In the spring of 2015, Californians were forced to start thinking very carefully about how much water they used. After four years of drought, Governor Jerry Brown imposed water restrictions throughout the state, ordering cities and towns to cut their water usage by an average of 25%. Cars went unwashed; lawns slowly turned brown, or else were replaced with drought-tolerant plants and mulch. Residents who broke the new rules faced fines of up to $500 per day.
In a severe drought such as California’s, it’s easy to see why saving water is important – and why failing to do so can cost you money. But even if your area is getting plenty of rainfall right now, water still isn’t free. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American household pays $474 a year for water and sewage charges, or $2 for every 1,000 gallons of water it uses. So every time you leave the faucet running while you wash dishes or brush your teeth, you’re literally watching your money go down the drain.
The cost of water use isn’t limited to what you pay on your water bill either. If the water running down your drain is hot water, then you’re also wasting energy, adding extra dollars to your monthly gas or electric bill. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating water accounts for about 17% of household energy use, costing the average American family between $400 and $600 a year.
By trimming your household water use, you can keep more of that money in your pocket – and possibly help fend off the next drought in your area. And, in many cases, it takes only a few simple changes to save the planet and your dollars at the same time.
Saving Water Indoors
If you want to cut down on your personal water use, the best place to start is at home. Since home is the place where you spend the largest share of your time – and where you most often bathe, wash dishes, and do laundry – it’s the place that provides you with the most opportunities to save.
The EPA says a typical American family of four goes through 400 gallons of water a day, and 70% of that is used indoors. The bathroom accounts for the largest share of water usage, but you can also save water in any room where it is used, including the kitchen, the laundry room, and any room in which there is a plumbing leak.
Finding and Fixing Leaks
One of the most important ways to save water at home is to find and fix plumbing leaks. Even a small leak can add up to big water losses if left unfixed. According to the EPA, the average household loses 10,000 gallons of water each year to plumbing leaks – enough to wash 270 loads of laundry. About 10% of homes have leaks major enough to cost them 90 gallons of water per day,
Fixing minor leaks, such as dripping faucets, leaking valves, or worn toilet flappers, is an easy DIY job that doesn’t require a plumber. According to the EPA, repairing these easily corrected leaks can save you around 10% on your water bills. And better yet, it stops those small leaks from turning into big ones that could require a plumber to fix.
One way to determine whether you have any water leaks in your home is to check your water bill during the winter months, when you’re not using a lot of water outdoors. The EPA says that if a family of four is going through more than 12,000 gallons per month, that’s a sign of a serious leak problem. You can also check your water meter right after everyone leaves the house in the morning and check it again as soon as you get home. If any water was used during the day when no one was home, you know there’s a leak somewhere.
Once you know there’s a leak, you need to figure out where it is. You can sometimes detect surface leaks by examining your faucet gaskets and pipe fittings to see if there’s any water on the outside of the pipe. If you think your toilet tank might be leaking, you can check by putting a drop of food coloring into the tank and seeing whether any of the color has seeped into the bowl after 10 minutes. Flush the toilet right after this experiment to make sure you don’t stain the tank.
As soon as you’ve identified a leak, take steps to fix it. Even if you’ve never done it before, there’s a wealth of DIY tutorials and videos online that you can find with a simple Internet search. The EPA’s WaterSense website also provides links to a variety of online resources on how to fix leaky faucets, toilets, and showerheads.
In the Bathroom
According to the EPA, more than half of all water used inside a home takes place in the bathroom. The toilet alone can account for 27% of a family’s water usage. So it makes sense that if you want to cut your household water consumption, the bathroom should be the first place to look.
Here are several easy steps you can take to cut back in the bathroom:
- Turn Off the Tap. The EPA says a standard bathroom faucet runs at about 2 gallons per minute (gpm). This means that letting the bathroom faucet run for a few minutes each day while you shave or brush your teeth can cost you as much as 300 gallons a month. You can also save water when you shave by plugging up the sink when you rinse your face and using that water to rinse your razor as well.
