How to Save Water: 11 Tips for Reducing Water Consumption
It's time to change the way we think about water conservation.
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It wasn’t long ago that we were talking about the effects of climate change primarily in terms of what it meant for the Earth’s future. But that’s no longer a viable approach. If anything, given the evolution of our climate and weather patterns during the first two decades of the 21st century—with rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and once-a-century storms happening annually—thinking about the habitability of our planet and Earth-saving acts like water conservation solely as a future problem is downright dangerous.
Thinking about both the short- and long-term impacts of global warming is enough to give anyone climate anxiety. The massive scale of the problem (an understatement, considering we’re talking about our entire planet) can also leave us feeling helpless, like anything we do won’t be enough.
This is further complicated by the fact that somewhere along the way, green living got the reputation for being expensive. But at a time when inflation is near a 40-year high, it’s important to know that not only is that assumption incorrect, but sustainable living is actually a way to cut household expenses—especially when you know how to save energy and practice water conservation.
Whether it’s using one of the best eco-friendly water bottles instead of throwing a plastic bottle away every time you hydrate, reducing waste and consumption in general, or knowing how to recycle (the right way), there are plenty of steps you can take to cut down on your water footprint and the amount of money you’re spending on utility bills each month. Here’s what to know.
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What is water conservation?
Water conservation is the process of reducing water use from any source “and thus saving water for other purposes and for the future use of others,” says David Feldman, PhD, a professor of urban planning and public policy and political science at the University of California–Irvine who specializes in water resources management and policy.
According to Feldman, we can conserve water by consciously using it as efficiently as possible—meaning using only as much of it as is genuinely needed for the purpose at hand, whether it’s brushing your teeth, cooking, cleaning, or gardening.
“The first way to think of conserving water is to remember that it’s a precious resource,” says Vincent Morris, vice president of public affairs at Clyde Group and former manager of government relations and media relations for DC Water. “Although two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, clean and accessible drinking water is far less accessible.”
In elementary school science class, we may have learned that water, unlike fossil fuels, is a renewable resource. But in reality, it’s not that straightforward. While generally speaking, water is a renewable resource, when it comes to the types humans need to survive—like freshwater and groundwater—there’s a supply-and-demand problem. In other words? We’re using water at a faster rate than it can be naturally replenished.
For example, the population of the United States has doubled over the past 50 years, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the demand for water has tripled. Currently, at least 40 states are anticipating water shortages by 2024, making water conservation not just beneficial but also absolutely crucial.
Benefits of water conservation
The benefits of water conservation fall into two broad categories, Feldman explains: those for individuals and those for society as a whole. “As individuals, the less water we use, the lower our monthly water bills,” he says. “This individual benefit also applies to businesses, since most businesses also have to pay for water.”
Agriculture is one example of this. Although some farmers don’t have to pay for water if they own land with access to locally available streams or groundwater sources, Feldman says that they still benefit from preserving their water supply for use during periods of drought.
According to Feldman, most of the benefits of water conservation for society as a whole are in improved water quality. “In essence, the more water we use, the more polluted wastewater we generate that flows down our sinks, drains, toilets, and sewer outfalls,” he explains. “This means that each of our communities has to expend more effort—and spend more money—on removing these contaminants before the water can be reused.”
And as Morris points out, water conservation is an important part of sustainability as a whole. “Treating and transporting water long distances consumes a lot of energy,” he notes.
There are also benefits for wildlife and countless ecosystems. “The less water we use, the more water is left in rivers, lakes, and streams to support aquatic life that depends on fresh water,” says Feldman. “This can help to protect otherwise endangered and threatened species.”
How to calculate your water consumption
So how much water do you actually use every day? Of course it varies, depending on what you’re doing on a particular day, but you can figure out your average water consumption using a water use calculator like the one from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Simply fill out the form indicating the total number of times your household uses water in a variety of ways, including showering and flushing toilets, and the number of minutes per day spent washing hands and washing dishes by hand. When you’re finished, you’ll get an itemized list of your daily household water usage as well as the water consumption per person.
