Friday, June 10, 2011

Saving the Water

I'm not a fan of Facebook. There I said it. Let the bashing begin.

The problem is, whether it's something on my end or some quirk of Facebook, that my connection is incredibly slow, and I'm too impatient and too busy to wait for it. As Deus Ex Machina says, "Facebook is a dog."

Today, there was a message posted to my Facebook Wall about water usage and water saving tips, but I can't answer on Facebook. It's just too frustratingly slow. As an alternative, I thought I'd put my thoughts here.

First, I don't know if our usage is really that low. Our last water bill was less than $40, and that represents three months worth of usage. When I was working on my book, I figured that our daily usage was about 54 gallons for our household. According to this website average usage is between 80 and 100 gallons per person, per day which seems like a lot. This website claims that the daily per person usage for Americans is between 525 liters and 600 liters (which is over 138 gallons), which seems really excessive (especially considering we use only 54 gallons/day for our whole family), and so I'm not sure I believe those numbers.

But if they are true, my family uses 10% of the average daily usage, which just doesn't seem likely to me.

So, what do we do? Nothing really unusual or extraordinary ... really.

  • We practice the "if it's yellow let it mellow' principle ... and some members of my family don't ever flush toilet, regardless of the color or consistency of the deposit. This is probably the biggest water saver, because we don't have low flush toilets, and with four of us here most of the day, the toilets would get flushed a lot.

  • I always do a full load of laundry, and only once a day, at most. I don't know if this saves any water, but I do know that one load of laundry in my top-load machine uses 40 gallons of water. So, I try to be conservative with the laundry.

  • We have rain barrels for watering the gardens and giving our animals water, although we do use the hose to full up the duck pool during the summer.

  • We wash dishes by hand, and now each of us has a special cup/plate/bowl, which reduces the amount of dishes overall which means less water is needed to clean them.

  • Whenever possible, we share showers, which is my favorite tip (it's nice to have someone to wash my back ;).

  • And then, silly stuff like, we don't leave the water running when we're brushing teeth and we make sure all of the leaks are fixed.

Nothing we do is particularly novel or original. It's stuff that everyone recommends, and I don't know that any of my examples are particularly helpful.

It might be helpful for me to explain why we started our water conservation efforts in the first place, and it has a lot less to do with reducing what comes into than house than it does reducing what goes out.

In January 2004, some brakish water backed up into the shower. We called the plumber and discovered that our leach field was failing. It was originally built to 1970s standards for a smaller house with fewer people. The original house was expanded from one bedroom to three and from an elderly couple to a growing family. At one time, we had seven people living in our house. The original septic system was never meant to handle the wastewater of seven people (two who were in cloth diapers) - a fact we did not discover until it was too late.

We had to have the entire septic system replaced, but it took several months to gather the proper permits, get the septic design for our non-conforming lot, and save the money for the project. In the meantime, we had to be very careful what we put into the tank - and VERY careful not to dumpt too much water down the drain at one time, because it drained into the leach field very slowly.

Through that experience, I've learned more about septic systems than I ever wanted to know (which is really the biggest reason I want to switch from toilet paper to cloth wipes and why I use a Diva cup and cloth napkins rather than disposables, and why we never dump coffee grounds down the drain, and why we're careful to scrap grease into the trash or give it to the chickens rather than dumping it down the drain). I also learned a lot about the average usage. Like it was the plumber who told me that the average washing machine uses 40 gallons of water.

When the new septic system was installed, a pumpstation had to be included, because of the lack of grade (the leach field couldn't be gravity fed). Essentially, we had two tanks, one that fills from the house and one that serves as an overflow. When the overflow tank is full, the electric pump kicks on the pump the excess water into the leach field. The pump using electricity, and in the interest of conserving electricity, we don't want to use the pump very often, and so we have continued to be aware of how much water goes out of the house.

The result is that less water coming in means less water going out.