- Take Short Showers. A bathtub holds around 36 gallons of water, while a standard showerhead uses about 2.5 gallons of water per minute. That means that as long as you keep your time in the shower to 14 minutes or less, a shower uses less water than a bath – and the shorter the shower, the more you save. By cutting your daily shower from 10 minutes to 5 minutes, you can save 375 gallons per month.
- Switch Off the Shower. You can use even less water in the shower by switching off the water when you don’t need it. One you’ve wet yourself down, you can switch off the water while you soap up, shave, or wash your hair, and then switch it back on to rinse off. If you can switch off the shower water for just two minutes a day, you can save another 150 gallons a month.
- Adjust Your Toilet. If the toilets in your home were installed before 1990, they could be using anywhere from 3.5 to 7 gallons of water with every single flush. However, there are a couple of ways to reduce this amount without having to replace the entire toilet. One way is to install a toilet tank bank – a bag filled with water that hangs inside the tank, displacing water and reducing the amount it takes to refill the tank. You can also retrofit an older toilet by installing a fill cycle diverter – a simple plastic device that directs more water to the tank and less to the bowl during refill, so both the tank and the bowl fill at the same time. Either of these tools can save you half a gallon per flush, and a video by the Regional Water Providers Consortium shows how to install them. Toilet tank banks and fill cycle diverters are often available from your local water provider, but if you can’t find one, you can save the same amount of water with a free, quick fix: just put a half-gallon milk jug filled with water in the tank.
- Install Faucet Aerators. With a small investment of money and time, you can adjust your bathroom faucets to use less water. A simple gadget called a faucet aerator, which only costs several dollars and twists right into place on the tip of your faucet, can cut its maximum flow rate from 2.2 gpm to 1.5. Make sure to choose a faucet aerator bearing the WaterSense label for the greatest possible savings. The EPA says replacing standard faucets and aerators with WaterSense models can save a family as much as 700 gallons of water per year – close to 60 gallons per month.
- Get a Better Showerhead. A change that costs a little more up front, but also offers bigger potential savings, is to replace your standard 2.5-gpm showerhead with a WaterSense showerhead, which uses no more than 2 gpm. The EPA estimates that replacing just one showerhead with a WaterSense model would save the average family 2,900 gallons of water per year, along with more than $70 in energy and water costs. Top-rated water-saving showerheads cost around $30, so the investment would pay for itself in less than six months.
- Upgrade Your Toilet. For even bigger savings, you can replace an older toilet with a new toilet, which uses only 1.6 gallons per flush – or, better still, a WaterSense toilet, which uses no more than 1.28 gallons per flush. According to Save Our Water, replacing an old toilet with a modern toilet can save a family about 38 gallons of water per day, while upgrading to a new WaterSense toilet can save 45 gallons. That adds up to between 1,140 and 1,350 gallons per month. You can buy a new standard toilet for as little as $90, while WaterSense toilets start at around $250.
In the Kitchen
The kitchen faucet is another good place to install a low-flow faucet aerator. Cutting the flow rate means that while you use less water every time you wash a dish, it also takes a bit longer to fill pots or drinking glasses. Some kitchen faucet aerators have extra features, such as the ability to switch between a stream and a spray, or a swivel that can direct the water in any direction, which is useful for cleaning the sink.
Other water-saving strategies for the kitchen include:
- Wash With Less Water. Instead of letting the water run steadily as you wash dishes, fill up the sink or a basin with hot, soapy water. The EPA says this can cut your water use from 20 gallons to 10 for a sink-load of dishes. If you want to be even more efficient, fill a second basin with clean water for rinsing the dishes, rather than using the tap. You can also clean dishes with less water if you scrape off extra food before you start and let your dirty pots and pans soak for a while, rather than trying to scrub them clean under a running faucet.