Water footprint calculator
While calculating your water consumption takes into account only the water used inside the household, your water footprint is the total volume of fresh water that is used to produce the goods and services a person, household, or business consumes. Think of it like your carbon footprint, except instead of measuring a person’s greenhouse gas emissions that ultimately lead to pollution, it gives you a better idea of the environmental impact of your water usage.
You can use this water footprint calculator to figure out your household’s water footprint by entering the number of people who live there and answering questions about your indoor, outdoor, and virtual water usage (such as the amount of water it takes to make a particular product).
Like the water consumption calculator, the ones informing you of your water footprint only provide estimates, rather than exact figures. But precision isn’t really the point: The idea behind these calculators is making you aware of the amount of water you’re consuming in an attempt to encourage you to reduce it.
If you’re looking for ways to reduce your water footprint, you can start with what you eat. Consider adding more organic food and sustainable food to your diet. You may also want to learn how to grow food sustainably at home and how to shop for sustainably sourced fish and seafood.
How much water does a dripping faucet waste?
A drip here and a drip there add up. According to Craig Anderson, an engineer and home expert at Appliance Analysts, there’s no standard amount of water that comes out of a leaky faucet. The amount of water lost depends on factors like the size of the tap and the frequency of the drip, and most of the figures out there are for average household water use. “If the faucet is leaky, it probably wastes around 10 percent of your water from dripping and leaking when in use,” Anderson says.
Charles Nielsen, a journeyman plumber in the state of Utah, explains that while a drop of water may seem insignificant, it’s not, even in a small amount of time. “Even a very small drip, once every 10 to 15 seconds, can waste almost 15 gallons a month, or nearly a half a gallon in a day,” he says. “After about 10 years, you’ve wasted upwards of 2,000 gallons. I’ve seen leaks that drip 10 or even 100 times that fast.”
In fact, the EPA estimates that a faucet that drips once every second wastes more than 3,000 gallons a year—the equivalent of 180 showers.
Your plumber probably can’t tell you how much water your dripping faucet wastes each day, but the United States Geological Survey has a calculator that can help you figure it out. Simply enter the number of faucets in your home and the frequency of the drops per minute. It’ll reveal how many liters or gallons of water the leak wastes in a day and over the course of a year.
The environmental impact of a leaky faucet
Though it may seem extreme to think that a leaky faucet could have a major impact on the environment, fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce, so it’s important to start thinking about it in that context. A 2015 study published in the journal Water Resources Research used NASA data to examine the depleting freshwater resources on Earth and found that we’re using fresh water faster than it can be restored as groundwater.
“The annoying drip-drip sound and the drain on your wallet are not the only problems of a leaky faucet,” Nielsen says. “Fresh water is becoming harder and harder to come by as the Earth’s population grows.”
Not only that, but the world on a whole is wealthier than it’s ever been. That’s upped the demand for goods and services (ahem, fast fashion), all of which require water. “Humanity as a whole is going to have to get more resourceful when it comes to using our limited supply of fresh water,” says Nielsen.
How much does a dripping faucet cost?
If you have a leaky faucet, you’re literally pouring money down the drain. According to Nielsen, the costs of a leak can add up quickly. “Even the tiny leak in the above example can cost $15 to $20 a year,” he says. “A faster leak, like one that drips one time per second, could very easily cost a couple of hundred dollars a year.”
But there are also potential costs beyond paying for the dripping water itself. A recent report from Chubb Insurance found that a small but steady drip can cause a large amount of damage. In fact, if left undetected, a small leak can turn into a larger structural or plumbing problem, spilling 2,520 gallons in a single day—or enough to fill 50 bathtubs.
While no leak is the same, Chubb found that the average water leak costs more than $55,000 for homeowners and the average water backup loss for all homeowners was almost $45,000. Here are other sneaky ways your home is draining your bank account.
How to check for a leak
Fixing a leaky faucet—or finding a potential leak before it starts—is a great way to save money and water. And believe it or not, it’s not as hard as it might sound. According to Nielsen, the most obvious sign of a leak is that annoying sound of a drip in your sink. But you need to do more than just listen: Not all leaks (even big ones) make noise, and plumbing systems can deteriorate all around a home.
“Check anywhere plumbing is installed—under sinks, in bathtubs, hose spigots, laundries, and dishwashers,” Nielsen advises. “Visually inspect the areas and physically feel the exposed pipes to check for any running water.”
