How to cut your water use in half

These water-saving products and practices save money too

Published: May 28, 2015 06:00 AM

As the saying goes, you can’t squeeze water from a stone. But that’s what California residents have been trying to do as the state’s drought stretches into its fourth year. With hot weather approaching and water scarce in many parts of the country, there are lots of water-saving ideas floating around, but frankly, we admit that some of them seem downright silly.

Picking up an ice cube that’s fallen on the floor and putting it on a plant won’t provide much moisture. Throwing your dog’s leftover water on the garden won’t help much, either, unless you have a really big dog. And you could give all your kids a bath at the same time, but they might object.

California isn’t the only place facing a dry spell. Water managers in 40 states say that even if water conditions remain normal, they expect shortages in some part of their state over the next decade. That’s according to WaterSense, the water conservation partner of the Environmental Protection Agency. That means we all could benefit from California’s efforts to get “more pop per drop,” as a state water authority put it.

The two best ways to save water are by replacing water-wasting appliances and fixtures, and changing your lifestyle and habits. Neither is easy. The first requires an up-front expense and the second a long-term commitment. But do both and you can cut your usage in half or better. That’s good for the earth and your budget.

Outdoor watering accounts for almost 30 percent of water use, according to an analysis published by Environment Magazine. But toilets (19 percent), washing machines (15 percent), showers (12 percent), and faucets (11 percent) also use substantial amounts. Then there’s the 10 percent of water lost to leaks that are not always easy to detect.

In addition to plugging leaks, five of the most effective ways to save water indoors, says Environment Magazine, are to install low-flow toilets, use a high-efficiency washer, reduce shower time to five minutes, wash only full loads of laundry, and reduce toilet flushes by 25 percent. Buying a more efficient dishwasher and installing low-flow showerheads also help.

Despite good intentions, switching appliances and fixtures can sometimes have unintended consequences. Folks who install a low-flow shower may take longer showers, and those with low-flow toilets may flush more often thinking that they aren’t getting the oomph they once did. That’s where Consumer Reports can help. In our tests of those and other products, we measure not only efficiency but performance. For example, nine low-flow toilets made our list of top toilet picks because all were very good to excellent at removing solid waste.

Water-saving bathroom and kitchen fixtures that meet federal WaterSense standards carry that label, and appliances that meet federal water and energy standards earn the blue Energy Star. Both agencies encourage their partners to reward energy and water-saving behavior with rebates, as do many utilities.

Following are some meaningful ways to save water around the house and yard as well as top-performing water misers from our tests of washing machines, dishwashers, toilets, and showerheads.

Save water in the kitchen

Bosch 500 Series SHP65T55UC uses 5 gallons per load.

When it comes to wasting water in the kitchen, the dishwasher isn’t the culprit, it’s probably you. Too many people rinse their dishes clean before putting them in a dishwasher designed to do that very job—and do it better than you can. Five ways to save:

  1. Replace your old dishwasher. Energy Star dishwashers are about 15 percent more water efficient than standard models. The most miserly use only 4 to 6 gallons during a normal cycle. Bonus: They’re quieter, too.
  2. Wash only full loads of dishes. For maximum efficiency, load your dishwasher according to the instructions in your owner’s manual, which will make the most of the sprays in your machine.
  3. Keep your drinking water in the refrigerator instead of running the tap until it’s cool. Designate one glass or water bottle per person for the day so that you only have to wash it once. 
  4. Give pots and pans a soak instead of scrubbing them under running water.
  5. Install a WaterSense aerator on the kitchen faucet to reduce flow to less than 1 gallon per minute. It’s a cheap fix for only pennies. Avoid running the garbage disposal, and the water that entails, by composting your food scraps.

Save water in the laundry room

Samsung WA48H7400AP uses 12 gallons per load.

The worst washing machines in our tests use well over 25 gallons of water. That’s more than twice as much as miserly models, which use 10 to 12 gallons for an 8-pound load. Front-loaders are the most water efficient followed by HE top-loaders and agitator top-loaders. Five ways to save:

  1. Replace your old washer. Energy Star washing machines use about 40 percent less water than a regular washer. Bonus: Because high-efficiency models spin faster, the clothes need less drying time.
  2. Pick the appropriate water level setting—often small, medium, large—for the load if that’s how your machine works. Front-loaders and most HE top-loaders have auto-load sensing, and a few of the latest agitator top-loaders have it, too. That feature automatically determines the load size and the amount of water needed.
  3. Measure laundry detergent and use HE detergents for HE top-loaders and front-loaders. Regular detergents are too sudsy, and using too much can cause high-efficiency washers to use more water by extending the rinse cycle.
  4. Do only full loads but don’t overstuff. Using cold water whenever possible helps save on energy costs.
  5. Pick the right soil setting for the load. Choosing the heavy-duty setting can use more water and extend wash time. The normal setting works for most loads.

Save water in the bathroom

American Standard FloWise Transitional 3-Function runs at 2 gallons per minute.

More water flows through the bathroom than any other room in the house. In fact, bathrooms account for more than half of all indoor water use. But advances in plumbing technology mean that newer faucets, showers, and toilets use significantly less water than older models and still deliver the rinse, spray, and flush you expect. Five ways to save:

  1. Replace your old toilets—all of them. Older toilets use as many as 6 gallons per flush while new WaterSense toilets do the job with 1.28 gallons or less. With new toilets, the average family can reduce water use by 20 percent per toilet.
  2. Instead of baths, take short showers, and cut your shower time to 5 minutes. If you’re brave, turn off the water when lathering up or shampooing. And don’t let the water run when brushing your teeth or shaving.
  3. Replace your old showerhead. Standard showerheads use 2.5 gallons of water per minute. WaterSense showerheads use no more than 2 gpm.
  4. Replace your old faucets. Replacing leaky or inefficient faucets and aerators with WaterSense models can save the average family 500 gallons of water per year.
  5. Don’t use your toilet as a garbage can. It wastes water and can clog your pipes. Toilet paper is designed to disintegrate. Tissues, most wipes, and dental floss are not.

Save water outdoors

A soaker hose saves on sprays.

Not only do lawns soak up more water than any other plant in your yard, but homeowners tend to overwater their grass to keep it green. An established lawn needs only 1 inch of water per week in the growing season. Pouring on the water can actually harm your turf if not your budget. Five ways to save:

  1. Let the grass grow longer by raising your lawn mower’s cutting height. Longer blades of grass help shade each other, reducing evaporation. Stop fertilizing; it only promotes new growth. When you mow, leave grass clippings on the lawn to retain moisture.
  2. Don’t wash off your driveway, steps, or deck with water. Sweep them instead or use a leaf blower. If you use a sprinkler, direct the spray to the grass and garden and not the sidewalk and street. Wash your car with water from a bucket or go to a commercial car wash that recycles water.
  3. When it rains, collect the water in barrels or install gutters and downspouts that direct the runoff to your plants and trees.
  4. Reduce the size of your lawn. Consider replacing grass with mulch, ground cover, drought-tolerant plants, or ornamental grasses. Weeds compete with other plants for water so weed regularly. And ditch the water features unless they use recycled water. To find the best plants for your region, consult your county cooperative extension or a local nursery.
  5. If watering is permitted, use soaker hoses or drip irrigation to apply water slowly and evenly. Buy a hose nozzle with an automatic shut-off. Water early in the day when evaporation rates are low and more water is absorbed.
Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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