In short, for us, it was not about saving money on what we were paying for water, because our water bill has never really been that high, but rather on saving the $10,000 septic system that we had to have installed.

That's it. I know ... not very helpful, but what might be helpful is to think from the opposite end from trying to limit what comes in to reducing what goes out, because the natural consequence of controlling what goes out is to reduce what comes in.

And that's true for a lot more than just water ;).


  1. Can your water company tell you the approximate number of gallons of water used during the billing cycle?

    We pay extraordinarily high water/sewer bills - $65/month for '2 units' for 2 of us. We just don't have the fresh water resources here in FL. On Monday I'm calling to see what the estimated gallon usage is - I'm sure we can knock it down although we do all the things, except hand dishwashing, that you do.

  2. Bellen - You actually use a great deal less water than we use. According to a bill from November, we use 7 units per month. When I was researching my book, I found that a "unit" is 1 cubic yard, which is equal to 202 gallons. In November, we used seven units per month, or about 1400 gallons of water, or about 47 gallons per day.

    If your water company measures water in the same way, you're using 400 gallons per month or about 13 gallons per day, which is, actually, quite good.

    It sounds like you're also being charged for waste water disposal, which may be part of why your bill is so high. Is it possible to capture some of your gray water and use it in the garden? For instance, can you do the dishes in a pan of water and then, dump the pan at the base of some fruit trees? I don't know how your water/sewer bill works, but I hear that some places determine usage based on what goes out rather than what comes in.

  3. Wendy - yes, we are billed for both water and sewage and it is listed separately on the bill.

    We do reuse as much in-house water as possible - cooking water, veggie rinse water - but the dishwasher (only used every 3 days) and washer water go out.

    Will also have to ask about how we're charged - if it's in or out usage. Thanks for the tip

  4. I've been a huge water-saver for years - which I think is a throwback to memories of my mom's farm where she grew up. They had a well, but it was hand dug and would empty easily, so everyone had to 'let it mellow' and be very careful how much water they use.

    Mind if I add in some more ways I save water?

    1. I do a sponge bath many days, and only shower/bathe about every 3rd day. If my hair gets greasy, I often wash it quickly in the sink and keep the plug in. I use the grey water to wash cleaning rags in - or at least get them soaking and get out any stains.

    2. We are huge bath fans in our house. I love the water volcano-hot, so I go first. If I'm super grubby, I may do a quick sponge-clean of the armpit area (for example) before hopping into the tub. If I've been playing in mud, I might quickly rinse under the shower, turn off the water and hop out, squeegie the tub real quick, and then fill it up with my piping hot water. When I'm done with the basics and the water has cooled a bit, I invite the little ones in and help them bathe. When we're all done, hubby will hop in (after possibly a quick sponging at the sink if needed). After we've all had a bath, I sometimes use the grey water to start soaking laundry (it's got all that soap in it already, might as well use it!).

    3. That soaking laundry then gets carefully put into a big bucket and thrown in the washing machine. Because the laundry is already saturated, it will take less water to fill up the machine. I also use less laundry soap because they've already been soaking (for about 20 mins usually) in soapy water. I've done this in a regular washer as well as a Wonderwash.

    4. Urine as fertilizer. Yup, I said it. It's true. Just pee into a (labeled for the purpose) pitcher and perhaps add about a cup of water (but not needed). Then it gets put right out into the garden. Just be careful not to pour it directly onto the plant, as it can burn it. Many plants LOVE it - most especially squash, tomatoes, and peppers. By not peeing into the toilet, naturally there is less need to flush.

    We're considering a composting toilet for our new house (cross fingers, as it's not a done deal yet for the house). It would be built off the back of the garage, and would be great for an outhouse when we have summer parties and such. Humanure can be composted and then safely used in about 3 years if done right...although I'm not brave enough to consider using it on the veggie garden.

  5. Thanks for the great suggstions, Witchy Mom.

    Last summer we did the bath-to-laundry water saving method, but had to stop in the fall, because we were using our bath tub for storing all of our squash ;).