Saving Household Water

"Thousands have lived without love, not one without water."
W. H. Auden

Only 1% of the water used in the United States is treated drinking water used in the home. Still, that's about 4.1 billion gallons of water each day passing through water treatment facilities or about 136 gallons per day for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.

Although this water is drinkable, very little of it is actually consumed as food or drink less than 10 gallons on average per household per day. Most of what we drink is not tap water but prepared beverages bought at the grocery including bottled water. Some household water, about 30%, is used in landscaping and gardening. But most is used for flushing, bathing, dishwashing and household cleaning. Strictly speaking, treated water is not necessary for these tasks, but it's what we have in our houses, so that's what we use.

Treated water is expensive because a lot of energy is needed to treat it and move it from its source to the treatment plan, then from the plant to your home. In the U.S. the electricity used to treat and pump drinking water would power more than 5 million homes for an entire year. Put another way, if you are in the habit of letting the hot water run while rinsing dishes, in five minutes you will have used enough energy to power a 60 watt light bulb for 24 hours. In ten minutes you will have canceled out all the energy you saved by replacing your old incandescent bulbs with the new energy-efficient compact fluorescent fixtures.

We use more water per person than any other people on earth. And, in many places, we are running out of it. Much of Nebraska relies on fossil water deposited millions of years ago in the Ogallala Aquifer. This water is largely not replaceable. A shallow layer of caliche that is practically impermeable lies over much of the aquifer preventing groundwater from reaching it. Only 1 gallon is replaced for every 100 gallons used. So, once used, fossil water is gone forever. And, it will be all gone in your lifetime — about 25 years. The EPA estimates that 39 states, including Nebraska, will experience regional or statewide water shortages by 2013. If you think the oil shortage is scary, wait for the water shortage.

Household Water Use by Fixture Type
Source: American Water Works Association
Fixture% of Use
Clothes Washer22%
All Other2%

We don't actually drink enough treated water to matter. So saving water is a matter of controlling how much water we use for flushing, cleaning, washing and watering. Using water saving devices, we can easily reduce an average $500 annual water and sewer bill to $330 or less. It's worth doing for that reason alone.

Average indoor water use has been calculated fixture by fixture by the American Water Works Association.

The Association identifies the toilet as the big user: About 26% of our household water is literally flushed down the toilet. Washing clothes uses 22%, showering 17% and 14% is lost through leaks, primarily leaking faucets and toilets.

Bathing takes just 2%. But, that's primarily because so few of us takes baths. Most Americans prefer showers. A 10-minute shower uses about 25-50 gallons of water, a bath uses about 40 gallons, if you fill the bath almost to the brim. Most of us don't. So a bath may use just 10 gallons of water.

Your dishwasher uses 1% on average, but if you have a dishwasher made within the past ten years, its water use is much lower. All other uses take 2%.

Fix Those Leaks

An astonishing amount of household water — water you paid for in cold, hard cash — just leaks away.

Some leaks are easy to detect. If you can hear your toilet running, it's leaking. If you shut off a faucet, but it still drips, you have a leaking washer or valve. A drop-per-second drip from a single faucet translates into more than 3,000 gallons of wasted water in one year.

Fix or replace this faucet with a washerless, ceramic disk faucet for about a twenty years of flawless, leak-proof, performance. (For more information on faucet technology see An Overview of Faucets).

Some leaks, however, are sneaky. Toilets are particular culprits. Toilets, even new toilets, can have silent leaks caused by an improperly seating plunger ball or flap valve. These leaks are difficult to detect since there is usually no visible or audible sign of water flowing down the drain. If the toilet plunger ball or flap valve does not seat properly water slowly flows from the toilet tank into the bowl and into the drain.

This sneaky leak can be detected by placing a small amount of food coloring into the toilet tank. Wait for about ten minutes without flushing the toilet, check to see if the food coloring appears in the toilet bowl. If it does then the toilet has a sneaky leak.

