Q: I hear that most of North Carolina is in a drought. I'm worried that if I keep using water like I always have, I'll have to drill a deeper well. I try to take short showers and have replaced leaky toilet flappers. What are other cost-effective ways for me to cut down on my water use?
You bring up an excellent question at an important time. Droughts cause groundwater levels to drop and lessen the quantity of water in our lakes and streams. We depend on groundwater for crop irrigation, manufacturing and electricity generation.
The easiest way to cut down on water use is to know where you use the most water. For households that water their lawn or garden, irrigation tends to be the highest water user. If you don't irrigate, looking at water use inside of your home is the next step.
At home, you typically use water in the kitchen, laundry room and bathrooms.
Kitchens are easy. Change the nozzle (aerator) on your kitchen faucet to 2.2 gallons per minute (gpm). Scrape dishes clean and make sure you're running full dishwasher loads. When purchasing a new dishwasher, make sure that it has the Energy Star label.
The laundry room is where the most water is used in your home. A non-Energy Star washer uses about 40 gallons per load while an Energy Star washer uses 15 to 23 gallons per load. If you're not ready to purchase a new washer, make sure you are running full washer loads.
The bathroom is my favorite place to save water. We all are grateful for hot water on a winter morning. I have lived with people who love hot showers so much that they empty the water heater as a daily ritual. A low-flow showerhead is a terrific way to save money and maintain peace at home. I suggest a sneaky tactic when replacing showerheads. Saying "low-flow" causes complaints to begin before the showerhead has even been installed. The alternate reaction is, "Now I can take a hot shower for an hour!" Go ahead and install low-flow showerheads and then wait for complaints from your children, in-laws or roommates. In my experience, I ended up with happy in-laws grateful for a hot shower after four people showered in one morning. My new showerhead has also allowed me to run the clothes washer or dishwasher (by accident) while my spouse is showering. In the past, that would have resulted in a cold shower for my spouse and me feeling bad.
Negative perceptions of low-flow showerheads are because showerheads are not created equal. Stick with WaterSense labeled products. They are tested for gallon-per-minute flow and spray quality. The spray quality is important for washing away soap and shampoo. WaterSense showerheads use 2 gpm or less. What's been sold in hardware stores and installed in new housing since the 1990s is 2.5 gpm. Consider going a step further with 1.5 gpm or 1 gpm showerheads. Your decision will depend on how much hot water you want to save or how many teenage girls live in your home.
Toilets should be replaced if they use more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf). The gpf is typically listed on the top of the bowl or inside of the tank. Toilet replacement is a more costly solution if you're paying a plumber. If you decide to replace your toilets, stick with the WaterSense brand. It's kind of gross, but thankfully WaterSense makes sure that you don't have to flush twice after doing business on the throne.
Lavatory faucet aerators tend to cost $2 and a five‑year‑old can install it for you. Make sure that the flow is good enough that you can wash soap off your hands, or play it safe and stick with WaterSense labeled aerators.
As with any home improvement, make sure that you are using products that keep you comfortable and help you to save water, electricity and money. For a groundwater user, consuming less water will help keep the water table high for your family and neighbors who share your aquifer.