Drought in Texas July 2012

A special e-newsletter about dealing with the Texas drought

Water conservation tips can save homeowners water and money

By Alejandra Arreola-Triana

The average Texan’s day starts and ends with water:  wake up, use the bathroom, take a shower. Teeth need brushing, and perhaps today is laundry day. Hands get washed as many times as needed, bedtime requires brushing teeth and washing that face before bed. Sleep comes after tuning out the annoying drip-drip-drip from a leaky showerhead.  

On a typical day such as this, a person uses 72.5 gallons of water inside the home, possibly without even thinking about it. But 72.5 gallons of water is worth thinking about, because it adds up: A typical family of four uses almost 300 gallons of water in one day.

But with some simple conservation strategies, a person can reduce home water use by about 30 percent, said Joyce Cavanagh, family economics specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. Cavanagh is an expert on strategies Texans can use to conserve water and also save money in the process.

"There are the standard (tips), you know: check for leaky faucets and toilets," said Cavanagh, "and don’t let the water run when brushing your teeth."

Cavanagh said that people can save even more water by focusing on the "big three" water users in the home: showers, toilets and washing machines. "These account for about two-thirds of the water used in an average household," she said.

Toilets are the biggest offenders, using almost a third of the total water used in a typical household. "Older toilets use three to seven gallons of water per flush," Cavanagh said, "but the newer ones use only 1.6 gallons."

If homeowners have a toilet that is 10 years old or more, they should consider replacing it with a newer, more efficient one, and if replacing the toilet is not feasible, then Cavanagh suggested displacing some of the water in the tank. "People can place a plastic bottle filled with water inside the tank or get a toilet dam to partition off a section of the tank," she said.

"If people are buying new appliances, like dishwashers and washing machines," Cavanagh said, "people should look for the Energy Star (label), but also look at the amount of water the appliance uses."

Cavanagh said that, when replacing washing machines, front-loading options are ideal. "They use less water, plus they are easier on your clothes, because they don’t have as much agitation." Front-loading machines also spin more water out during the spin cycle. "Your clothes will have less water when you put them in the dryer, and thus will take less time to dry, saving you money not only in water, but also in electricity or gas from the dryer."

Cavanagh also recommended some not-so-obvious ways to save water. Some water filters, she said, produce wastewater. "Reverse osmosis filters have some wastewater as part of the process used to remove any impurities from the water, which can be substantial over time," she said.

If only filtering to improve the taste or smell of the water, she suggested using faucet or pitcher filters that don’t waste water. With those filters "the water is just filtering through and you pretty much get the same amount of water as you filter," she said.

There are also some direct economic incentives for conserving water. Cavanagh said that homeowners should check with their local utility providers; some cities will offer rebates to those who switch to water-efficient appliances or install rain barrels or other rain harvesting systems.

Some communities are also increasing rates on heavy water users. "Once you reach a certain threshold of water usage, the rate increases for the additional quantities of water that you are using," she said. Communities use this tiered-rate structure as an "incentive to get folks to use less water."

Though saving money is an incentive, to Cavanagh it is not all about the money. "It’s about making sure that we have good quality water to drink and cook with."

"When I see water running down the street from somebody’s yard," Cavanagh said, "those people, one of these days they are going to turn their faucet on to get a drink of water and nothing is going to come out. They are going to wish we had that water back to drink."

Cavanagh recommend these additional water conservation tips:

In the bathroom

  • Take shorter showers, and/or turn off the shower while lathering. A shut-off valve can be used to stop the flow of water without affecting the temperature.
  • Turn off the water while shaving, brushing teeth or face washing.
  • Use low-flow showerheads and toilets. Look for the Water Sense label on bathroom fixtures.

In the kitchen

  • Fill the dishwasher completely, or if washing by hand, use a pan of soapy water for washing and a pan of hot water for rinsing.
  • Scrape, don’t rinse, the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. With modern dishwashers and detergents, there is no need to do a "pre-clean."
  • Use the smallest amount of water necessary to cook foods.
  • Use leftover vegetable juices for soups and the water used to cook chicken for cooking rice, pasta or vegetables.
  • Limit the use of the garbage disposal. Save the scraps to run the disposal once or place them in a compost pile.

In the yard

  • Water the lawn early in the morning or late in the evening. This diminishes water lost to evaporation.
  • Water less frequently, but for a longer period. This allows the water to better penetrate the ground.
  • Consider lawns "low priority" when it comes to watering. Keeping the grass green during hot weather wastes a lot of water. Instead, use the water for trees and shrubs, which are more susceptible to drought damage.
  • If remodeling a lawn or garden, consider using native plants and grasses. Native plants need less water and fertilizer and often live longer than nonnative species. Native buffalo grass, for example, is very tolerant to drought and heat and is becoming the turf of choice in places that get less than 20 inches of water a year.

For more information and tips on water conservation visit the Texas Water Resources Institute’s Water Conservation Resources or AgriLife Extension Family and Consumer Sciences’ Water Management page.

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