Water Conservation on the Cheap Side

by Lucrecia Blanco

I’m a Kirkland neighbor and an architectural lighting designer. Given my line of work, one would think that I would try to make improvements at home to save energy through lighting. Well, I did change most lighting fixtures to compact fluorescent lamps, reducing the wattage from 60 to 18 per lamp. That is not bad, but to go further into energy use reduction, you have to invest…and I’m poor. I would love to put some solar panels on my roof, and although I know that the Return on Investment (ROI) is not bad at all –even in cloudy Seattle-,  I simply lack the initial investment at the moment.

Thinking about what I can do to save some money and protect the environment, I started thinking about water…truth be told: I have a massive, nasty leak that cost me a ton and caught my attention….water!!

The incentive is not only to save money, but to create awareness in my family about the depletion of the water resources in the world. If my kids get it, they will teach it to their kids.  Calculations say that by 2030 water demand worldwide could exceed supply by 40%.  Valuable efforts are being made in the commercial and the residential arenas to reduce consumption. I humbly invite you to the party.

What can I do to save water? It will not only reduce my water bill, but it will reduce my power bill too, and it will protect the resources, as well as minimizing the negative effects of runoff into the streams.

Okay, so let’s get started….

Instead of thinking what kind of technology or gadget I can bring into my house, the first question I asked myself was: how does my family use water? What can I change in my family’s behavior that would create awareness about the use of water?

Things to do that cost nothing, save a lot and help the environment:

Indoors

  • Check for leaks in your house! This is a big one.  You’ll see why later in this article.
  • Take shorter showers (if you have teenagers forget this option).
  • Run the dishwasher and clothes washer only when full.
  • Don’t use your garbage disposal. It uses water, energy and pollutes the water!! In turn, make compost out of your food scraps. You can keep your compost and use it in your yard to simply put it in the city’s yard waste bin. (The City of Kirkland provides a free compost container with compostable bags to keep on your kitchen counter).
  • Check your local utility for incentives ( for example: a couple of months back the City of Kirkland was giving low flow shower heads for free if you signed up for the program).

Outdoors

  • Wash your car in a car wash, not in your driveway.  This saves water, prevents soaps and chemicals from going into the streams, and if you fill up your tank, the car wash is free in most gas stations in Kirkland.
  • Plant native plants in your yard that have little need for water.
  • Don’t water your lawn as much and during hot times of the day.

Image borrowed from http://www.ourbreathingplanet.com

Once you make those behavioral changes

  • Observe the water usage in your house.
  • Attend to the low-hanging fruit first.
  • Create a budget (how much you are willing to invest in this new water saving strategy?)
  • Create a goal (what is my ideal ROI?)

In my case, the low-hanging fruits were my inefficient washer and all the watering I do in the summer (I’m a gardener). Second priority is all the obvious (showers, faucets and toilets)

My budget: $700.

My goal: to get an ROI of 1.5 years exclusively on the water bill (without estimating the energy savings that come with it, which I’m sure are huge, but a little harder to track down in my wired billing statements)

Clothes Washer

  • Average machines use 41 gallons of water per load (my old one was way beyond that)
  • Regulatory (2007) is 26.6 g/l (this regulation was effective in 2011, so many machines do not comply)
  • New Energy Star Certified machines use 16-24 g/l

I shopped around for a front load, high efficiency washer and I found some really good deals at Lowe’s. I got myself a refurbished front load Energy Star for $399 (after a $50 rebate).  I’m cutting my water consumption by about 40%.

Go to the energy star web page for listing and additional information www.energystar.gov

Ok, now I’m down to $301.

Rain water harvesting

Next, my garden watering….what if I collect rainwater? We have plenty here.  I purchased four 50 gallon rainwater collection barrels on craigslist from a guy in Issaquah, and all the parts and pieces I needed to collect water from my roof I found at Lowe’s. The system works great! I’m very happy with it, and last summer I could almost cover my watering needs exclusively with the system. By the end of the summer I was squeezing the last drops out of it, and I had to use the utility water. The lawn got very deep watering sessions late at night and only every 2 weeks maximum (I used utility water for the lawn).  The grass wasn’t very green, but it survived.  I reduced the storm water runoff from my site into the streams, and I got a workout watering the yard. I reduced my water consumption in my yard by at least 50%.

The system is easy to install, but since there are not regulations or standards on how to do it, you are a bit on your own. If you want great directions on how to create your own, find “The Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting” online (those guys are serious water catchers). The system consists of a catchment area (roof), a distribution and filtering mechanism (PVC piping and sponges), storage tanks (the barrels), an overflow (hose laying on the lawn) and pumps (I did not use a pump, but I recommend it for better water pressure).

I spent $30 per barrel and about $40 in extra pieces.

I’m down to $141 now.

Showers, Faucets and toilets

The issue here is simple: use less water by behavioral change and reduction of flow.

Showers:  I changed to low flow fixtures.

  • Preregulatory showers had a flow of 2.75-3.5 gallons per minute
  • After regulation (Energy Policy Act of 1994), the flow must be 2.5 gpm
  • 2.0 gpm is considered efficient.  1.8 gpm is widely used in hotels at the moment.

My new shower heads are 2.0 gpm, and I love them. (My teenager still takes 20 minute showers, but I decided that changing that would cost me my mental health, and that is more expensive than a couple of gallons of water.)

Shower heads cost me $26 each x 2= $52

I’m down to $89!

Faucets

I added aerators. These are very little pieces that fit right on your faucet and limit the flow.

  • The faucet flow before regulation was 2.75 to 4 gpm
  • Flow after regulation (1994 Energy Policy Act) is 2.5 gpm
  • Energy star and water sense certified are 1.5 gpm

The aerators say how much flow they will allow. You can find them at Lowe’s for $4 each.

3 aerators at $4 each= $12

I’m down to $77.

Toilets

The first thing to do is to make sure that the rubber flapper is in good condition and operating correctly.

  • Old toilets can be using up to 2-3 galons per flush
  • Code requires a 1.6 gpf toilet be installed in new construction
  • Good toilets can be around 1.8- 0.8 gpf

There are a lot of options to reduce the water consumption in your toilets, from composting toilets (zero water use) to dual flush to pressure-assisted toilets, etc. I have only about $77 so I have to get creative.  I researched and found a product called the fill cycle valve retrofit ( the brand is Hydroclean EZ, and you can find it at Lowe’s). You put it in your toilet tank, and it limits the amount of water that the tank holds.  Basically, you never fill the tank to full.  You test a couple of times to see if the amount of water is effective, and then set it to what works. In my toilets the tank gets filled to half its capacity, and it works just fine.

Each cost me $12 x 2= $24

I have $53 left. I’m going shopping for a dress!

At the end of the adventure I know that my efforts are helping the environment, I know that my site produces less storm runoff and soapy water going into the streams, and I also know that my house consumes less water, but did I save any money?.

Here is my water bill that shows about half of 2011.  I started with the changes around January 2011. You can clearly see the leak that is responsible for all this right there in October/December 2010!

Here is the result of my efforts:

I spend $668 of initial investment

I saved about $410 in 12 months only in my water bill, without adding savings on power, which would indicate about 1.6 year payback at the most.  I think that it was well worth it.

Why don’t you try it?