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Ways to Save Water at Home
At first glance, the Spanish-style haciendas in the Chaco Canyon community, located southwest of Las Vegas, don't look like they're on the cutting edge of water-efficient construction. The only indication might be the native plants in the front yards instead of the typical patches of green lawn.
But since mid-2005, each of the 6,000 houses built by developer KB Home in Chaco Canyon and 50 other Las Vegas-area communities meets strict standards for limiting water use both inside and out. As a result, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a regional agency that manages local water resources, has designated KB Home the area's first Water Smart builder.
KB Home uses a number of techniques to improve the water efficiency of its homes. It starts by installing a valve that reduces the water pressure entering each Water Smart home's plumbing system to 60 pounds per square inch instead of the typical 80. The homes also have low-flow toilets and faucets, hot water recirculators, high-efficiency dishwashers, zoned irrigation systems and outdoor landscapes that use xeriscaping instead of grass. These water-efficient features save an estimated 75,000 gallons per home each year.
In an area of the country where the average yearly rainfall totals less than 5 inches, the cumulative water gain is a boon for the city and a logical move for homebuilders like KB Home. "With drought conditions and explosive growth in Las Vegas, there was a feeling that something had to be done (about water use)," says Grant Lefgren, senior director of purchasing for KB Home Nevada. "We realized that if we made a few changes here and there we could save homeowners a lot of money when it comes to their water bills - and it's the right thing to do."
A Few Small Changes
KB Home may be one of the largest builders to hop on the water conservation bandwagon, but it is by no means alone. In Southern California, several homebuilders have partnered with such regional organizations as the Metropolitan Water District (L.A. and San Diego), the Eastern Municipal Water District (east of L.A.) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to construct "California Friendly" homes, which are outfitted with water-efficient features.
For instance, 175 homes in builder John Laing Homes' Holiday development, an active adult community in Sun City, Calif., are water-efficient thanks to dual-flush toilets, low-flow faucets and showerheads, xeriscaped yards and satellite-controlled irrigation systems. The homes use up to 50 percent less water than typical homes in the region.
While these efforts are applaudable, many homeowners who live in less arid parts of the country might wonder what all the fuss is about. Building a new home - or retrofitting an older one - with water-efficient features seems like an obvious move for those who live in the deserts of the American southwest. But what about everyone else?
The truth is, saving water at home is a smart move no matter where you live. With just a few small changes in your home, you can conserve water and cut your water bill by half. And that's a benefit every homeowner can appreciate.
"Saving water is a lot like going on a diet," says Amy Vickers, a water conservation expert and author of The Handbook of Water Use and Conservation (WaterPlow Press, 2001). "The solution is simple; the hard part is changing one's habits."
Ready to get started? The 10 tips listed below can help you get your feet wet with water efficiency.
1. Low-flow faucets and showerheads
The simplest and least expensive way to reduce your home's water use is to replace existing faucets in the kitchen and bathroom, as well as showerheads, with low-flow versions. For faucets, an inexpensive screw-on aerator that mixes air with water can cut the water flow almost in half, from 4 gallons per minute (gpm) to 2.5 per minute, while keeping pressure high. Low-flow faucets have a flow rate of 1.5-2.5 gpm, compared to 2.5-5 gpm for standard faucets. Select models that use 2.5 gpm or fewer for showerheads. Some models manufactured before 1992 had flow rates of up to 5.5 gpm, so if you have one of these older models in your home, consider switching to a newer version. You could save 20-25 gallons of water per shower.
2. Dual-flush toilets
Federal law mandates that toilets manufactured since 1994 use 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) or fewer - a big improvement over the 3-5-gpf standard for older toilets. But some manufacturers have made toilets even more efficient by equipping them with two distinct flushing mechanisms. The user can choose a normal flush of 1.6 gallons or a super-low flush of 0.8 gallons, so you never use more water than you need. In one 2003 study, the dual-flush Caravelle 305 toilet from Caroma, an Australian company that sells its products in the United States, averaged 1.34 gpf, even fewer than regular low-flow toilets.
3. Hot water recirculator
For a hot shower, you first have to displace the water that's gone cold in the pipe - between 1 and 5 gallons - which heads straight down the drain. To prevent cold-water dumping in its Water Smart homes, KB Home installs a recirculating pump that cycles hot water through plumbing lines. "You don't turn on the shower, then go brush your teeth," says Lefgren, "You turn it on and jump in because it's warm right away." It's fairly inexpensive to retrofit your home with a hot water recirculator. You can choose between systems that cycle continuously, can be scheduled to pump at certain times or that pump on demand at the push of a button.
4. Steam shower
Even among the environmentally conscious there's still room for some bathroom-suite luxury. Albuquerque builder Steve Hale, president of Hale and Sun Construction and a founding member of the Build Green New Mexico program, encourages his clients to opt for steam showers instead of Jacuzzi tubs in their master baths. "I build showers that you can close up fairly tight, then use a steamer for a steam bath." The steamer uses 3-5 gallons of water to create a 20-minute sauna experience, a major water savings over the 80 gallons Hale estimates go down the drain after a soak in a Jacuzzi.
