Kitchens offer plenty of water saving opportunities
You can achieve significant kitchen water savings by changing a few water-wasting habits and by being more conscious of how you use water in the kitchen. Although only about 10-15% of a typical household’s water use occurs in the kitchen, if you have already done what you can to save water in the bathroom, the laundry room, and in your garden or yard, your kitchen water use can be a much larger percentage of that reduced total.
What are the major ways we use water in the kitchen? If you think of a kitchen as a place we prepare food and then clean up the resulting dishes, we can logically break down the task flow and find kitchen water savings in each of the steps:
- Keeping our hands clean
- Thawing frozen foods
- Washing produce
- Cooking food
- Drinking water
- Washing up (and a digression on hot water)
- Getting rid of waste food
Click the links above to find out how you can achieve kitchen water savings in each step, or just read on – it’s not that complicated!
But first, let’s not forget one of the basic kitchen water savings techniques: use a faucet aerator. Most kitchen sink taps have an aerator on them these days. But if yours doesn’t, be sure to get one. An aerator injects air into the stream of water coming out of the tap, and allows less water to do a better job with rinsing and washing.
It’s important to have clean hands when cooking, and when eating! But that doesn’t mean you need to run five gallons of water down the drain while you (1) wait for the water to warm up, (2) adjust it cooler because it got so hot it scalded you, (3) suds up with the tap running, and (4) rinse extensively. There is a way to wash your hands while keeping kitchen water savings in mind.
First off, do you really need to wash your hands in hot water? In many homes the water can be pretty cold but if you wash quickly, you probably won’t notice the cold.
Second, don’t let the water run while you’re not using it! Let the water run while you wet your hands, then turn the tap off. (Better yet, if you’ve captured water in the sink from a previous use and it’s not too dirty, use that.) Soap up, and then turn the water on to rinse off.
Third, don’t put on too much soap. The more soap you use, the more water it takes to rinse the soap off.
Finally, don’t turn the water on full blast to wet your hands or rinse off the suds. See how low a flow you can get down to and still get your hands clean quickly.
If you’re cooking and find that you have to keep rinsing food off your hands, keep a rag handy and wipe your hands on that instead of constantly cleaning. I often wipe pancake batter, cooking oils, and other foods off on a rag rather than wash my hands every two minutes while I’m cooking.
I’ve seen some people suggest using a hand sanitizer in the kitchen. I’m not keen on this as a way to achieve kitchen water savings: the benefit of hand sanitizers is that you can sterilize your hands even in the absence of clean running water. I’m not convinced you want the chemicals from the hand sanitizer getting into your food! But if clean running water is really scarce, it might make sense.
Thawing frozen foods
You may be tempted to thaw frozen foods – especially meats – by running cold water over them. It can take gallons and gallons of water to thaw a steak in this way.
Instead, if you’re serious about kitchen water savings, plan ahead. Take the food out of the freezer and thaw it in the refrigerator for an hour (for a steak), or overnight (a broiler chicken), or for 24 hours (a big turkey). Not only will you save a lot of water, but the thawing food will suck heat out of the refrigerator compartment, which means less electricity will be needed to keep the refrigerator cool.
If you must thaw food in the sink, put the plug in and use as little cold water as needed to cover the food, and no hot water. When the food is thawed, use the remaining water as a prerinse for dishes (but don’t wash food in water that was used to thaw meat!).
And don’t forget that handy thaw cycle on your microwave. While it will use more energy than thawing in still water in the sink, it will help with kitchen water savings.
Always clean out your sink thoroughly, and then use the sink plug, to wash fruits and vegetables. Begin with the cleaner produce so that you can reuse that same water to wash dirtier produce. For example, if preparing a salad, wash the tomatoes and reuse the same water for the lettuce. (If you wash the lettuce first you’ll have a lot of dirt in the water for the tomatoes.)
Save the water you used for washing produce to do a prerinse on the dishes, or to rinse bits of food off your hands as you cook. And if you’re really keen on kitchen water savings you can rinse your produce in a plastic basin, and then pour that water into a watering can to reuse on your garden or your house plants.
Cooking food with water
Most of the water use in kitchens goes towards washing, not cooking, but you can get better kitchen water savings – and better energy use – by being careful about the water you use for cooking.
