- From Easy to Hard

As you may know, those of us served by EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District) have been ordered to reduce our water usage because we are in a drought. While there's been a significant amount of griping from those of us in the inner suburbs who tend to have lower water usage than the outer suburbs where they are legally required to water their lawns in the summer, everybody has to pitch in and try to reduce their usage. In that spirit, here are some ways to reduce water usage, both for those who are gross wasters of water and for those of us who are already conservers.

Easy & Cheap

Make sure you don't have any leaks. This is a no-brainer. If you're going to waste water, waste it on something extravagant for yourself, not on dripping water down the drain or dribbling it across the sidewalk. Do this before you do anything else, and do it even though you did it last summer. Seals break or wear out all the time.

Swap out your shower head for a low-flow unit. A lot of these fancy spa bathrooms have massive, water-wasting showerheads installed. Non-conserving showerheads use a LOT of water. If you switch from a water-wasting 10 gpm showerhead to a low-flow 1.5 gpm showerhead, you'll save 170 gallons in 20 minutes of showering. Given that that's more water than our entire household uses in a day, without much of a sacrifice at all, you should be on the way to the hardware store before you finish reading this sentence.

Take shorter showers. Spending 20 minutes in the shower is just pouring water down the drain. If you can't live without a long, hot shower twice a day, I suggest you move somewhere where there's water. (I know: that was harsh. Deal.)

Switch to baths. If you can't live without a long soak every day, consider soaking in a bath. The average bath uses 40 gallons of water, which is as much water as only four minutes under a 10 gpm spa showerhead.

Use a shutoff valve in the shower. A little valve that turns off the water while you soap up can save gallons of water that you weren't really using, anyway. And because they're cheap, they're worth installing even if you are a faster showerer and have a low-flow showerhead.

Shut off the water while you brush. If you're brushing the way your dentist wants you to, you could waste ten gallons a day in a two-person household. Even if you are less than diligent, water that's doing nothing but run down the drain is wrong.

Use cold water. Instead of running the water to get it nice and perfectly warm, while wasting all the less-warm water in the pipes, just use the cold water and cope with being a little cold. You're not in any danger of hypothermia, anyway. I make an exception for the shower, but for hand-washing? Get over it.

Stop watering your lawn so often. We water our lawn with non-potable water from our sump, but the sump's flow decreases in the summer so we slow our frequency down to every five days. The lawn gets a little brown, but grass is hardly adapted to this climate, anyway.

Stop using the garbage disposal. I hate garbage disposals. They are stupid, and you should not use them. Especially not in the East Bay, where we have food scrap recycling and low-cost compost bins available. Garbage disposals put good biomatter into an already overloaded sewer system, they waste water, and they add an extremely dangerous piece of machinery to an already dangerous room. Anything you would have put down the disposal can be put in the green bin or composted in your own yard. I will make an exception only if your disposal runs directly into a compost bin instead of into the sanitary sewer.

Stop washing your car altogether. Seriously, if you are even considering washing your car in a drought, something is wrong with you. Nobody wants to say that, but it's the plain truth. You do not need to wash your car with drinking water. If you must wash it for some reason, take it to a car wash that has an automated system: they use a minimal amount of water and at least it doesn't flow right into the bay and pollute the environment like it does when you wash your car in your driveway (obviously, you shouldn't wash your car in the drive even in non-drought years because it's evil). But even better: don't wash your car.

Flush less often. You know what I mean.


Easy & Expensive

Install motion-sensing faucets in the bathroom. They'll turn on when you put your hands under them and off when you remove them, so you don't even have to think about switching the water off and on. They cost some money, but if you have kids they'll pay for themselves almost immediately, both in money and time spent trailing after kids shutting off faucets.

Install a recirculating hot water system. It keeps hot water seconds away from your faucet, so you don't even have to give up warm water handwashing, as I suggested above. These work well with the automatic faucets, but they are especially nice for the shower: just turn on the water and hop right in. Expensive, and of course you should have the system designed by somebody who knows what they're doing to minimize wasted energy, but a good water saver and time saver, too.

Replace your toilet. New toilets use less water (some under 1.6 gallons per flush) and work much better than the first generation low-flow toilets. I'm terribly partial to Toto toilets, because they're designed to clog less easily even with really ridiculous loads (I saw a demo in which they flushed ten pounds of tofu and about half a roll of toilet paper down a Toto toilet). A dual-flush toilet will use less water for, um, smaller loads, but the people I know who have those say they haven't noticed much of a difference in the water usage on a monthly basis. YMMV.

Install a waterless urinal. If you have a lot of guys in your household, you can save plenty of water on random flushing by installing a urinal, and even more by installing a waterless urinal. Not to mention that you avoid the incredible mess guys make by standing up to pee in a toilet and spashing all over the place, which saves you not only lots of water on cleaning up but the gross factor. There are lots of stories about waterless urinals, but they actually stand up to use quite well as long as you follow the instructions that come with them about cleaning, and in a home situation they work fine.

Replace your clothes washer and dishwasher with high-efficiency models. Our clothes washer uses 15 gallons of water per load (compared to 40 for the one we replaced). Our dishwasher is not only very efficient, but has a top-rack-only cycle that handles smaller loads and saves even more water. It may cost you a chunk of money, but it's a mindless way to save a lot of water if you're living with older appliances.

