Last updated May 2017
The average American shower consumes 17 gallons of water. Old washing machines can use 45 gallons to clean one load. Watering the garden, washing dishes, hosing down the kids—it all adds up. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day.
Wasting water means wasting money. Here in California, water shortages provide another reason to reduce usage. Although increased rainfall has greatly improved the situation, local water utilities still ask customers to voluntarily reduce use.
But there’s a broader environmental issue: It takes a lot of energy to treat water and pump it to your home. The EPA estimates that running your faucet for five minutes uses about as much energy as keeping one of those banned 60-watt light bulbs burning for 14 hours.
Below are some simple ways to conserve H20, many of which are low- or no-cost and no-hassle. Also check for local rebates. Some water utilities offer rebates if you install water-conserving products—for example, a $125 rebate if you replace an old toilet with a highly efficient model. Check with the Bay Area Water Supply & Conservation Agency for current rebates. Other helpful websites include the EPA’s WaterSense Rebate Finder and WaterRebates.com.
Plumb Jobs: Indoor Fixes
The EPA estimates that five to 10 percent of U.S. homes have water leaks that drip away 90 gallons or more a day, so regularly check and repair faucets, showerheads, laundry, and dishwasher connections. To search for non-obvious leaks, such as from an outside supply line or a loose toilet flapper valve, check if your water meter indicates usage when all your water-consuming stuff is turned off.
Many leaks are easy do-it-yourself projects; if you don’t know what to do or how to do it, online videos can guide you. If you’ve already starred in several DIY blooper reels, use our ratings of plumbers to find help.
The Royal Flush
In most households, flushing accounts for the biggest indoor use of water—a whopping 30 percent.
Many of us have toilets that silently leak away gallons every day. To check yours, add a dozen drops of food coloring to the tank. Come back in an hour; if the color is gone or made its way into the bowl, you have a leak.
Upgrading an old toilet with a modern high-efficiency unit will also save a lot of aqua. Old models use three to seven gallons per flush. New toilets must use 1.6 gallons or less per pull. Toilets that get the EPA’s WaterSense designation use 1.28 gallons per flush or less. If you hire a plumber for a toilet install, shop around. Our undercover shoppers found that the prices among outfits to replace a toilet ranged from less than $500 to more than $1,000.
If you’re not ready to part with an old commode, you can still save a lot of water. Put toilet dams in the tank to displace water and reduce the amount used per flush. An old trick was to place a brick in the tank, but because bricks deteriorate over time and cause damage, a better option is to use a half-gallon milk jug filled with water. There are also specially designed tank displacement products, including a model from the Drop-a-Brick project (no, we’re not kidding)—it looks like a brick but is made of waterproof materials. Similar devices include the Toilet Tank Bank, a non-corrosive bag you fill with water. All these solutions displace about a half-gallon of water, which saves an average household 3,000 gallons a year.
Finally, modern high-efficiency toilets have two flush modes: solid (greater flow) and liquid (less). Many older toilets can be retrofitted with this type of dual flush valve.
On average, laundry accounts for 22 percent of indoor home water use.
The easiest way to save water is to always wash full loads and to use appropriate load-size settings. Some new washers have automatic load-sensing functions that detect size or weight and fill accordingly. You’ll also save energy by washing in cold water and air-drying laundry.
New clothes washers use a lot less water than old machines—15 gallons of water per load, compared to 23 gallons—and lasso a lot less energy. If you’re thinking about replacing a clothes washer, start by reviewing our advice on buying appliances, and check info from the EPA’s Energy Star and WaterSense programs. Keep in mind that even over 10 years, the water and energy savings provided by a new model likely won’t add up to its price tag.
Go with a Lower Flow
Those hot showers you love account for 17 percent of average household water use. Baths use up more water than showers. So consider taking short showers: The EPA estimates you’ll save 550 gallons a year for each minute cut.
You might also save as much as 2,900 gallons of water a year by replacing an old showerhead with a fixture that meets the EPA’s WaterSense requirements. Older showerheads may consume 2.5 gallons per minute or more, while WaterSense fixtures use a maximum of 2.0.
Another trick? Install showerheads equipped with switches that let you easily reduce the water flow while you lather up. For about $25 you can add this feature to some existing showerheads with inline fittings.
Consider attaching aerators to older faucets or replacing an existing aerator with a low-flow version. Aerators are little screens you attach to the tip of faucets that mix air to the water as it exits the spout. In addition to reducing water flow, an aerator creates backup pressure that increases the speed of flow and actually increases perceived water pressure. Aerators are made with different flow rates, measured in gallons per minute (gpm). If you have a faucet with a 2.2 gpm aerator, replacing it with a 1.5 gpm aerator reduces water flow by 32 percent. Most aerators cost around $5.
Of course for some tasks—say, filling a pot to cook pasta—aerators won’t provide water savings. But for jobs relying on flow—washing hands, rinsing plates—aerators make a difference.
And remember—when you save hot water you also save on the energy it would have taken to heat more of it.
For most households, doing the dishes takes up a relatively small portion of water consumption. Energy Star dishwashers use only about four gallons of water per load, and standard machines only about six. But please use the dishwasher: Hand washing dishes, though virtuous, generally uses about 20 gallons per dishwasher load.
- Don’t prewash dishes. Knock that pizza crust into your compost bin, but it’s not necessary to rinse off everything before loading.
- If you can get away with it, use a light or short cycle.
- Garbage disposers are water hogs. Throw scraps in the trash, or do the right thing and start a compost pile.
Other Small Ways to Save Water
- Indoor plants—Keep a watering can next to the sink. If you have to wait for the water to warm up, collect the cold stuff for your plants.
- Shaving—Pretend you’re starring as a tough guy in an old Western and fill a basin with hot water instead of letting it run.