- Fill the Dishwasher. Dishwashers vary widely in the amount of water used. Older dishwashers can use as much as 16 gallons per load, while new models bearing the ENERGY STAR label require no more than 6 gallons – and use less electricity as well. However, even an older dishwasher uses less water when it’s fully loaded than washing the same number of dishes by hand. Scrape the excess food off your dishes before putting them into the dishwasher, but don’t rinse them. According to Consumer Reports, modern dishwashers pack enough punch to get dishes clean without any pre-rinsing, and the EPA says skipping this step can save you as much as 10 gallons of water per load.
- Upgrade Your Dishwasher. To save even more water, replace an older dishwasher with a new ENERGY STAR model. This can save you up to 10 gallons per load – which, if you run your dishwasher about four times per week, adds up to more than 2,000 gallons per year. A new ENERGY STAR dishwasher costs at least $500, but Consumer Reports estimates that it can save you $35 a year on your utility bills.
- Cook With Less Water. When you cook, choose a pot that’s the right size for the job. If you pick a pot that’s too big, you could end up using more water than you really need.
- Don’t Defrost With Water. Instead of running water over food to thaw it, put it in the refrigerator to defrost overnight, or else use your microwave. In addition to wasting water, thawing food under hot tap water is unsafe because it promotes the growth of bacteria, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
- Rinse in a Pan. When you wash fruits and vegetables, put them in a pan of water instead of running each one under the faucet. When you’re done, you can use the water in the pan to water house plants. You can also use your plants to dispose of an ice cube you’ve dropped on the floor instead of just tossing it in the sink.
- Chill Your Water. Keep a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator. That way, when you want a glass of cold water, you don’t need to let the faucet run until the water cools down.
- Skip the Disposal. Instead of washing vegetable scraps and peels down the garbage disposal, toss them in a compost pile to make free fertilizer for your home vegetable garden.
In the Laundry Room
According to the California Energy Commission, the average American household does about 300 loads of laundry per year. Old-fashioned washing machines use around 40 gallons of water per load, so that adds up to a whopping 12,000 gallons per year.
There are several ways to get that number down:
- Only Wash Full Loads. By waiting to do your laundry until you have enough to fill the washing machine, you can do fewer loads and use less water and energy overall. If this cuts back your total laundry by five loads per month, that’s a savings of up to 200 gallons. Washing full loads is especially important if you have a front-loading washer, which uses the same amount of water no matter how full it is. If you have a top-loading machine, you can save some water when doing smaller loads by selecting a lower water level or smaller load size.
- Only Wash in Cold Water. Using cold water instead of hot doesn’t cut your water usage, but it saves a lot of energy. Experts say that cold water can do a perfectly good job of cleaning clothes that aren’t heavily soiled or greasy – especially if you use a cold-water detergent. According to Consumer Reports, switching to cold water can save the average family about $60 a year in energy costs. As a bonus, Smithsonian says clothes shrink less and retain their color better when washed in cold water.
- Upgrade Your Washer. While older machines use around 40 gallons of water per load, modern ones use only 23 gallons per load, according to ENERGY STAR. New washers bearing the ENERGY STAR label are even more efficient, using just 13 gallons per load – and they use about 25% less energy as well. If your household goes through the average 300 loads of laundry per year, replacing an old washer with a new ENERGY STAR model will save you 8,100 gallons of water. It can also cut your utility bills by around $180 per year, according to ENERGY STAR. ENERGY STAR washing machines start around $500.
Saving Water Outdoors
The EPA reports that American households use approximately 29 billion gallons of water each day. On average, about 30% of that – 9 billion gallons – is used outdoors for purposes like watering lawns and gardens, washing cars, and filling swimming pools. However, in the summertime or in dry climates, families use as much as 70% of their water outdoors. So during the summer months, saving water outdoors can make an even bigger dent in your water bill than cutting water use indoors.
Watering the Lawn
The lawn is the biggest water hog in many yards. However, that doesn’t mean that the only way to cut back on your water usage is to let your lawn go brown, as many Californians did in 2015. In fact, watering less could actually improve your lawn’s health, since many American families give their lawns much more water than is actually needed. Over-watering can drown your plants or lead to problems such as shallow roots, weed growth, fungus, and disease, according to the EPA.