Replace lawn sprinklers with a subsurface drip system. They're super-efficient (no water lost to evaporation), they can run at any time of day, and they put the water where plants will use it. They do take more money to install, but once installed they are absolutely invisible. (Bonus: no more accidentally whacking the top off a sprinkler with lawn tools.) Be cautious about this if you have a major problem with burrowing animals in your lawn, of course.


Hard & Cheap

Put a bucket in the shower while you wash. You can use the water to water plants or flush your toilet. (See my note below about greywater systems and plumbing design to see why you don't want to divert all the water from your shower.)

Save water from cooking and washing-up. Keep a bucket in the kitchen to catch rinse water and pasta or vegetable boiling water for watering your lawn or plants. Not only will you save water, but you will be putting nutrients that leach out of food while you are cooking into your soil instead of down the drain.

Hand-wash dishes in a dishpan. Use two dishpans when handwashing dishes: one for soapy water, and another for rinse. This keeps you from using more water than you knew you were using while hand-washing, and it makes it easier to lift out the pans and dump the water on your plants when you're done.


Hard & Expensive

Install a greywater system. You can do without any watering with municipal water at all by re-routing your washing machine and dishwasher to a greywater system for your garden (be sure to switch to biodegradable detergents if you do this, of course). You have to be careful about what you re-route, though: with low-flow toilets, modern plumbing systems rely on other fixtures (usually the shower) for rinsing the pipes clear on a regular basis. Re-route those fixtures and you'll have a lot more clogs in your system. Greywater is a non-trivial undertaking: you'll need permits to do this job, so it will cost some money and take some time, especially if you have to convince your city to allow it.

Install a composting toilet. OK, not ideal for everybody, but honestly, they do not stink (idiomatically or literally). If you have a larger property, you can use the finished compost on non-food growing areas or under fruit trees (but don't eat the windfall fruit). Most use zero water and minimal electricity (to run the motor that turns the compost for you). This is another item that you might have to sweet-talk your city into allowing, and if you live in a development with CC&R's, you probably shouldn't even bother trying. But as a bonus, if you do have a composting toilet, you can happily divert all your drain water to a greywater system without worrying about clogs.

Install a rainwater harvesting system and cistern. This may seem silly in a place where it only rains from October to April, but bear with me. WHat you're doing in a climate like the Bay Area's is time-shifting the rain by storing it. So you save as much of the water off your roof as possible for use later in the year, when there is no rain. Every gallon of water you save from your roof is a gallon of municipal water that you are not using. A cistern can be expensive: our 550 gallon tank cost $300, and it can't be buried (and you will want to bury a large cistern, unless you have a lot of room), and excavation and placement of a larger tank can add up. You'll need a pump or two, and you'll need to maintain the system. But if you have time and money to do this, it's hands-down the best use for your resources, ever.

If you have a big enough roof (or small enough yard), you can even use some of the water to flush your toilets, reducing your municipal water load even more. You can calculate how much water you'll get from your roof for the summer like so: Volume = Area of roof (sqft) * annual rainfall (inches) * 0.623 [conversion factor]. That's the size of cistern you'd need. So for our house, which has a roof that is about 1500 sqft, in our climate with about 14 inches of rainfall per year, we'd need a cistern that is about 13,000 gallons to save all our roof runoff. That sounds crazy huge, but consider that it doesn't rain from April to October, which is 6 months or 26 weeks. If we watered our plantings with 500 gallons of water twice a week (surprisingly easy to do), that's 26,000 gallons of water right there, which is twice what would be in the cistern. Also consider that that is a cistern that is about 1750 cubic feet, which is a space roughly twelve feet on a side: not that large. So we are seriously considering where we could sink a cistern in the yard without impact on the foundation.

I've been told by people that maintaining a cistern is a massive pain in the butt. This is not true: you need to toss in some mosquito dunks on a regular basis, and check once a year to make sure that there's not all kinds of gunk in the bottom (which will need cleaning out with a scoop or an aquarium vacuum), but that's it. Less maintenance than the windows on your house.


Other places to find the usual water-saving tips:

- Ad Agency Park and Co. offers a region-specific list of tips
- From a coalition of cities around Santa Cruz
- EBMUD's Drought Help Center

posted by ayse on 07/07/08

2 Comments

Weird... in Europe everyone gives you nasty looks if you admit you're taking baths... showers are recommended everywhere as insanely water saving. The usual figures given here: 50 gallons for a bath, 5 gallons for a 10 minute shower. My mom even bothered to try it... she plugged the bath tub when she took a shower. Result: after a 15 minute shower the tub had barely 4" of water in it.

Looks like there are vastly different shower heads around the world. (Above test was performed using a 1950s handheld shower, yet I doubt a modern shower would give significantly different results, the main limiting factors in most European city households is the tankless water heater which only gives out 2-3 gpm hot water).

Ragnar, the big difference is that water pressure in the US is a lot higher. Our mains pressure is high, we don't put water in a gravity tank after it arrives at the house as is sometimes seen in Europe, our water heaters (tanks and tankless) handle higher pressures and greater volumes of water as you say, and so on. It all really comes down to Americans not having had any limits on their fresh water use in the past.

This is why Americans always complain about showers when they are abroad. After all, who ever heard of having to conserve water?

Note: We're getting pummeled with spam comments, so I've turned off the ability to use any HTML or include any links for the time being. Email with any issues.

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