5. High-efficiency appliances
The Energy Star label is the gold standard for efficient energy use among appliances, but the designation also indicates water efficiency for dishwashers and washing machines. The Energy Star-rated Whirlpool Gold Super Capacity Tall Tub Dishwasher, for instance, uses just 6 gallons per cycle, not 12-14 like older models, and its soil sensors ensure that wash cycles use less water if dishes aren't as dirty. Not all Energy Star appliances are created equal, however. Kenmore's HE4t front-loading washer uses an average of just 5,200 gallons of water per year, while some other Energy Star-rated washers use three times as many; so check labels carefully when you're buying.
6. Grey water collection
A grey water system conserves water by reusing it: Instead of going down the drain, the soapy water from a shower or a washing machine fills a surge tank, and is then used to irrigate your yard. One of the more controversial methods of water conservation, grey water collection isn't legal in every state as local leaders wrestle with the ramifications of allowing untreated alkaline water to soak into soil. But for homeowners who install their own grey water systems, the benefits include saving a significant amount of water and extending the life of your septic tank, according to Art Ludwig, an ecological systems designer and owner of Oasis Design in Santa Barbara, Calif. "If you accept that houses generate grey water, the best way to deal with it is usually a grey water system," he says. "Certainly anybody who is ecologically oriented would have a hard time defending any other position." (For information on creating your own grey water irrigation system, visit http://www.greywater.net .)
7. Rainwater collection system
In the Texas Hill Country near San Antonio, well water can be hard to come by, so architect Stephen Colley recommends relying on rainwater instead to his clients who are building homes in the area. Using a non-asphalt roof as a catchment area, a rainwater collection system funnels water into a cistern, then sends it through a series of micron filters and an ultraviolet bath to kill bacteria. Instead of spending money on a water bill, homeowners simply pay for the electricity needed to pump water from their cistern into their home's regular plumbing system. "We cut out the middleman," Colley says. Even a brief rain event on a 2,000-square-foot roof surface could add 650 gallons to the cistern. Homeowner Dan Pomerening of San Antonio uses rainwater collected in two 11,000-gallon cisterns for his 2,700-square-foot house. One unforeseen advantage, he says, is the high quality of the water. "I don't have the calcium buildup that's typical of well water here," he notes.
8. Zoned irrigation controllers
While indoor water use has been dropping since the early 1990s, outdoor residential water use has climbed to 50-70 percent of total water demand. The biggest sponge is your lawn. There are several ways to control the amount of water you use outside. For instance, instead of allowing your sprinklers to dowse the entire lawn, invest in a multi-function timer that can be programmed to water different zones, like trees, shrubs, flower beds and turf. "An older-style irrigation control will give you an on/off button, but a multi-function controller will let you water your trees once a week and your lawn four to five times a week," explains Tracey Berry, a commercial conservation specialist with City of Tucson Water in Arizona. Changing your irrigation schedule with each season will also reduce over-watering and runoff.
9. Lawn humidity sensors
Another way to prevent over-watering is to install a relative humidity sensor, like the Weathermiser from WeatherMiser Energy Efficiency Corp., in Albuquerque, N.M. It monitors humidity and evaporation, and it electronically interrupts your sprinkler cycle if moist conditions render watering unnecessary. A more high-tech version is the WeatherTRAK system, which is installed in John Laing Homes' Holiday homes. The controller receives up-to-the-minute satellite data on weather conditions for your area and adjusts its irrigation of your landscape accordingly. "After the first year, you pay about $7 a month for the satellite service," says Dean Williams, CEO of Silver Oak Technologies, an Irvine, Calif.-based company that supplies irrigation systems. "But you're going to save that much in water, without question."
Finally, an option used by many homeowners, particularly in the Southwest, is to do away with the lawn altogether. Xeriscaping - landscaping with native, drought-tolerant plants instead of turf - is one of the best ways to conserve residential water. To become a Water Smart builder, KB Home completely eliminated grass from front yards in its communities, putting in drought-tolerant vegetation, boulders or stone riverbeds to add beauty. Similarly, John Laing Homes' Holiday development used "a plant palette that isn't like what we do everywhere else - which is basically put in a lawn and flood it," says Vic Goochey, vice president for operations at John Laing Homes' Inland Empire Division in California. The yards do include a small swath of turf, but it's a hybrid variety that requires less water.
Conserving water at home doesn't demand a major sacrifice, but it does require being water-wise. "The more we conserve water, the more we'll have bountiful streams and healthy lakes that our communities can enjoy and be proud of," says Vickers. "But until we get a grip on excessive water use, we'll witness great diminishment in fresh water. That's happening now."
Melody Warnick profiled green architect Joaquin Karcher in the May/June 2006 issue of Smart HomeOwner. She's based in Ames, Iowa.