In addition to running up your water bill, excessive watering causes problems for the environment. When your yard has more water than the soil can hold, it runs off over the ground surface, carrying chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides with it. This runoff often ends up in streams and lakes, contributing to pollution. By watering less, you can both prevent pollution and reduce the amount of pesticide and fertilizer you need to use in your yard – keeping still more money in your pocket.
According to the EPA, in many areas of the country, a grass lawn needs about an inch of water per week to stay healthy – including the amount it gets from rainfall. To figure out how long it takes to give your lawn this amount of water, try putting a few empty tuna cans around the yard while you run the sprinkler and seeing how long it takes them to fill with half an inch of water. Then you can just run the sprinkler for that amount of time twice a week, skipping one watering each time it rains.
Here are several other tips for watering wisely:
- Adjust for the Weather. In hot, dry, or windy weather, your lawn needs more water, while in the cooler months it needs less (or even none). One good rule of thumb is never to water when the soil is already wet; wait until it’s dried out to a depth of about an inch. Another way to see if your lawn needs water is to walk around on it and see how the grass reacts to being stepped on. If it springs back upright, it doesn’t need any more water. You can also keep an eye on the color of the grass. Grass shouldn’t look as bright green in the summertime as it does in cooler weather, but if it starts to take on a grayish color, that’s a sign that it needs more water.
- Water in Zones. Because water evaporates more quickly in warm, sunny spots, the sunny areas of your lawn need more water than the shady areas – about 30% more, according to the California Urban Water Conservation Council (CUWCC). To avoid wasting water in shady areas, set up your sprinklers in zones, and run the ones in the sun more often than the ones in the shade. You can also adjust the watering schedule based on the flow rate of the sprinkler and the other plants in that area of the yard.
- Water Deeply but Infrequently. Your lawn will be healthier if you give it a good soaking once in a while, rather than just a little water every day. The CUWCC recommends waiting until the landscape is dry, then watering it long enough to soak the soil to a depth of four to six inches. This encourages your grass to grow deeper roots, making it better able to tolerate drought in the future.
- Choose Your Time. If you water your lawn in the middle of the day, a lot of the water will evaporate in the hot sun before it soaks into the soil, and you’ll end up having to water again sooner. By watering in the cool hours of the evening or early morning, you can cut evaporation loss. Save Our Water estimates that this can save you as much as 25 gallons each time you water your lawn. Also, avoid using sprinklers on windy days, since this results in uneven watering and scatters water onto paved areas that don’t need it.
- Position Sprinklers Properly. According to Save Our Water, sprinklers waste as much as 12 to 15 gallons per use on paved areas, such as streets and sidewalks. To prevent this waste, check your sprinklers frequently and reposition them as needed to keep their spray on the lawn, where it belongs.
- Cycle Your Sprinklers. According to the CUWCC, most sprinklers apply water faster than the ground can absorb it – particularly if you have heavy clay soil. To make sure the water soaks in fully, it’s better to spread out your watering over two or three short cycles, instead of spraying it all on at once. You can set sprinklers to run for a specified amount of time by attaching a timer valve to your outdoor faucet.
- Shut Off the Flow. If you water your lawn by hand, make sure the spray nozzle on your garden hose has a shut-off valve. That way you can shut off the water while you move the hose from spot to spot, rather than letting it continue to run. One good choice is a “watering wand” with a shut-off built into the handle.
- Mow Correctly. Cutting your grass too short forces it to put all its energy into new growth, rather than into developing deep roots that help it get water and nutrients. It also exposes more of the grass blades to the sun, increasing evaporation. To grow a healthy lawn that requires less water, raise the blade on your lawn mower so that you don’t remove more than one-third of each blade of grass when you cut it. The CUWCC says the ideal grass height is two to three inches for tall fescue, two to two-and-a-half inches for bluegrass, and one inch for warm-season grasses such as Bermuda and zoysia.
- Recycle the Clippings. Instead of bagging up the grass clippings when you mow, leave them on the lawn. As they break down, they return water and nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for both water and fertilizer. A good way to remember this rule, along with the previous one, is to “cut it high and let it lie.”
