Ways to Cut Your Water Usage that are right for YOU

January 13th, 2014

Ways to Cut Your Water Usage that are right for YOU

Written By: Jerry Alonzy
faucet drop
Image via Ángelo González (Flickr)

Back in my college days when the first rumblings of the conservation and sustainability movements were being felt, we had an expression that became a bumper-sticker philosophical gem… “Save water… shower with a friend!”  Translation: “Conservation can be fun!” In the late 60′s young people were just becoming aware of the unthinking waste of resources that flowed from the affluence and innovation of the WW2 generation.

Today water conservation has become a permanent part of our society, in part due to increased public awareness and in part through legislation. Virtually every aspect of our water usage has been subject to local and federal rules and regulations. All new toilets, faucets, showerheads and many appliances must conform to federal guidelines limiting water flow rates. Washing machines have been subject to such radical rules that many top-loaders must use a special type of detergent to clean properly! Similarly, handling of waste water has been tightly regulated as the pollution of ground water has emerged in some areas as health and safety nightmares.

In the eyes of government, water is considered a limited resource, but this is a simplistic way to view it in a diverse country. I have had clients with well water systems that generate so much water that they have a literal stream running across their yards, 24 hours a day 7 days a week! The fact is the blunt hand of government has forced everyone to conserve, whether or not their personal situation demands it.

Just as we should evaluate our personal situations to determine whether we should have whole house filtration systems or powerful, efficient stand-alone units such the fine water filters in the Berkey line, water conservation should be a personal approach based on the availability and cost of water in your life… not someone halfway around the globe.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines to help you sensibly conserve water while keeping the quality of both the water and of your life!

Low flow toilets, faucets and showerheads save dramatic amounts of water

Early versions of low flow toilets were absolute nightmares, subject to blockages and overall poor user satisfaction. Modern versions are greatly improved and save up to 80% per flush over old toilets. Even when a “double-flush” is needed you are still saving water!

Similarly, newer low-flow showerheads have greatly increased user satisfaction.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prior to 1994 a typical showerhead had a flow rate of up to 5 1/2 gallons per minute (gpm). Modern showerheads, on the other hand, have flow rates as low as 2 gpm. Amazingly, modern designs have made these efficient showerheads pleasant to use. However, well water users may need to slightly increase their water pressure to achieve the best experience with these low-flow showerheads.

Most folks like their low-flow faucets for everyday use, with the main complaint being that it takes longer to fill large pots or buckets.

 In the laundry and kitchen…

Front-loading washing machines are the kings (or queens, if you will) of water-saving laundry appliances. The tossing action not only uses a very small amount of water but cleans more thoroughly than top loaders. But newer top loaders have become more water saving than ever and are still less expensive than front loaders.

Which to choose? If cash is tight, a top loader with a center agitator will save you money for sure.  If the cost is less important than water savings, front loaders give the best bang… though for more bucks! Keep in mind when shopping that the layout of your laundry area may make using a front loader impossible, especially if there is an obstruction preventing full access to the door. Some tight laundry rooms, such as those in some apartments and condominiums, have toilets or cabinets that limit the type of appliance you can install.

There are high efficiency top loaders that do not have a center agitator, allowing for more efficiency and a larger basket meaning greater capacity. These top-of-the-line top loaders come as close as possible in matching the action of front loaders are a more reasonable cost. As mentioned earlier, they require the use of a high efficiency detergent to work properly.

One rule of thumb is to run the largest loads of laundry possible. Modern washing machines are most efficient water-wise and effective cleaning-wise with larger loads.

Many of the efficiencies of washing machines have been incorporated into electric dishwashers. Today’s models are more energy efficient and use much less water than older models. As with washing machines, running the largest loads possible is the most efficient energy and water-wise, though some of the better machines offer a “quick wash” cycle that can allow you to still save water and energy with smaller loads.

Adding to your total water supply from thin air…

Rain barrels are a great way to collect the free water that falls from the sky! A rain barrel attached to a gutter’s downspout can produce a tremendous amount of water to fill watering cans or wash the dog! You can even run a hose from the bottom drain to water your garden. Many people install their rain barrels on raised platforms to compensate for a level yard and increase the pressure. You can also purchase pumps to move the water uphill.

And don’t discount rain water for emergency drinking! Top quality portable water filtration systems such as the Berkey line can turn rainwater into delicious, totally safe potable water.

Other efficiencies outside the home…

Three outside tasks that are very water intensive are gardening, car washing and miscellaneous home cleaning such as decks and siding. Watering a garden with a hand-held hose is quite efficient since you are directing the water exactly where you want it. Using an automatic sprinkler is a time-saver but very inefficient since you don’t have much control over where most of the water goes. The best solution is to install a trickle hose that can be snaked through your garden, depositing a slow, steady stream of water with nearly the control of a hand-held hose. Putting a timer on the hose will assure you don’t forget to turn the water off, which could wash away any savings! (I’ve run my well dry more than once with such foolishness.)

Believe it or not, using a car wash can use as little or less water than hand washing according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. They assert that an automatic car wash can use two to three times as much water, but many car washes now recycle their water making the actual water use less than a hand wash. Add to this the numerous studies showing that a hand wash is more destructive to your car’s finish. Unless your budget just can’t stand the hit, letting the pros wash your car will save you money in the long run.

When washing a deck or siding, using a power washer will use less water and do a better job. The increased, focused pressure more effectively washes away dirt than the lower pressure of a garden hose meaning saved time and water.

Changing your behavior can save more than any piece of equipment… and it will cost you nothing!

Breaking habits is really hard! But with respect to water conservation one simple change can make a huge difference in your daily water use.

I almost feel silly mentioning it, but according to the EPA this one change can save hundreds of gallons a month, so it’s worth being silly! It’s as simple as this: don’t let the water run continuously when washing dishes, brushing your teeth, shaving, etc.. Turning the faucet on only when you need it can save up to 90% of the water REALLY needed to do these things!

When washing dishes, use a dish bucket instead of washing “freehand”.  And try to do all the rinsing at once instead of a piece at a time. Though somewhat pricey for home use, commercial kitchens have foot-actuated valves to turn sink water on and off with the result being maximal control and water savings.

In conclusion…

I learned a lot about water conservation during week-long power outages we’ve had in my New England town over the last decade from to snow storms, ice storms and hurricanes. Believe me… when your only source of hot water is from a Coleman grill, you quickly learn to maximize dish-washing efficiency!

Most of the changes I mentioned do cost money, so they must be evaluated based on your budget and conservation needs. I wouldn’t rush out to replace your old washing machine or dishwasher till you need to, but a low flow showerhead and a free attitude adjustment are reasonable investments!

Or just go shower with a friend!

About the author: Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation. As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites, including his own at www.naturalhandyman.com.


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