- Brushing—Speaking of bad bathroom habits, turn off the water while brushing your teeth.
- Selective flushing—In some homes, especially those with septic tanks, there’s a saying: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” In other words, don’t flush every time you urinate. While this practice likely doesn’t create any health risk, odor might be an issue, and if your cohabitants aren’t as committed to saving water as you and object, well…don’t push it.
- Cooking—Clean and peel vegetables in bowls of water instead of continuous rinsing under running water.
Lawns & Beyond: Reducing Outdoor Water Use
Although California’s water shortage has eased a bit, many outdoor water-use practices remain prohibited:
- Watering outdoor landscapes in a manner that causes runoff to sidewalks, streets, and hardscapes.
- Using a hose without a shut-off nozzle for any purpose.
- Washing sidewalks, driveways, plazas, and other outdoor hardscapes for reasons other than health, safety, or to meet local ordinances for sidewalk cleanliness.
- Using drinking water for soil compaction, dust control, or other nonessential construction purposes if non-potable water is available.
- Watering outdoor landscapes with potable water during a rain event or within 48 hours after one.
- Watering with potable water of ornamental turf on public street medians.
- Irrigation of landscapes outside of new homes and buildings in a non-efficient manner.
- Using drinking water in non-recirculating fountains or decorative water devices.
There are lots of other ways to save water. On average, outdoor use accounts for 30 percent of households’ annual consumption. You’ll save a substantial amount of agua by following relatively easy steps.
Grass lawns use more water than most other groundcovers. Using native plants can reduce or eliminate the need to mow, and can provide habitat for animals and insects.
Plus, when you replace turf with alternative landscaping, you may be eligible for a rebate of up to $2,000. You have to apply for the rebate before work has begun, and you’ll have to provide documentation, such as a photo of the area to be replaced, total square footage, and a copy of a recent water bill. Go to www.saveourwaterrebates.com for more info.
The Bay Area Water Supply & Conservation Agency’s Water Wise Gardening website provides a good guide to selecting plants. It also includes tools to customize and plan your landscaping online.
Another good resource for identifying native plants is the California Native Plant Society, which has a database of native plants, searchable by region.
Also check with our top-rated garden centers.
Sticking with turf? You can minimize water consumption by following these practices:
- The best time to water your lawn? Early in the morning, which minimizes evaporation. Since it could foster fungi problems, avoid watering at night.
- Most lawns need only about one inch of water a week, rain included. But it’s better to water thoroughly and less often than to do a bunch of shallow waterings. You can buy electronic gizmos to measure soil moisture or a rain gauge. A cheapskate option: Scatter empty tuna cans around your lawn within sprinkler range. Turning on the sprinkler and noting how long it takes for the cans to accumulate an inch of water will tell you how long to water. You can buy a water-hose timer for about $25, if you’re forgetful.
- Automatic in-ground irrigation systems are efficient, but only if they’re properly maintained. Check the system regularly for leaks, and adjust the watering schedule through the season: Plants need a lot less water in May and September than they do in July and August.
- Consider not watering at all. Modern grass species are extremely drought-resistant. You may have to put up with a brown lawn for a month or so, but it likely will bounce back later.
Vegetable and Flower Gardens
- Harvest rainwater from gutters for later landscaping use. But because there are concerns about toxins in water from roofing and other building materials, don’t use it on vegetable gardens.
- Before planting, till your soil and feed it with compost or other organic matter to create a buffer against extreme moisture or drought.
- Use mulch to minimize evaporation and runoff. Mulch will also help control weeds. Weed barriers (black plastic sheets laid under mulch) also help conserve water applied underneath.
- To encourage deep roots, it’s better to water thoroughly than in light frequent shots.
- Instead of using a sprinkler or hand watering, consider installing soaker hoses underneath mulch. You’ll get more even results. Drip irrigation systems are even more efficient—but they are relatively expensive.
Washing the Car
You’ll save water if you use a commercial carwash instead of soaping up your Ford in the front yard. The do-it-yourself bays with high-pressure nozzles use two to five gallons per minute, while most garden hoses spray 10 gallons per minute. Full-service carwashes reclaim and recycle water, consuming only about 15 gallons per wash, while your home job might use 100 gallons or more. And carwashes are required to treat wastewater, while yours likely will run into a storm drain and pollute waterways with soap.
If you do wash at home:
- Use biodegradable soaps and non-toxic products.
- To capture soapy runoff, park the car on grass or another permeable surface, not on a driveway or street.
- Use a sponge and bucket, or a hose with an on/off nozzle, so water is not wasted while not being used.
Reducing Your H20 Footprint
The water-saving tips listed above will reduce the amount that flows out of your faucets. But we each leave a water footprint that includes direct and indirect usage.
What the heck are we hippies talking about? Well, it took more than just a cup of water to create your morning mug of go juice. About 35 gallons of water were needed to produce the finished coffee beans. It took 1,840 gallons of water to produce the pound of beef you prepared for dinner. Oh, you had chicken? That’s a mere 500 gallons per pound.
Similarly, driving and flying consume more than just fuel. It takes 13 gallons of water to produce a gallon of gasoline, and a cross-country flight adds about 1,700 flushes to your water footprint.
Want more guilt? It takes a lot of water to produce most of the goods we buy or use:
- It takes about 100 gallons to grow one pound of cotton. The average American goes through 35 pounds of cotton products a year.
- Manufacturing your laptop took enough water to wash 70 loads of laundry.
- Buying recycled-paper products saves a lot of water, as it takes about six gallons of water to produce a dollar’s worth of non-recycled paper. Recycling a pound of paper saves about 3.5 gallons of water.
How far you can or are willing to go to cut your water footprint is up to you. But clearly there are many ways to reduce your part of the drain on water resources.