As of July 2021, more than half of all U.S. states are experiencing drought conditions ranging from moderate to exceptional. With water supplies dwindling, millions of Americans are facing an urgent need to conserve water at home.
But even in areas getting plenty of rainfall right now, saving water still makes sense. According to Statista, as of 2019, the average American family of four using 100 gallons of water each per day pays $72.93 per month, about $875 per year, for water and sewage charges. If you leave the faucet running while you wash dishes or brush your teeth, you’re watching your money go down the drain. And if the faucet is running hot water, you’re using energy as well, adding still more to the cost.
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.
Ways to Save Water Inside Your Home
If you want to cut down on your personal water use, the best place to start is inside your home. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American family goes through more than 300 gallons of water per day, and 70% of that is used indoors.
The bathroom accounts for the largest share of water usage, but you can save water in any room. That includes the kitchen, the laundry room, and any room in which there is a plumbing leak.
Find and Fix Leaks
One of the most crucial 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 damaged. According to the EPA, the average household loses 10,000 gallons of water per year to plumbing leaks. About 10% of homes have leaks significant 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 do-it-yourself 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 recheck it as soon as you get home. If the meter registers a change during the day when no one is 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 is leaking, you can check by putting a few drops of food coloring into the tank. After 10 minutes, check to see whether any of the color has seeped into the bowl. 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. You can find them with a simple Internet search. The EPA site provides links to various online resources on fixing leaky faucets, toilets, and showerheads.
Save Water in the Bathroom
According to the EPA, more than half of all water use inside a home takes place in the bathroom. The toilet alone accounts for nearly one-quarter of a family’s water usage. So if you want to cut your household water consumption, the bathroom should be the first place you look.
There are several simple steps you can take to cut back on water use in the bathroom.
Turn Off the Tap
The EPA says a standard bathroom faucet runs at about 2.2 gallons per minute. That means letting the bathroom faucet run for a few minutes each day while you shave or brush your teeth can waste up to 200 gallons per month.
To save money and water, turn off the tap after wetting your razor or toothbrush. You can also save water when you shave by plugging the sink when you rinse your face and using that water to rinse your razor as well.
Take Short Showers
According to Hunker, a standard U.S. bathtub holds between 62 and 78 gallons of water. And according to the EPA, a standard showerhead uses about 2.5 gallons of water per minute. That means any shower less than 25 minutes long uses less water than a bath.
But that doesn’t mean you should shower for 25 minutes. The less time you take in the shower, the more water and money you save. By cutting your daily shower from 10 minutes to five minutes, you can save 375 gallons of water per month.
To use even less water in the shower, turn off the water when you don’t need it. Once your body is wet, switch off the flow while you soap up, shave, or wash your hair, and then switch it back on to rinse off. If you switch off the shower water for just two minutes per day, you can save another 150 gallons a month.
Adjust or Upgrade Your Toilet
If your home’s toilets were installed before 1994, they could be using up to 6 gallons of water with every single flush. But there are a couple of ways to reduce that 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. This simple plastic device directs more water to the tank and less to the bowl during refill, so both the tank and the bowl fill simultaneously.
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: Put two 1-liter plastic bottles filled with water in the tank.
For even bigger savings, you can replace an older toilet with a new toilet, which uses only 1.6 gallons per flush. Better still, choose a WaterSense toilet, which uses no more than 1.28 gallons per flush. And for maximum savings, go for a dual-flush toilet, which has two flush settings: 1.28 gallons for solids and as little as 0.8 gallons for liquids.
According to the EPA, replacing an old toilet with a WaterSense model could save a family 13,000 gallons of water and about $110 in water costs per year. You can buy a new WaterSense toilet for as little as $250, so it would pay for itself in under three years.
Install Bathroom 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 a few dollars and twists right into place on the tip of your faucet, can cut its maximum flow rate from 2.2 gallons per minute to 1.5. A video from the EPA shows how to install one.
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 upfront but also offers bigger potential savings is replacing your standard 2.5-gallon-per-minute showerhead with a WaterSense showerhead, which uses no more than 2 gallons per minute. Many top-rated low-flow showerheads cost no more than $30.
The EPA estimates that replacing just one showerhead with a WaterSense model would save the average family 2,700 gallons of water per year. The family would also save 330 kilowatt-hours of electricity (or the equivalent in gas or oil) used to heat that water.
Don’t Waste Water in the Kitchen
The kitchen is another room where you use water often. You turn on your kitchen faucet to wash dishes, rinse vegetables, cook, and fill a glass with drinking water. These are all essential tasks, but there are ways to do them without letting any water go to waste.
