Saving Water

The average American uses between 100 and 176 gallons of water per day. About half of that goes down the toilet. The average African family uses 5 gallons of water per day. More than one billion people lack access to clean drinking water.

Suddenly something so mundane like washing your hands or taking a shower seems like an incredibly extravagent thing to do, reserved only for the very wealthy. And if you can do those things in your own home, you are very wealthy.

I’m a long way from one of those crunchy environmentalists, but simple concepts like conservation seem like really good ideas, environmentally, economically and even biblically. Water is not an unlimited resource and some argue that it will become this century’s oil.

So what do we do?

It’s obvious, but the simplest, cheapest and easiest thing we can do is use less water. It takes a conscious effort to realize when and where you’re using water and try to use less.

Sometimes it’s as basic as not letting the faucet run when you don’t need it. As a kid I would let the water run the entire time I brushed my teeth, letting water pour down the drain for no reason. It’s those sort of habits we’ve fallen into because water is so cheap it’s practically free. But it’s also those sort of habits that will get us in trouble when water suddenly isn’t so abundant.

Since about half of the typical American’s water usage comes from flushing the toilet, flushing less would be an easy way to save. If it’s yellow let it mellow comes to mind, though I doubt that’s a very sanitary long term practice. Though it might make sense in some instances (waking up or going to sleep when there are multipe flushes that could be combined).

The shower follows the toilet for most water usage, and that’s another place to cut back. The simplest approach would be to–gasp–shower less often. Despite the American standard it’s not necessary to shower every day. You could do it every other day and still not find yourself sitting alone in the break room. Another option would be to use less water when you do shower. You really only need the water when you’re getting wet and when you’re rinsing off. You could actually shut off the water while you’re sudsing up. You’ve got to be committed because you’re overcoming years of simply enjoying the stream of water. Plus it can get a little chilly. But think of the water you’re saving.

After minimizing your water use, reusing your water is the next logical step. This is commonly called gray water. And the most obvious application seems to be flushing the toilet. Why on earth do we need to use clean drinking water to flush the toilet? Seems like the water I used to wash my hands or splash my face in the morning is hardly a cess pool and could still be good for something.

But that’s easier said than done.

One basic approach would probably make plumbers everywhere cry: put a bucket under your bathroom sink and disconnect the drain. It’s the total do-it-yourself solution, where you have to do everything yourself, including monitor the level of the bucket so you don’t have a spill. I haven’t tried it yet, but it seems simple and stupid enough to do the job without retrofitting your house.

Another reuse approach would be to collect rain water for watering your lawn or plants. A rain barrel would probably be the most practical way to do it, of course that assumes you actually water your lawn (I only do it when the grass has gone dormant and is danger of dying).

The next approach would be to just rebuild the American home with conservation in mind. And that’s also easier said than done. The typical home, even a newer one, wasn’t exactly designed with conservation and efficiency in mind (though that’s starting to change). Granted we’re getting much better, especially with windows and insulation and high efficiency appliances. But it’s hardly standard to build a system into the house to flush toilets with rain or gray water, which seems like it’d be pretty simple.

Unfortunately, it’s kind of a wacky idea and there hasn’t been a lot of thought or standardization put into it. You’re not going to find a grey water system at Home Depot. But it also seems wacky that so much of the water that goes down my drain is perfectly clean, yet it goes off to the sewage treatment plant just like every toilet flush.

Another cool idea is grey water heat recovery. Basically you’re reusing the heat from hot water that goes down the drain. Though every bit of efficiency and conservation you put into practice minimizes the benefit of this approach.

And I suppose it’s still not practical yet (or water related), but I’ve always thought we should be slapping solar power cells on every roof. Or maybe wind turbines. Why not both? They’re probably still too expensive, but if every house in the country even generated 10% of their own power, that’d be a monumental shift. And that would probably save some water somehow.

In Conclusion
I’m not suggesting enormous changes and water rationing. A few small changes here and there, made by millions of people, could make a big difference. Some day I think we’ll be forced to make these changes, either by government mandate or economic reality, so I think it makes sense to start moving in that direction on your own. And if we can get by on less, what’s the harm in that? The rest of the world gets by on much less water, so it seems fair that we could cut back a little.

(Disclaimer: I also realize that agricultural and industrial sources use much more water than residential uses. But I don’t have much control over those sources, so I’ll do what I can with what I am in charge of. Perhaps my conservation will be contagious.)

4 thoughts on “Saving Water”

  1. Interesting thoughts on saving water. I’m working in Sudan right now in Water and Sanitation. Today I was out doing assessments and spoke to a lady who fills 2 jerry cans per day for her 6 person family. She walks 2 hours each day just to get water. I know its good environmental practice to save water. And I know that its all one big world.
    Still I’m not sure how all these innovative water saving techniques in America will really affect this lady in any real way today or even tomorrow. The issues involving water seem to me to be a little more complicated.

    It seems a little like supporting gun control in Minnesota to stop the militia in Somalia.

  2. That’s a good question, David. I see a couple different ways to address it.

    1) Just because I have something in plenty (water, food, money, etc.) doesn’t mean I should waste it. Whether or not it ever gets to a woman in Sudan, I still shouldn’t waste it.

    2) This is about advocacy and awareness as much as anything. If I’m aware of the women in Sudan’s situation, and aware of how much water I use, I’m more likely to find ways to deal with it, whether that’s minimize my own water usage or donate to organizations that help bring water to people like the woman you mention. As Shane Claiborne says, it’s also a way to be in solidarity with people who lack water.

    3) Ultimately, I think being better stewards of our water does help people across the globe. If water becomes a scarce and valuable resource like oil, the poor are screwed. So if we can conserve water and find ways to keep water from becoming so valuable, we do help those people without water. I’d like to think there’s enough water for everybody, but we’re not going to get there if we’re using 20 times the water than the rest of the world.

    So there’s no direct connection. My water saved isn’t being bottled and shipped to a thirsty soul across the globe. But I do think it makes a difference.

  3. I agree that individual conservation can affect our mindset. It keeps us thinking about other people and bigger issues than our own comfort.

    I also agree with your idea of altruistically trying not to waste what we have. If we realize we’re habitually doing something unnecessary and possibly harmful, why wouldn’t we try to stop?

    I’ve read about using roofs to collect graywater. From redirecting drainspouts into a barrel (I’d be wary of mosquitos!) to installing metal roofing and using the filtered runnoff for laundry, toilets, and gardens. One can also use clothes washing water in gardens; apparently vegetables like a little soap.

  4. I think rain barrels are usually sealed, as opposed to a downspout dumping into an open barrel. So the only way for anything to get in is through your gutters. Then a spigot on the bottom to get your water. At least that’s the kind I saw at the state fair last year. Otherwise you’re right, mosquito breeding ground.

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