The Buzz

Five ways to conserve water around your home

A hand drips water onto a plant.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Water is, of course, essential to life, but access to clean, safe drinking water is far from universal. About 1 in 4 people worldwide — 2 billion people in all — don't have safe drinking water, and nearly half of all the people in the world lack safe sanitation, according to the United Nations

While many of us in the United States take our access to safe drinking water for granted, it is not universal, with communities including Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, experiencing water crises that have left some residents without access to safe water at home.

Even in places where access to clean drinking water is something that can be relied on, that might not always be the case. At least 40 U.S. states anticipate water shortages by 2024 — next year — and conserving water is becoming a critical issue, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

One reason water conservation has become increasingly important is that our thirst for water appears to be unquenchable. While the U.S. population has doubled over the past 50 years, our water usage has tripled over that time period, the EPA reports. 

It may seem hard to believe water is becoming scarce when you look at any globe and see that 70% of Earth is covered in water, but all the ocean water isn't drinkable. Only 3% of the world's water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is frozen in glaciers or otherwise unusable, according to the World Wildlife Federation.  

Recognizing that we all have a role to play when it comes to water conservation is a good first step in making a commitment to use less water. Here are some suggestions for conserving water around your home.

Shop smart

When you are replacing or upgrading plumbing fixtures in your house, opt for water-efficient products that will reduce the amount of water you use without you noticing much difference. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends buying toilets, faucets and showerheads with a WaterSense label. These products meet EPA water-efficiency specifications that have been verified by an independent, third-party organization, according to the EPA.

WaterSense products perform as well as or better than other similar products that don't have the certification, but they are about 20% more efficient, which means you'll be saving both water and money. Replacing inefficient toilets with WaterSense certified toilets can reduce a family's water usage by 20% to 60% a year — or as much as 13,000 gallons of water a year, according to the EPA. If every inefficient toilet in the United States was replaced with a more efficient WaterSense toilet, it would save 360 billion gallons of water a year — as much as what flows over Niagara Falls in about nine days. 

Toilets are the main source of water usage in American homes, making up about 30% of a home's overall indoor water usage. Older toilets can use as much as 6 gallons per flush, but newer, efficient toilets use much less. Federal standards for new toilets require that they use no more than 1.6 gallons, and WaterSense toilets use just 1.28 gallons per flush, according to the EPA.

Wash wisely

We use a lot of water washing things — ourselves, our dishes, our laundry — so it stands to reason we can cut back on our water consumption by washing more wisely, and we're not just talking about taking shorter showers. This can be as easy as turning off the tap when brushing our teeth or thawing frozen foods in the refrigerator overnight instead of running hot water over them. 

A few other things to keep in mind to be a wise washer: Showers use more water than baths, and the dishwasher uses less water than hand washing dishes — as long as you're running it full, the EPA reports. If you are hand-washing dishes, much sure to use a stopper to plug the sink rather than leaving the water running. Same goes for doing laundry. Try to stick to washing only full loads and make sure to select the appropriate load size for your machine. And if you want to double down on savings, wash laundry in cold water instead of hot or warm.

Don't be a drip

Leaky plumbing fixtures account for a startling amount of water loss each year. About 10% of American homes have leaks that waste at least 90 gallons of water per day, and an average leaky household can waste almost 10,000 gallons of water a year, according to the EPA. Faucet and showerhead leaks can be obvious, and they can really add up. A leaky faucet can waste more than 3,000 gallons of water a year, and a leaky showerhead can waste more than 500 gallons a year. If you notice your faucets or showerheads are leaking, repair them or replace them to cut down on wasted water.

Toilets can leak when the flappers or valve seals wear out over time. These leaks aren't obvious, but they can result in thousands of gallons of wasted water every year. The EPA recommends that toilet flappers be checked occasionally and replaced at least once every five years. One way to determine whether your toilet is leaking is to add about 12 drops of food coloring in the toilet tank. After about 10 minutes, check the bowl. If the bowl water is colored, the toilet is leaking. 

If you want to determine whether you have any hidden plumbing leaks in your house, the EPA has a couple of suggestions. One way is to check your water meter at the beginning and end of a two-hour period when you are not using water — no toilet flushes, showers, washing dishes, doing laundry, etc. If the meter changes, you likely have a leak somewhere in your house. Another idea is to look at your water usage during one of the colder months of the year, such as January or February. If you are using more than 12,000 gallons of water a month as a family of four, you may have plumbing leaks. 

Collect it and direct it

Between 30% and 60% of drinking water in the United States is used to water our lawns, gardens and flowers, according to American Rivers. You can help reduce your use of clean drinking water for yard maintenance by collecting rain in a rain barrel that you can use to water your lawn and garden. And make sure you know how much water your plants need so you aren't overwatering. For example, a vegetable garden needs about 1 inch of water per week, and some of those needs may be met by rain, according to the University of Minnesota Extension. How much water is 1 inch? An inch of rain over a 100 square foot garden amounts to 62 gallons. 

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If you use sprinklers to water your lawn or newly planted grass or sod, make sure to position the sprinklers so they aren't wasting water. If your sprinklers are watering your sidewalks or driveway, that's all water that is going to waste. Another way to save water in your landscaping is to incorporate native plants, the EPA advises. These plants are adapted to the climate of the area and do not typically require water other than rainfall after they become established.

Put down the hose and turn off the faucet

We use water for a lot of cleaning tasks that don't require water, or could at least use less of it. When washing your car, for example, you can't need to leave the hose running or even use a hose at all. Fill a bucket with water to wash your car then do a quick rinse with the hose or bucket water when done, the EPA suggests. And if you're cleaning your deck, patio, sidewalks or driveway, use a broom instead of hosing them down. 

In the kitchen, don't leave water running in your sink when doing food prep chores that don't require it, such as cutting or peeling fruits and vegetables. And if you drink water from the tap and like it cold, keep a pitcher of water in the refrigerator so you don't have to run the water until it's cold before filling up. Another tip: Use your garbage disposal sparingly. One alternative would be to start a compost pile at home to compost your food scraps instead of putting them down the disposal with a lot of water.

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