- Reduce the Lawn Size. Turf grass is one of the most water-intensive plants you can grow in your yard. By reducing the size of your lawn, you can significantly reduce your outdoor water use – as well as the amount of time you spend mowing. You can cut back the size of your lawn by planting new trees and shrubs, expanding flower beds and vegetable gardens, or adding a patio or garden path. You can also replace some or all of the grass with ground covers, native grasses, or alternative lawn seed mixes containing herbs and wildflowers. The Regional Water Providers Consortium has a video on ways to reduce the size of your lawn, and an Internet search for “reduce lawn size” turns up many pages devoted to the subject.
In and Around the Yard
Although the lawn is often the thirstiest part of a yard, it’s not the only area that consumes water. Here are some tips for conserving water in the rest of the yard:
- Water Wisely. Many of the tips for watering your lawn properly also apply to the rest of the yard. Setting up sprinklers in zones, watering deeply but infrequently, watering in the evening, and adjusting for the weather make sense for all your plants.
- Use Mulch. Adding two to three inches of mulch or compost around the base of trees and other plants reduces evaporation and cools the soil, so you need less water. It also helps prevent weeds and keep the soil healthy. According to Save Our Water, for every 1,000 square feet of garden that you add mulch to, you can save 20 to 30 gallons each time you water. When mulching trees, be careful to keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk to prevent rot.
- Check Your Plants’ Water Needs. Mature shrubs only need to be watered twice a week in the summertime, and some native plants need even less water. On the other hand, newly planted shrubs and trees need more frequent watering because their root systems are still growing. The EPA’s WaterSense Water Budget Tool can help you calculate how much water your plants need. You can also consult your local cooperative extension, which you can find using this USDA map.
- Know Your Plants. Get to know the plants in your yard and learn to recognize when they’re showing signs of drying out. For instance, many plants wilt when they need water – but wilting can also be a sign of disease or a sign that the roots are dying from over-watering. Also, some drought-resistant plants curl up their leaves in hot weather to conserve water, which can make them look like they’re wilting. So if you’re in doubt, check the soil moisture before adding more water.
- Look Into Xeriscaping. If the plants in your yard use more water than you’d like, you can replace some or all of them with plants that have lower water needs. This practice, called xeriscaping, can reduce your yard’s water needs by 30 to 60 gallons per watering for every 1,000 square feet, according to Save Our Water. The EPA site provides tools for designing a water-conserving landscape, including the Water Budget Tool and a list of plants appropriate for different regions.
- Try Drip Irrigation. A drip irrigation system is basically a water-filled tube with a small hole that slowly drips water into the soil right at the base of a plant. This sends water directly to the roots where it’s needed, rather than onto the surface where it can be lost through runoff or evaporation. According to Save Our Water, drip irrigation is at least 90% more efficient than surface watering and also helps prevent disease and reduce weed growth. Types of drip systems include emitters, microsprays, and soaker hoses. You can hook up a drip system to your garden hose and operate it by hand or connect it permanently to your home water source and run it with an automatic controller, which makes watering your yard virtually effortless.
- Use a Smart Controller. If you have your irrigation system on a timer, you have to remember to turn it off when it rains so you aren’t watering wet ground. However, a WaterSense-labeled irrigation controller can sense how much water is in the soil and switch on automatically when it’s needed. You can use this type of controller for both sprinklers and drip systems, and should be able to find one on sale for less than $100.
- Check for Leaks. According to the EPA, an irrigation system with a leak just 0.03 inches across – about the thickness of a dime – can waste about 6,300 gallons of water in a single month. If you use a sprinkler system or a drip irrigation system, check it before you set it up in the spring to make sure it hasn’t been damaged by freezing weather. Also, when you hook up your garden hose, check that it isn’t leaking at the point where it connects to the spigot. If you see any drips, try tightening the connection, adding some pipe tape, or replacing the washer in the hose. If you’re setting up a new irrigation system, or if you want to make sure yours is working efficiently, you can use the EPA site to find a WaterSense-certified irrigation professional in your area.
