How our homes can help us stop wasting water

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | August 11, 2014

This article is a companion piece to the infographic, "Water woes: how appliances impact H2O usage." For more information on water usage in the U.S. and what you can do to help conserve, follow the link.

Water can be incredibly easy to take for granted. For most of us, we simply turn on the tap and there it is. Water fills up our favorite fishing holes and swimming pools. We take showers without worrying about how long we're in there. In most places, it falls from the sky on a regular basis, and we grumble as we change our weekend plans. Water seems to be absolutely everywhere.

But like that old song says, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Understanding the severity of today's drought conditions

In some parts of the United States, water is at such a premium that farmers must make a difficult choice: Which crops get enough water to survive, and which ones are left to wither? Water restrictions have turned landscaped areas into mini deserts. Images taken by NASA show a parched, brown land that only three years ago was lush and green. Lakes are quickly turning to puddles, wildlife is becoming desperate for water, and humans are feeling the effects too -- about 34 percent of the United States is suffering under at least moderate drought conditions, according to the United States Drought Monitor.

The impacts of drought can be severe and wide-reaching. In addition to withering crops and lawns, prices for food can increase across the U.S. and beyond, electrical generation can suffer, jobs begin to disappear, the chances of land subsidence and wildfire increase, and even public health can be put at risk. But when a drought is so huge that it's tough to wrap your mind around it, what can the average citizen possibly do to help?

A lot, as it turns out.

How you can help ease drought woes

drought united states
From "Water woes: how appliances impact H2O usage." See full infographic here.

Start with the fact that 95 percent of your home's water usage goes down the drain. That means every time you shower, wash your hands, flush a toilet, or run the washer, you are sending enormous amounts of water into the sewer systems. You can save some of that water for outdoor uses, such as watering your garden, by the use of simple bowls or buckets to catch water from your shower or sink.

Good household maintenance makes a difference. Even a tiny leak somewhere in your plumbing can lead to the loss of 90 gallons of water every single day. And this isn't an isolated problem -- it is estimated that anywhere between five and ten percent of homes have a leak like this. To determine whether you are one of the unlucky ones, turn off all water in your home and check your water meter. Two hours later, check it again. If the meter has moved, you have a leak somewhere.

Look to efficiency in your appliances to decrease water use even further. High-efficiency washing machines use up to 50 percent less water than their traditional counterparts, and water-saving dishwashers use up to 25 percent less water per load. To be sure you are getting the best efficiency, look for appliances with the Water Sense label. When you do use these appliances, make sure to run them only when completely full to save both water and energy. Let some appliances go completely, such as the kitchen waste disposal -- create a compost pile instead.

Landscaping matters, too. About 30 percent of all water consumed in the United States goes to outdoor use. Curb your usage by choosing shrubs, flowers and grasses that require very little water to thrive. Plant hardy shrubs in areas where the land is eroding. Make good use of stormwater systems to keep more rainfall on your lawn. And finally, give up things like washing your car -- you will save 100 gallons of water or more for a 10-minute wash.

Finally, don't forget the small things that make a big impact. A typical household uses about 260 gallons of water each day. How can you and your family use much less? Actions as simple as turning the tap off while brushing your teeth can save up to eight gallons of water per day. Taking shorter showers can save between two and five gallons of water per minute. Even installing a simple, inexpensive low-flow faucet aerator can cut water use by half.

Water conservation matters for everyone

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who has no current worries about drought conditions. But keep in mind that just because the effects of a drought aren't direct, that doesn't mean they are not there. By doing your part now to conserve as much water as you can, you are helping the environment, saving yourself money on utility bills, and practicing now for the water restrictions that could eventually come to your neighborhood.

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a freelance writer and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.