Another source of sneaky leaks is your house's service line from the water main. These leaks can be extremely difficult to detect but there are some telltale signs which may indicate that you have a leak in your service line. You should be on the alert for:

  • Wet spots in your yard around the water service line.
  • The sound of running water or a hissing sound which persists even when water is not being used in the home.
  • Water leaking into your basement or crawl space near the location of your water service line.
  • A sudden loss in the homes normal water pressure or flow.
  • Water bills showing progressively higher water consumption, when in fact you are not using more water.
  • If you think you may have a leak in your service line, find and turn off the main shut off valve within your home. Place your ear on the main water line coming into your home. If you have a hissing or gurgling noise you almost certainly have a leak.

    To be absolutely sure, though, call a plumber to run a leak test. Water leaks in the service line on the house side of the meter are your responsibility in most localities. In Lincoln, however, you are also responsible for the water line from the meter to the water main connection (which is called the "tap"). The fix involves digging up the old line and replacing it. It is going to be neither easy nor cheap.

    Government Regulation

    Whether you like it or not, your local, state, and federal governments are going to help you save on water.

    The National Energy Policy Act of 1992 mandated low-flow toilets, faucets, and showers. You cannot legally buy or install the older non-restrictive fixtures in the United States, so any time you update any faucet, toilet or showerhead you are automatically saving water. Older toilets used as much as 7 gallons per flush. The new ones cannot use more than 1.6 gallons by law.

    For showerheads, the federal flow limit is 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm). Many states and localities mandate even less — 1.7 gpm or less. Showers are a major user of water if only because since 1950 we have gone from two showers a week per person on average to daily and even twice-daily showers. Without low-flow heads, a typical 10-minute shower would use 50 gallons of water. With a low-flow head, this amount is cut in half.

    Sink faucets can use no more than 2.2 gallons of water per minute (gpm). A WaterSense®-qualified faucet can use just 1.5 gpm in a bathroom, and 1.8 gpm in a kitchen. Faucets installed in commercial restrooms may allow not more than 0.5 gpm.

    Some states and localities mandate even lower flow. The maximum flow rate of a lavatory faucet allowed in California is 1.2 gpm and just 1.8 gpm from a showerhead after July 2018.

    Water-Saving Fixtures

    Here are some specific water-saving fixtures. Keep these in mind when shopping for fixtures.

    High-Efficiency Toilets

    While 1.6 gallons is the maximum flow allowed per flush, there are more efficient fixtures. A toilet that uses 1.28 gallons or less per flush is considered "high efficiency". Performance is testing by an organization call MaP organized by municipal water authorities to test toilets for efficiency. Look for Maximum Performance (MaP) of 600 grams or more. (For more on how to buy a good toilet, see Choosing the Perfect Toilet).

    According to the EPA, toilets are by far the main source of water use in the home, accounting for 26-30 percent of an average home's indoor water consumption. Older, inefficient toilets also happen to be the single most important source of wasted water in most homes. Replacing these toilets with WaterSense toilets could save nearly 2 billion gallons per day across the country that's nearly 11 gallons per toilet in your home every day!

    The EPA “WaterSense” label is used on toilets that are certified by independent laboratory testing to meet rigorous criteria for both performance and efficiency. If you replace older, existing toilets with WaterSense labeled models, you can save as much as 4,000 gallons per year.

    Certified WaterSense toilets sell for less than $300.00 from most major fixture manufacturers.

    Low-Flow Faucets

    Faucets account for 17 percent of indoor household water use — almost 700 million gallons of water across the United States each year. Low flow faucets can reduce a sink's water flow by 30 percent or more without sacrificing performance, saving 500 gallons or more each year per faucet, and also saving energy by reducing the demand on water heaters.

    To give you the feel of a full flow of water, but keep flow as little as 0.5 gpm, manufacturers have developed some very clever faucet aerators. These restrict the amount of water passing through the faucet while adding a measured quantity of air to the water flow that makes it feel "wetter", so that the water still feels like a full flow. These are a very low-cost fix. Faucets specifically designed to fill things, like pot-filler and tub faucets, will not usually have them. But sink faucets should always incorporate low-flow technology.