- Use Rain Barrels. Another way to cut your water bill is to replace some of the household water you use outdoors with captured rain water. The simplest way to do this is to redirect one of the downspouts on your roof into a barrel that you can either dip into by hand or hook up to a garden hose or soaker hose. According to the CUWCC, a 50-gallon rain barrel costs about $100 or less, and a 1,500-foot roof will easily fill it after a one-inch rainfall. If you fill and empty the barrel four times over the course of the growing season, you’ll save 200 gallons of household water. The barrel can also provide a backup source of water in times of drought. However, the EPA warns that collecting rainwater is illegal in some states, so you should check with your state water agency before installing a rain barrel at home.
Other Outdoor Uses
Along with watering lawns and landscapes, people use water outdoors for pools and other water features, as well as for cleaning. Here are some ways to keep these other outdoor water uses under control:
- Get Out the Broom. If you need to remove dirt and debris from the driveway, steps, or sidewalk, use a broom rather than a hose. According to Save Our Water, a standard garden hose uses anywhere from 5 to 20 gpm, so if it takes you five minutes to hose down the pavement, that’s anywhere from 25 to 100 gallons down the drain. If you need to remove spills or stains that can’t be swept away, try spraying down with a little bit of water and then using a broom instead of the hose to scrub the stain away. Alternately, you can get a “water broom” attachment, which boosts the water pressure of your hose by mixing in air. This cuts the flow rate to around 2.8 gpm.
- Don’t Hose Down the Car. The best way to wash your car is to take it to a commercial car wash where the water can be recycled. A basic wash only costs around $5 and probably does a more thorough job than you could do at home with a hose. However, if you don’t have the time or the cash to spare, fill up a bucket full of water and use that to sponge down the car. A bucket holds about two gallons of water, so compared to a five-minute hose-down, you’ll save anywhere from 23 to 98 gallons.
- Keep Pools Covered. If you have a swimming pool, keep the cover on when you’re not using it to cut the amount of water lost to evaporation. Covering the pool also helps keep it warmer at night, reducing your energy costs for pool heating.
- Watch the Water Level. When you fill up the pool, keep an eye on the water level so it doesn’t overflow and waste precious water. Plug the overflow line when you add water, as well as when you use the pool, so that any extra water stays in the pool rather than running down the drain.
- Keep Water in the Pool. Diving, splashing, and water fights all splash a lot of water out of the pool, requiring more water to refill it. That doesn’t mean you should ruin everyone’s fun by banning these activities completely, but remind swimmers not to get too rowdy. If you use an automatic pool cleaner, turn off the tile-spray device. It can send water splashing up out of the pool, and a lot of its spray evaporates before it even hits the tile.
- Shut Off Fountains. Ornamental water features, like fountains and waterfalls, are pretty to look at, but there’s no point running them when there’s no one around to enjoy them. By shutting them off, you reduce the amount of aeration in the water, so less of it evaporates – and you save on energy as well.
Some of the biggest water-saving strategies, such as replacing older appliances and plumbing fixtures, cost a fair bit of money up front. If you buy a new $700 dishwasher to save $35 a year on your utility bills, it will take your new appliance 20 years to pay for itself – if it even lasts that long.
Other water-saving tips cost nothing, but don’t save you all that much. For example, saving the little bit of water you use to rinse fruits and vegetables won’t make much of a dent in your water bill – though every little bit helps.
However, some water-saving strategies give you a really big bang for your buck. Taking shorter showers, washing only full loads of laundry, and cleaning the sidewalk with a broom rather than a hose can all save you 200 gallons or more per month – without any money spent up front. All it takes is a minor change in your habits.
Admittedly, old habits can be hard to break, and adapting to a new, water-conscious lifestyle may be tricky at first. But the longer you stick to your new plan, the easier it becomes. In time, things like washing your dishes in a basin or shutting off the water as you shave will become second nature. And once you get used to your new, lower utility bills, you’ll shake your head in amazement at all the money you used to send down the drain.
What steps have you taken to save water at home?