Specifically, look for drips from the spout of the faucet or leaks from the base or under the sink, says Matt Daigle, CEO and founder of Rise, an online resource for sustainable home improvement. “Condensation on pipes can also signal that you have a water leak,” he says.
The EPA has a quick and genius homeowner tip for checking for a leak in your toilet: Put a few drops of food coloring in the tank. If any color shows up in the bowl after 10 minutes, you have a leak. (Just make sure to flush the color down right away so it doesn’t stain your toilet bowl.)
The EPA also suggests taking a look at the water usage on your monthly bill to see if anything looks out of the ordinary—especially during a colder month, like January or February. If your family of four exceeds 12,000 gallons per month, you may be dealing with a serious leak (or several of them).
Finally, water-leak detectors are also a great way to identify potentially problematic areas that are often out of sight. “Water-leak detectors alert you to moisture or water leaks by sounding an audible alert or by sending a notification to a smartphone, if you opt for a smart water-leak detector,” he notes. “Water-leak detectors can be used throughout the house to help mitigate water-related issues.”
How to save money on your water bill
To save money on your water bill, it’s important to understand the basics, including how much you’re spending on water each month and how much water each of your appliances and fixtures expends when in use. That’s where a water use calculator, like the one above, can come in handy.
If you’re looking for some water conservation ideas that will help reduce your utility bills, Feldman suggests starting outside. “The largest single use of water for most of us is outdoor use: watering our lawns and gardens and washing our cars,” he explains. “In some places, like the western U.S., outdoor uses account for between 35 and 50 percent of total household water use—or from one-third to one-half of our monthly water bills during the summer.”
Another option, Feldman says, is the practice of what’s known as tiered pricing or conservation pricing.
“In some regions of the country, water is billed according to a tier or category of usage,” he explains. “If a family limits its water use to a prescribed tier of use—say, 3,000 gallons per month for a family of four—then you end up paying less per gallon. If you exceed this tier or use rate, then you pay more per gallon. This is not only an incentive for less water use and lower monthly bills, but water agencies find that it helps conserve water significantly.”
Changing the way you wash your dishes can also save you money on your water bill, but the best way to do that depends on where you live and who you ask. Not everyone is in a position to buy a dishwasher, whether it’s for financial reasons or because they’re renters who aren’t permitted to install one. If that’s the case, Feldman says that running the tap the entire time uses five times the amount of water as filling a sink.
But if someone is opting not to get a dishwasher because they think it’ll use more energy and water (and therefore cost more), they may be missing out on savings.
According to Morgan Eberhard, senior scientist for Procter and Gamble home care brands, running a full dishwasher uses, on average, 60 percent less energy than handwashing. As a result, Feldman recommends running a dishwasher only when it is full.
Additionally, it’s also important to take the age of your dishwasher into consideration, she says, as newer water-saving dishwashers use about three gallons per load, while models manufactured before 1994 use anywhere from nine to 14 gallons per load. That’s right: When it comes to appliances, sustainable brands can actually save you in the long run.
So what does this mean in terms of saving money? That depends on factors like the size of your household, but Eberhard says that if, for example, you’re preparing at least two meals a day for a family of four, you can save more than 75 percent in energy and water costs by running your dishwasher instead of handwashing your dishes. “This can save you more than $100 per year on utility bills just by using your dishwasher, and roughly $1,300 over the lifetime of your dishwasher,” she explains.
Does that mean that a dishwasher is always the best option? Not necessarily, says Feldman. Although running a full dishwasher uses less water than letting the tap run while handwashing dishes, the best method from a water conservation (and money saving) perspective is handwashing by filling the sink.
How can you conserve water?
Water conservation requires getting in the right mindset and thinking beyond the benefits for yourself to how to ensure there is a clean water supply for Earth’s current and future inhabitants. It also means considering not only the amount of water you send down the drain or flush away every day, but your overall water footprint as well.
In fact, water conservation is a great example of thinking globally but acting locally—starting at home. As Feldman points out, there are many ways to conserve water where you live. She suggests starting with outdoor uses and then making your way indoors. Outdoors, it’s all about sustainable landscaping, which includes taking steps like opting for drought-resistant plants if you live in an area where conditions tend to be dry.