Install Kitchen Faucet Aerators
The kitchen faucet is another good place to install a low-flow faucet aerator. By cutting the flow rate, you use less water every time you wash a dish. Some kitchen faucet aerators have extra features, such as the switching between a stream and a spray or a swivel that can direct the water in any direction, which is useful for cleaning the sink.
Wash With Less Water
Instead of letting the water run steadily when hand-washing dishes, fill the sink or a basin with hot, soapy water. According to Angi (formerly Angie’s List), this one trick can save you 200 to 500 gallons of water per month. If you want to be even more efficient, fill a second basin with clean water for rinsing the dishes rather than using the tap.
Another trick for cleaning dishes is to scrape off extra food before you start rather than trying to scrub them clean under a running faucet. If you have trouble getting all the food off, let your dirty pots and pans soak for a while.
Use Your Dishwasher Efficiently
If you have a dishwasher, using it is generally more efficient than washing dishes by hand. A 2020 study published in Environmental Research Communications found that washing full loads in the dishwasher uses less water than even the most efficient hand-washing methods.
However, as with hand-washing, your technique matters. To minimize water use, 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 prerinsing, and skipping this step can save you up to 20 gallons of water per load.
To save even more water, replace an older dishwasher with a new Energy Star model that uses no more than 3.5 gallons of water per cycle. According to Consumer Reports, it’s possible to buy a new Energy Star dishwasher that performs well for $500 or less.
Cook With Less Water
There are several ways to use less water when preparing, cooking, and serving food. For starters, don’t wash vegetable scraps and peels down the garbage disposal. Instead, toss them in a compost pile to make free fertilizer for your home vegetable garden.
When you wash fruits and vegetables, put them in a bowl of water instead of running each one under the faucet. Afterward, 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.
Instead of running water over food to thaw it, put it in the refrigerator to defrost overnight or 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.
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.
You can even save water at mealtimes by keeping 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.
Use Your Laundry Room Efficiently
According to ClearlyEnergy, the average American household does 392 loads of laundry per year. Doing all that laundry in an old-fashioned washing machine would use more than 12,000 gallons of water per year along with 295 kilowatt-hours of electricity. However, there are several ways to get those numbers 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. Based on ClearlyEnergy’s estimates, a single load of laundry uses about 31 gallons of water, so cutting out five loads per month could save you over 150 gallons.
Washing full loads is vital 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. According to Consumer Reports, using cold water cuts your energy use by as much as 90%, and it gets your clothes just as clean. The only time you might need warm or hot water is for clothes with oily stains, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Based on ClearlyEnergy’s calculations, switching to cold water could save you as much as $30 per year on water heating. As a bonus, Smithsonian magazine says clothes shrink less and retain their color better when washed in cold water.
Upgrade Your Washer
Like dishwashers, clothes washers bearing the Energy Star label are more efficient in both water and energy use. They use about 25% less energy and 33% less water than models that aren’t Energy Star-certified.
Energy Star washing machines start at around $500. However, according to the Energy Star website, they can save you about $370 in energy costs over their lifetime. That’s not quite enough to pay for a new washer, but it’s enough to justify choosing an Energy Star model when it’s time to replace your old one.
Ways to Save Water Outdoors
According to the EPA, about 30% of the average U.S. household’s water use takes place outdoors. But in dry climates, families use as much as 60% of their water outdoors. If you live in a dry area, saving water outdoors can make an even bigger dent in your water bill than cutting water use indoors.
Water the Lawn With Care
The EPA says more than half of all the water Americans use outdoors goes to irrigation —- watering lawns and gardens. However, as much as 50% of the water we use for irrigation goes to waste. It evaporates, blows away, or runs off rather than sinking into the soil where it’s needed.
Understanding your lawn’s water needs can help you use water more efficiently. 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. Watering more often can drown your plants or lead to problems like shallow roots, weed growth, fungus, and disease.
To figure out how long it takes to give your lawn the right amount of water, put a few empty tuna cans around the yard while you run the sprinkler and see 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 per week, skipping one watering each time it rains.
Other wise watering tips include:
- Test the Grass. To determine whether your lawn needs water, walk around on it. If it springs back upright after being stepped on, 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 spring and fall, but if it starts to take on a grayish color, 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 shaded areas. To avoid wasting water in shaded areas, set up your sprinklers in zones, and run the ones in the sun more often than those in the shade.
- Choose Your Time. Water your lawn in the evening or early morning, when it’s cooler. If you water during the hottest part of the day, you’ll lose more water to evaporation. If you live in an area prone to drought, check the city watering schedule for your zip code or neighborhood to find your watering time. (See an example on FortWorthTexas.gov.)
- Position Sprinklers Properly. Sprinklers waste water when they’re pointed toward 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. Some areas prohibit this type of water waste by city ordinance, and you could face a fine for doing it.
