As we've seen in the American West and Southwest this summer, climate change continues to threaten our national (and global) water supply. Extreme drought conditions are the most widespread they've been in at least 20 years, reservoir levels are at all-time lows, and the resulting dryness of the landscape has led to more wildfires. Water usage also contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions through the pumping, treating, and heating necessary to bring water into our homes.
As we face these effects of climate change, conserving water becomes increasingly important. Saving water also means saving money; the average American family spends more than $1,000 on water a year, which can be diminished significantly by addressing the way we use water in our daily lives.
Consider making a few water-conscious changes in the kitchen, bathroom, yard, and elsewhere around the home.
1. Check for Leaks
First and foremost, make sure all water used in your home is actually being used. The average household wastes a whopping 10,000 gallons of water a year due to leakage, which translates to a much higher water bill.
Monitor a water meter during a two-hour period when no water is being used to determine if leaks are occurring in faucets, pipes, toilet flappers, etc.; an easy way to pinpoint a toilet leak is to squeeze a drop of food coloring into the toilet tank. If the color appears in the bowl within 10 minutes, you've got a leak.
Most fixes are very simple and require minimal tools, but if the problem persists, it might be time to call in a plumber.
2. Save Water From Rinsing Vegetables to Water Plants
When washing fruits and vegetables in the sink, catch the water in a basin instead of letting it flow down the drain. Use this to water indoor or outdoor plants.
3. Use Rainwater Barrels
To capture even more water for watering plants (or washing the car), use rain barrels to collect rainwater. The enclosed barrels often connect to downspouts that direct water flowing off of roofs, and have a spigot to fill up watering cans or other vessels. By collecting the water, you also prevent some flooding and erosion on your property, as well as the formation of harmful runoff as water picks up pollutants from fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste, and trash while heading towards waterways.
Rain barrels can be purchased from local hardware and garden stores, or, you can make a simple one yourself. Find a sturdy plastic barrel (around 55 gallons), and place on a cinderblock platform near a downspout. Drill two small holes on the side: one near the top to connect the overflow adapter, and one near the bottom for the spigot. Insert the spigot, then the overflow adapter, and connect it to a length of hose; position this correctly so any excess water will be diverted downhill away from your home. Cut your downspout so it ends above the bucket, then attach a flexible downspout extender, snaking the other end into a hole on the top of the barrel (do not just allow water to pour into an open barrel, or mosquitoes and algae will take over). Cover the barrel-end of the extender with a mesh bag to collect any leaves or debris, and make sure to empty it after each rain event.
While investing in large water barrels might be useful for larger properties, collecting water doesn't have to be high-tech; place plastic storage bins, buckets, and other large vessels outdoors to gather rainwater, especially if your outdoor-watering needs are small and you'll be able to use the water quickly.
It's important to note that collected rainwater should not be used for drinking, and when using to water vegetables, try to pour the water at the base of the plant (as opposed to soaking the crops themselves), and thoroughly wash anything you plan to eat with tap water.
4. Ditch the Lawn
Among the other environmental impacts of lawn care – including synthetic fertilizers, loss of biodiversity, and emissions from gas-powered mowers – it's estimated that 30% (and as much as 70% during the summer months) of residential drinking water is used outdoors.
Instead of maintaining a water-intensive, monocropped grass lawn, plant native species that are adapted to the local environmental conditions, and therefore require much less water. These plants will also support insect, bird, and mammal populations, contributing to a healthy backyard ecosystem. If you live in a drier climate, try drought-resistant plants, grasses, tress, and shrubs that don't need frequent watering.
5. Set Up a Stale Water Bin
Instead of pouring unfinished glasses of water down the drain, pour them into a large pitcher or beverage dispenser (like the kind you use for lemonade and water at parties). Use this instead of fresh tap water to water houseplants; as a bonus, the chlorine and fluoride found in municipal water will have evaporated, which some plants are sensitive to.
6. Replace Old Appliances
Clothes washers, toilets, and dishwashers are all culprits of high water usage. The average American uses about 82 gallons of water each day at home, but installing water-efficient appliances and fixtures can cut that use by 20%.
If you are able, consider replacing older appliances with more efficient, newer models. Search for products with the WaterSense label – a program sponsored by the EPA – which indicates that they've been designed to use at least 20% less water than traditional appliances. Some WaterSense-labeled toilets can save 16,000 gallons of water a year for a family of four. Dual-flow models also have different settings for liquids and solids, limiting excess water use. Old clothes washers are also a huge drain on water in the home; if your machine was manufactured before 1999, consider replacing it with a model that has a lower water factor (and be sure to only run full loads).
Of course, replacing appliances can be very expensive – however, the savings on water might be significant enough to pay of a machine within a few years.
7. Use Low-Flow Shower Heads and Faucet Aerators
Along with replacing those larger appliances, using some water-saving fixtures like low-flow showerheads and aerators also makes an important difference (and usually at a lower cost); the average family can save 3,500 gallons of water a year by switching to their WaterSense-labeled counterparts.
Low-flow showerheads do exactly what it sounds like: diminish the flow of water in the shower without compromising effectiveness. Standard showerheads use up to 2.5 gallons of water a minute, and with showering accounting for 17% of residential water use indoors, cutting these gallons-per-minute can make a big difference. Faucet aerators have a similar function; these small metal screens are usually screwed right onto the spout of a faucet, and create a wider stream of water so it can be used more efficiently. The aerated water also activates bubbles in soap faster so less water is needed.
Along with WaterSense-labeled fixtures, Energy Star-certified appliances also result in energy- and water-related savings; all in all, according to the EPA, families can save more than $380 a year in water costs by transitioning to these water-sensible products.
8. Time Showers
With or without a low-flow showerhead, make sure you aren't lingering under the water for too long. Try to keep showers under five minutes; when soaping up or shaving, turn off the water, and try washing your hair less frequently to cut down on time, if possible.
Setting a timer to alert you when it's time to get out is helpful, or create a playlist that's roughly five minutes; when the last song finishes, it's time to get out!
9. Implement Sensible Kitchen Practices
Not all water-saving measures are complicated. Implement a few changes in your kitchen to make sure that water isn't wasted: instead of running the water while sending scraps into the garbage disposal, compost them instead; keep a pitcher of cold water in the fridge rather than letting the water run until it gets cool; and, plug the sink when washing dishes by hand to allow them to soak.
10. Use the Dishwasher
Perhaps surprisingly, using the dishwasher instead of handwashing dishes can save a great deal of water; a 2020 study found that dishwashers used more than 50% less water than that which is required for hand-washing over a 10-year period. Dishwashers are also much more energy efficient, resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions from pumping, heating, etc.
Along with washing only full loads, avoid using the extra features like pre-rinse and heat-dry; instead, make sure excess food is scraped into the compost before loading dishes, and prop the door open after the cycle completes to allow dishes to air dry.
If you don't have a dishwasher, use one half of a two-basin sink for soaking and soaping (or a plastic basin in a single sink), and the other for rinsing.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.