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Water Conservation: Every Drop Counts

NOW THAT LOW-FLOW TOILETS, SHOWERHEADS AND FAUCETS HAVE GONE MAINSTREAM you might expect that home water usage would decline each year. Not so. The latest available data from the U.S. Geological Service tells us that total water demand has leveled off for several years.

Are we using less per person? Yes. The population in the United States rises by about 5% each year, so by maintaining the same overall water use, we are making modest gains in water efficiency. But as author, law professor, and water expert Robert Glennon points out, simply treading water is not good enough.

“Most of us are spoiled,” he says. “We think of water as we do air. But we’re in a crisis. In my book, everydropUnquenchable, I describe how the crisis manifests differently around the country.”

In South Carolina, a company had to close its doors for lack of water. Four states have denied permits for new power plants because they lack the necessary water [for cooling]. These are just the economic problems. When you add in the environmental impacts, the problem is huge—and getting worse.”

Glennon explains that clean, fresh water is becoming scarcer. We lose some every year to pollution and excessive use of groundwater.

“Municipal use of water accounts for about 7% to 10% of total demand, but that’s still substantial,” he explains.

What’s the best way to deepen water conservation? Can we simply use market tools to convince people to use less water? Researchers in California tested that idea a couple of years ago, using “de-marketing” techniques aimed at making water consumption less desirable. They found that raising prices alone had minimal impact on water use behavior. However, when combined with education, they found a strong correlation between behavior and price per gallon.

“I think price hikes alone also can work,” Glennon notes. “But too often they’re not dramatic enough to get a person’s attention. They have to hurt.”

In many places we pay less for water than we do for cellphones or cable TV,” he continues. “That’s just stunning. In hundreds of communities, you pay decreasing block rates. That means you pay less as you use more water. It should be the other way around. We need to begin to pay the real costs of water.”

Those policy changes, Glennon notes, are just part of the formula needed to reduce our H20 footprint.“There’s no single silver bullet that’s going to solve the problems,” he says. “You need to have a portfolio of options. For example, in some places desalination—a very costly solution—is part of future water planning. But in other places water harvesting is a viable option. The same is true of households.” By combining low-tech solutions with high-tech advances and better education, he explains, we can lower the H20 plateau.

To help you get that process started, here are several water-saving ideas—some you’ll recognize, others you may not have considered, to squeeze the most efficient water use out of your next project.

Minimalist Toilets

If you’re patting yourself on the back for installing 1.6 gpf toilets in all of your projects, you’re living in the past. New toilets such as the Boulevard from American Standard have reduced water usage to 1.0 gpf. Other improvements include dual-flush valves, which drop water use to as little as .8 gpf. “Replacing old toilets with new ones is one of the biggest bangs for the buck municipalities can get in terms of water savings,” notes Glennon. “If the municipality gets involved, they can help identify areas where a lot of older homes are likely to need upgrades. That can make a big impact—and quickly.”

Faucets for the Future

Plumbing manufacturers have always had to walk a fine line between water conservation and performance. Cut back the flow in your faucets and showerheads too much and the public won’t buy. Worse, they’ll unscrew their low-flow aerators or replace their showerheads with discontinued water guzzlers. New designs have found the sweet spot. They provide ample water pressure using as little as 1.5 gpm.

Old School Clothes Dryer

It might seem odd to include a low-tech clothes drying line as key to water saving. But clothes dryers use a lot of energy. As Glennon points out, energy is a huge water waster. “A grad student at Virginia Tech studied how much water it takes for a fossil fuel powered power plant to produce the energy to run a 60W light bulb for 12 hours a day for a year,” he explains. “In some cases, it takes up to 6,000 gallons.” The average clothes dryer uses about 800 kWh of energy annually—indirectly consuming about 35,000 gallons of water. Of course, hanging out laundry isn’t always possible (January in New England comes to mind), but new retractable and umbrella-style laundry lines make seasonal use viable. Every load dried by the natural thermonuclear plant above us (the sun) saves water.