Where possible, try to reuse hot water used in cooking. If you’ve got spaghetti and green beans on the menu, boil the pasta, and drop the beans in the pasta water about three minutes from the end (in a strainer, if possible). We do this with corn on the cob as well. Or when you’re ready to drain the spaghetti, put the colander on top of another pot and drain into that; you can use that hot water to start cooking the beans.
If you’re just cooking vegetables (and can’t take advantage of the pasta tip), try steaming the vegetables instead of boiling them. An inch of water in the bottom of a sauce pan cooks vegetables almost as fast as completely submerging them in boiling water. And fewer of the nutrients are washed off.
Don’t use too much hot water for the cooking task at hand. If you’re cooking mac and cheese for your children’s lunch, you don’t need to boil three gallons of water! A half gallon will do.
Particularly for water used to cook vegetables, you can put the plug in your sink and strain into the sink. The water will probably be boiling hot at first, but will have cooled down to the perfect temperature to do dishes by the time you’re done eating. This works well for corn, beans, carrots etc. but not so well for starchy vegetables like potatoes. It’s hard to wash dishes in starchy water!
Keep a water pitcher handy – either in the fridge if you like it cold, or on the counter if you like it room temperature. You won’t have to keep running the tap until the water is cool for every glass of water.
Reuse the same glass or mug for your day’s drinking. At my parents’ cottage, everyone starts their visit with a particular coffee mug (every one is unique), and uses that mug for their entire stay. It’s used for tea, coffee, water, and juice. Other than needing an occasional quick rinse, the same cup can be used over and over. We put them in the dishwasher every 2-3 days, but by reusing the same mug for 6-9 meals straight we cut down on dishwasher use quite a bit.
If you don’t want to have assigned mugs, you can still boost your kitchen water savings by leaving the water glasses on the table after lunch – then they’re ready for dinner. And the water sitting in the glasses will have had plenty of time to off-gas the chlorine, if you’re like me and drink tap water. You’ll save both the drinking water in the glasses, and the water needed to wash them repeatedly.
Don’t use a reverse osmosis filter unless you really need it. Reverse osmosis filters are terrible for kitchen water savings: they use at least two gallons of water for every gallon of filtered water they produce. Many other types of home water filters produce equally good drinking water and don’t produce any water waste.
Measure water before you boil a kettle for tea. People tend to overfill their kettle and then leave a pint or more of hot water sitting in the kettle, which is a waste of heat, and of water if you later dump it out before starting the next pot of tea.
I always measure my tea water by pouring cold water into the teapot, then pouring the full tea pot of water into the kettle.
If you want to pre-warm your tea pot, wait for the water to reach boiling, pour a little of the kettle water into the tea pot and swish around, then pour the tea pot water back into the kettle and bring to a boil again. That way none of the water is wasted.
And if you’ve made too much tea – save the leftover tea. You can pour it into a glass jar and leave it on the counter to be heated up later, or add sugar and lemon juice and refrigerate it to be drunk later as iced tea.
As for coffee, if you made too much, pour some into a thermos for use later, or into a glass jar to be reheated later. Most people think reheated coffee tastes awful. It does, if it’s had time to oxydize. But if you pour the leftover coffee into a bottle with little air space (by choosing a small enough bottle) and store it sealed for later use, the reheated coffee will taste fine even the next morning.
It drives me crazy to watch some people do dishes. They leave the sink drain open; they run hot water continuously; they squeeze soap into the sponge or onto the scrub brush again and again; and gallons of perfectly good hot soapy water go down the drain without having accomplished much. Kitchen water savings in other areas can be completely undone by people’s poor dish washing habits.
The kitchen sink plug is one of the best ways to attain significant kitchen water savings. Make sure the sink is clean, then plug it up, and fill the sink a quarter full with hot water. Add soap. Clean the dishes with that.
Even better for kitchen water savings is to use the dishwasher. Most modern dishwashers – and especialy those with an ENERGY STAR rating, or equivalent rating for other countries – use very little water. You might think you are more efficient than a dishwasher, but you probably aren’t. In study after study, done in the European Union, the United States, Japan, and elsewhere, subjects asked to wash dishes by hand almost always use significantly more water, energy, and soap than an energy efficient dishwasher for the amount of dishes washed. And yet most people would probably tell you they use less water to wash dishes by hand than their dishwasher does. These studies have also shown that even people with dishwashers still hand wash, or at least prerinse, many dishes that would be more efficiently washed in the dishwasher.