    You don't have to replace your entire faucet to get the benefit of this new technology. Just replacing your existing faucet aerator with a WaterSense-compliant aerator is all that is required. Most manufacturers make low-flow replacement aerators for their faucets, and they are many after-market models available. The typical cost of an after-market aerator is $3-5.00. The payback on that investment is less than a year.

    Low Flow Showerheads

    Showering is one of the leading ways we use water in the home, accounting for 16-17 percent of household indoor water use, or about 30 gallons per family per day. That's nearly 1.2 trillion gallons of water used in the United States annually just for showering, or enough to supply the water needs of all every household in Nebraska for 10 years.

    Daily Water Use In the U.S.
    Source: U. S. Geological Survey (2005)
    Gallons Used Daily (in Billions) Percent of Water Use Description/Notes
    Untreated (Non-potable) Water from All Sources
    Agriculture 139 34% Crop irrigation, livestock, and fish farming. As much as half of this use is lost to evaporation, wind, poor design and overwatering.
    Power Generation 201 49% Electricity generation uses fresh water to cool power plants. The cooling of power plants is the biggest source of heat pollution in our rivers and streams.
    Industry and Mining 21 5% Most believe that manufacturing and mining use most of the water in the U.S. But that's not true. These activities do, however, account for the majority of the chemical pollution in our streams and rivers.
    Treated (Potable) Water from All Sources
    Business and Public Use 45 11% Business, institutions and government uses in office buildings, hotels, hospitals, restaurants, etc.
    Household Use 4 1% Household cleaning, washing, bathing, cooking and drinking, and gardening.
    Total 410 100% Total water consumption in the U.S.

    The average household could save more than 2,300 gallons per year by installing WaterSense showerheads. Since these water savings will also reduce demands on water heaters, households will also save energy. In fact, a household could save 300 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power its television for the entire year. Think of that — free TV.

    A showerhead that allows a maximum of 2 gpm is considered low flow. A lot of showerheads are advertised as "low flow" at 2.5 gpm. This may have been low-flow 15 years ago, but not now. Many communities now restrict flow to 1.8 gpm or less and you can expect future regulations to require 1.5 gpm or less. To get a jump on the future, look at the flow information on the box. If it is 1.80 gpm or less, it is a good idea to give thought to buying it. Some showerheads feature adjustable flows: very low flow for showering and a higher 2.5 gpm flow for rinsing.

    Where Does All the Other water Go?

    If treated household water makes up only 1% of all the water used in the U.S., where does the other 99% go?

    Nearly half of all the water used in the U.s. — 201 billion gallons — is used in power generation. Electric power plants use water for cooling, then discard warm water back into our streams and rivers. Power plants are our biggest source of heat pollution. Another 139 billion gallons are used in agriculture, primarily for irrigation. About half of this water is wasted — lost to run-off and evaporation.

    Industry and mining use a relatively minor 21 billion gallons or 5%, but industry and mining are still the two major sources of chemical pollution of our streams and rivers, although thanks to the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency, that pollution has dropped considerably since the 1972 Clean Water Act. There is still much to be done, however.

    Treated or potable water is used primarily by business and government entities. Eleven percent or 45 billion gallons of treated water are used n office buildings, hotels, hospitals, restaurants and other business and public facilities.

    The amount of water we use has started to decrease. Percapita use of water has dropped 30% from its peak in 1975 - which is when serious water conservation measures started - and water consumption per-capita is lower now than it has been since the mid-1950s.

    We are also using water more productively. In the 1970s 100,000 gallons of water produced only $3.18 of economic value. In 2005 that jumped to $8.45 by controlling waste and using water more efficiently. Still, the average American uses twice as much water as the average Japanese and nearly 1,000 times more than the average Ethiopian.

    Rev. 06/240/18