- Tune Up Your Sprinklers. Inspect your irrigation system regularly, and fix any leaks and broken or clogged sprinkler heads. According to the EPA, a single broken sprinkler head could waste $90 and 25,000 gallons of water over just six months. In some drought-prone areas, you could also be subject to a fine for failing to fix a leaky sprinkler.
- Use a WaterSense Controller. If you’re using a timer on your sprinkler system, upgrade to a WaterSense irrigation controller. These devices match the amount of water they dispense to your plants’ needs, either by sensing moisture levels in the soil or monitoring local weather conditions. They cost as little as $30 and can cut your water use for irrigation by up to 15%, or close to 9,000 gallons per year.
- 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 moving the hose from spot to spot rather than letting it continue running. One good choice is a “watering wand” with a shut-off built into the handle.
- Mow Correctly. You can reduce your lawn’s need for water by leaving the grass longer when you mow. That reduces evaporation and helps cut down on weeds. The EPA recommends keeping the height of your mower between 2 and 4 inches.
- Recycle the Clippings. Instead of bagging 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. An excellent way to remember this rule (along with the previous one) is to “cut it high and let it lie.”
- Reduce the Lawn Size. Turfgrass is one of the thirstiest plants you can grow in your yard. By replacing some of your lawn with other plantings or paved areas, you can significantly cut your outdoor water use and the amount of time you spend mowing. The Regional Water Providers Consortium offers ideas for lawn alternatives.
Care for Your Plants With Conservation in Mind
Although the lawn is often the thirstiest part of a yard, it’s not the only area that consumes water. You also need to conserve water in the rest of the yard. For example, you can:
- Water Wisely. Many tips for watering your lawn properly also apply to the rest of the yard. Setting up sprinklers in zones, watering in the morning or evening, adjusting for the weather, and using WaterSense controllers make sense for all your plants.
- Use Mulch. Adding 3 to 4 inches of mulch 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. When mulching trees, keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk to prevent rot.
- Check Your Plants’ Water Needs. According to Bob Vila, you only need to water mature trees and shrubs twice per week in dry weather. However, newly planted shrubs and trees require more frequent watering. Consult your local cooperative extension to learn about the water needs of other plants in your yard.
- Choose Plants Wisely. If you live in a dry area, it makes sense to landscape your yard with plants that have lower water needs. By contrast, if you get a lot of rain, water-loving plants can soak up excess water and prevent runoff. The EPA site offers resources on how to choose the best plants for different regions.
- Try Micro-Irrigation. A micro-irrigation or drip irrigation system slowly drips water into the soil right at the base of a plant. It sends water directly to the roots where it’s needed, so you lose less through runoff or evaporation. According to the EPA, micro-irrigation uses 20% to 50% less water than a sprinkler system.
- Check for Leaks. If you have an in-ground irrigation system, check it carefully for leaks each spring before setting it up. 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.
- Connect Hoses Snugly. 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, tighten the connection, add some pipe tape, or replace the washer in the hose.
- Use Rain Barrels. You can replace some of the water you use outdoors with captured rainwater by redirecting one of your roof’s downspouts into a rain barrel. However, some states bar or restrict the use of rain barrels. Check the DOE site to find regulations for your state.
Prevent Water Waste in the Rest of Your Yard
Along with watering lawns and landscapes, people use water outdoors for pools and other water features, as well as for cleaning. Try these strategies 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 Hunker, a standard garden hose uses around 17 gallons per minute, so if it takes you five minutes to hose down the pavement, that’s 85 gallons down the drain.
- Don’t Hose Down the Car. The best way to wash your car is to take it to a commercial car wash that recycles its water. If you can’t do that, fill a bucket full with water and use that to sponge down the car. A standard utility bucket holds about 2 gallons of water, so compared to a five-minute hose-down, it saves 83 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 the pool, keep an eye on the water level. If you fill it right to the top, it will overflow when people get in and splash around, wasting precious water. Plug the overflow line when you add water and use the pool. That way, any extra water stays in the pool rather than running down the drain. Just remember to unplug it when you’re done.
- Keep Water in Fountains. Ornamental water features like fountains and waterfalls can run on recycled water. But they still lose some water to evaporation. To minimize fountain water loss, install your fountain in a shady spot, keep its surface area small, keep the height of the spray under 4 inches, and turn it off when it’s not in use.
Some of the biggest water-saving strategies, such as replacing older appliances and plumbing fixtures, cost a fair bit of money upfront. If you buy a new $700 dishwasher to save $35 per 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 washing dishes in a basin can all save you 150 gallons or more per month without any money spent upfront. All it takes is a minor change in your habits.
Admittedly, old habits can be hard to break. But the longer you stick to your new, water-conscious lifestyle, the easier it becomes. In time, things like shutting off the water as you shave 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.