Net Zero Car Wash

An often overlooked use for rainwater harvesting is a dedicated car washing station. A garden hose with no nozzle uses about 10 gpm, so a ten minute wash uses 100 gallons. By installing a shutoff valve and using a bucket of soapy water, that figure drops to about 30 gallons (See chart below.). Why not install a 50-gallon rain barrel, so residents know that when the barrel is full, they have enough “free” water to wash and rinse? Of course, they should also use biodegradable soaps, with the car parked on a permeable surface, such as a porous pavers (a green driveway option) or on the drought resistant landscape next to it. Car Wash Water Use

Low-Grow Landscaping

The age of the riding lawn mower is over—or it should be. Traditional lawns not only waste water directly, producing no food in the process, they also require nearly constant maintenance with fossil fuel powered machines. “In some places, such as Tucson, xeriscaping has really taken over,” Glennon notes. “But then you go to Phoenix and you see these lush lawns that are totally out of place. The Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas is actually paying about $2 a square foot for people to remove their lawns. They’ve paid out about $150 million so far.” If xeriscaping with native plants is the best landscape option, planting no-mow or low-mow lawn alternatives is the next best way to reduce water usage.

Redirecting the Rain

If you ever visit the British Virgin Islands, you may be surprised to learn how many homes have built-in cisterns for rainwater collection. Lacking municipal water, they’ve learned to live within the limits of local rainfall. In most parts of the United States, however, rainwater collection is still seen as a novelty—albeit a desirable one. As Glennon says, municipal water has just been too cheap and easy for too long. “Rainwater harvesting has a number of benefits,” Glennon explains. “For one, it can reduces the amount of water going through treatment plants—a process that requires energy and more water. Also, he notes that rainwater contains less salts than some groundwater, and rain is not treated with chlorine or fluoride. “Many plants seem to grow better with rainwater. And of course it’s suitable for practically everything in the house, although you won’t want to drink it without filtration.

Protecting the Pool

A large, uncovered swimming pool in a warm climate can lose about 13,000 gallons of water each year to evaporation. With about 9 million swimming pools installed in the United States, this is no small leak. A pool cover can reduce water loss to evaporation by 30% to 50%, and the amount of chemicals needed by similar percentages. A solar cover has the additional benefit of heating water. But as Glennon notes, in some climates that’s a mixed blessing. “My solar pool blanket makes the water too hot in the summer here in Tucson. Somebody’s got to invent a system that reflects excessive heat in the hottest months.” Our research for this story turned up a prototype for a pool cover with a PV-powered spool mechanism, but no heat reflecting alternatives.

Sprinklers With Smarts

Residential lawn irrigation can account for 30% of home water use in dry states. Assuming the lawn can’t be replanted or replaced with drought-tolerant plants, optimizing water use is essential. “I’m told by a lot of irrigation people that the guy in the field setting it up may not speak or read English, and he’s setting the timer,” Glennon says. New digital controls give the homeowner the ability to set watering schedules accurately. “It’s important that those systems are very simple,” Glennon adds. “Unfortunately, water prices are often too low to warrant installing one of the better timer systems—another example of why current water economics don’t encourage conservation.”

Appliance Know-How

It almost goes without saying that some clothes and dishwashers use less water than others. Energy Star labeling is a good place to start when making purchases. Keep in mind, as we mentioned above, that creating energy is a water-intensive process. So an appliance with both low energy use and low water use is also the most water frugal. In older homes without dishwashers, a new installation of a high-efficiency model should be an easy sell. Research done in Germany found that a good dishwasher uses about one-fifth of the water needed to wash an equivalent number of dishes by hand in a day. Consumer behavior must adjust, too, however, or it can negate any gains. It’s important that the dishwasher be run only when full. 

See more about reducing water consumption in the modern home in Water Saving Wizardry.