When you use your dishwasher, you’ll get better energy and kitchen water savings if you use the hot water feature – the extra hot water cleans the dishes better with less water – and if you use the smart wash feature, since it stops cleaning sooner if it detects that the dishes are already clean.
Don’t pre-rinse your dishes before placing in the dishwasher, or if you do, pre-rinse with gray water – water left over in your sink from some other task like washing the pots and pans, rinsing the produce, or captured water drained from cooked foods. If you feel you have to pre-rinse your dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, you may need a dishwasher tune-up, or a new, more effective dishwasher.
Don’t run your dishwasher until it’s full. It’s more efficient to wash a couple of table knives by hand, and wait until after dinner to run the dishwasher, than to run it half full before dinner because you’ve run out of kitchen knives!
One last dishwasher tip: don’t use the dishwasher for really large pots or other items that take a ton of space – chances are you can wash such pots by hand more efficiently.
Other ways of achieving kitchen water savings when washing up:
Reuse dishes where possible. If you had toast for breakfast, brush the crumbs off the plate and save it for lunch. It really doesn’t need to be washed.
When remodelling your kitchen: Be careful what type of sink you choose. Our kitchen designer tried to sell us on a massive single basin sink because that was the latest style. But for washing dishes it would have meant three times as much water to fill the sink two inches full. I suspect most people who choose these sinks wind up washing dishes by just continually running water.
If you are already stuck with a large sink, use a plastic basin inside the sink to minimize the amount of water you use to do dishes.
Don’t pre-rinse – pre-clean! Use a rubber spatula to remove more food waste from dishes. I often use a rubber spatula not just to scrape away food waste, but to make sure every bit of still edible food from the cooking dish makes it into the Tupperware. Why throw out perfectly good (and often delicious) food?
Having some good bread at the table is a good way to motivate people to mop up the sauces on their plate at the end of the main course. One less plate to pre-rinse!
Watch that soap! Don’t overdo the dishwashing soap when doing dishes by hand – you’ll only have to rinse them more.
Just-in-time washing: In some cases, it makes sense to wash a dish as soon as you’re done with it. It’s generally better to clean off cooked foods while they’re still warm, and to clean off foods like cooked grains before they dry off and become really hard to remove. Don’t leave things to soak if you can clean them right away.
Deal with spills and stains quickly. While they’re still wet they can be wiped off with a damp sponge or a dry cloth. Once they’re caked on it can take a lot of water to soak them off.
Hot water has two price tags: the more hot water you use, the more energy you use to heat it, and the more water you’re using overall.
If you just need a tiny bit of hot water, heat cold water on the stove rather than running the hot water tap.
Using a point of use water heater can reduce waste by giving you hot water sooner, so less water runs down the drain while you are waiting for the water to warm up.
Getting rid of waste food
Garbage disposal units are one of the twentieth century’s most wasteful inventions. They are very convenient but use a lot of water to flush food down, and they overburden our wastewater treatment plants. First of all, try not to produce food waste, by cooking only as much as people are likely to eat. For kitchen scraps and other food waste, start your own composter or worm farm (vermicomposter), or if you have it, use your municipal composting collection.
Other kitchen water saving tips
One of the best ways of attaining kitchen water savings is always to think in terms of downcycling – moving water from a cleaner to a dirtier stage while extracting maximum use from it.
When I cook, I try to leave the plug in the kitchen sink to capture whatever water I’m using for a task. While the water may be a little dirty, there’s always another task that can be accomplished with that dirtier water.
An obvious application of this rule is to start washing cleaner dishes before greasier ones – although as I stated above, using a dishwasher for most or all of your dishes will give you more kitchen water savings than washing stuff by hand. But if you’ve got a sink of ‘gray water’ left over from washing mushrooms, or scrubbing a pot, you might as well use it to wash off the plates before you put them in the dishwasher. You’re not using any extra water, and you just might make the dishwasher more efficient!