It can also be as simple as being more mindful of how and when you water your outdoor plants, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. For example, you can water or irrigate your plants in the early morning, when evaporation rates are low. That not only conserves water but also helps prevent you from overwatering your plants.
There are also many ways to conserve water indoors, ranging from changing your water use habits to investing in more energy- and water-efficient appliances and fixtures, Feldman explains. So just as you go out of your way to recycle anything and everything, you’ll need to understand how to reduce water consumption and then make a conscious effort to use less water.
11 water-saving tips
Want to get better at water conservation but not sure where to start? Keep reading for tips on how to save water and reduce your overall water consumption, courtesy of Feldman, Morris, and Michael Green, vice president of operations for Benjamin Franklin Plumbing.
- Set a timer before getting in the shower to cut down on the number of minutes you spend in there. The average American shower lasts for 8.2 minutes and uses 17.2 gallons of water.
- Instead of a timer, pick a “shower song” and limit your showers to its duration. This method also helps you keep track of how much time you have.
- Turn the water in the shower off while you’re soaping up or shaving to cut your total water usage by around half.
- Use a bucket (or several) to catch the water coming out of the shower faucet while you’re adjusting the temperature or waiting for it to heat up. Then use it to water your garden, flush a toilet, clean, and so on.
- Turn off the sink when shaving or brushing your teeth. And when washing dishes, fill the sink with water and shut off the tap. Running the tap uses, on average, about five to six gallons of water.
- Install a low-flow showerhead. Older showerheads use roughly five gallons per minute, while new fixtures use approximately half that and offer equal water coverage and force by keeping the water pressure high.
- Replace toilets from before 1980 with low-flow models. That can save a household of three people about 21,000 gallons per year and more than $100 in water bills.
- Fix leaky toilets as soon as possible. How much water is wasted every day on them? As much as 200 gallons!
- Replace a traditional green lawn with landscaping that does not need to be watered on a regular basis. Watering the average-sized American lawn for 20 minutes a day for 7 days uses the same amount of water as running the shower constantly for four days.
- Clean sidewalks and your driveway using a broom instead of a hose.
- Water your lawn and garden early in the morning, when the temperatures are lower, to avoid speedy evaporation.
The time to act is now
Water scarcity is a problem that will not go away on its own. This is not one of those situations where you can sit back while other people make sacrifices. Water conservation is a group project: Everyone’s participation is required. And even small steps, like cutting down on our time in the shower and turning the tap off while brushing our teeth, can add up and make a difference.
Another way to move toward a greener lifestyle is to educate ourselves on other aspects of sustainability. For example, if you want to learn more about how to shop sustainably, check out our articles on sustainable clothing brands and upcycling.
Ultimately, though, effective water conservation requires a shift in mentality. According to Morris, we need to start looking at water the same way we currently look at oil and other fossil fuels: as one of our most precious natural resources. And when we opt to take lengthy showers, let the sink run when we aren’t using it, water expansive lawns, or use water in other careless ways, we’re treating water as if there were a never-ending supply. “Water is not free and needs to be viewed in that light,” Morris adds.
It’s not enough to simply sip from reusable straws and compost every now and then. Thinking in terms of sustainability must be a part of our everyday lives.
- David Feldman, PhD, professor of urban planning, public policy, and political science at the University of California–Irvine
- Michael Green, vice president of operations at Benjamin Franklin Plumbing
- Vincent Morris, vice president of public affairs at Clyde Group
- Morgan Eberhard, senior scientist for Procter and Gamble home care brands
- Craig Anderson, engineer and home expert at Appliance Analysts
- Charles Nielsen, a journeyman plumber in the state of Utah
- Matt Daigle, founder and CEO of Rise
- Water Resources Research: “Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE”
- Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel: “A Consumer’s Guide to Water Conservation”
- Chubb Insurance: “Chubb Homeowners’ Risk Survey Executive Summary”
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying – IPCC”
- Environmental Protection Agency: “Water Conservation at EPA”
- U.S. Department of Energy: “Landscaping for Water Conservation”