Easy-to-use products that will cut your home water bills
There are water saving products for just about every room in your house, and for the yard and garden too. In our house we have installed low-flow faucet aerators, dual-flush toilets, an ENERGY STAR dishwasher, and an ENERGY STAR front loading washer. Outside we have a rain barrel for rainwater harvesting, a battery operated water timer to make sure the garden gets watered every three days, and plenty of drought tolerant ground cover that only needs watering during long dry spells in the summer.
On this page I will give a brief overview of some of the water saving products that I feel will help you achieve home water savings with only a modest financial investment. But first let’s consider the general categories in which these water saving products belong.
Water saving product categories
We can broadly group water saving products according to how they help you:
- Measure water usage so you can determine where your water bill is being spent (water meters, spray nozzles with built in water meter, rain gauges)
- Reduce tap water flow (faucet aerators, low flow shower heads)
- Reduce toilet water consumption (low flush toilets, dual flush toilets and kits, waterless urinal products)
- Automatically control water usage (gardening timers, moisture sensors)
- Reduce evaporation and runoff in gardens, lawns, fields (drip irrigation systems, soaker hoses)
- Cut hot water waste – more to save energy than water, but sometimes you save water as a side benefit (hot water shutoff showerheads, hot water heater timers, hot water recyclers, point of use hot water heaters)
- Replace a water-intensive process with something that uses less water (antibacterial hand gel, waterless car wash, water broom)
- Efficient appliances such as ENERGY STAR rated dishwashers and washing machines are primarily designed to use less energy than their non-ENERGY STAR rated counterparts, but they accomplish this in part by using less water.
Let’s look at each group of water saving products in a little more detail:
Measure water usage
The best way to save water at home is to start by understanding where your water is being used. At a household level your house water meter is a good place to look, and at the very least you should be keeping track of your consumption through your water utility bill (if you’re hooked up to a municipal water supply).
There aren’t many water saving products to help you measure household water use at individual outlets, but you can buy your own digital flow meter to connect to your household plumbing and measure household water usage, but this type of device is quite expensive and probably won’t pay for itself in water savings if you are already metered. It is a worthwhile investment if you’re on your own wellwater and are trying to control usage.
Another water saving product is a garden hose water meter which you can use to measure the water consumption over time of an outdoor hose – useful if you want to know how much water you’re using on keeping your lawn green.
There are also garden hose spray heads that measure water usage but I haven’t found one of good enough quality to recommend. I also think a garden hose water meter is a more versatile tool (you can use it to measure any water use on a hose).
A Total Dissolved Solids meter doesn’t measure water usage directly, instead it measures the total dissolved solids (a measure of how well your water filtration or purification system is operating) at both the intake and output of the system. When the readings get too close together, you know it’s time to replace the filter.
A rain gauge helps you determine how much water your garden is getting naturally, so you can decide when it needs a little helping hand from the garden sprinkler.
Reduce tap water flow
Faucet aerators are pretty much standard water saving products in new kitchen and bathroom tap installations. An aerator draws air into the tap outlet and mixes it with the water so you get a bubbly stream of water. The result is a significantly reduced water flow with pretty much the same cleaning power for activities like rinsing off a dish or washing your hands.
Low flow shower heads are water saving products that accomplish the same thing for the shower. While a typical old-fashioned shower might have had a flow rate of 3 or even 6 gallons per minute (GPM), new low-flow showerheads cut that down to 2 or even as low as 1.25 gallons per minute. You get almost the same cleaning power, and the same intensity of spray, but using less water.
Washers shouldn’t be underestimated either. I strongly recommend you buy a package of assorted household tap washers, and whenever you notice a tap starting to drop when shut off, shut off and drain the water supply, open the tap assembly, and replace the worn out washer components. The longer you wait to replace a washer in a leaking tap, the more you can damage the tap itself, and the more likely you’ll reach a point at which you simply can’t shut the water off.
Reduce toilet water usage
An obvious place to start in reducing your household toilet water usage is to abide by the maxim:
If it’s yellow, let it mellow,
If it’s brown, flush it down.
A more elegant solution to the problem is to install either a dual flush toilet, or to install a dual flush retrofit kit into an existing toilet.
A dual flush toilet provides two flush buttons or two flush positions on its lever: one for liquids and toilet tissues, and one for solids. It takes more water to cleanly flush down solids, and it’s kind of wasteful to use that larger volume of water every time you piddle, when a lighter flush will do. We installed a dual flush kit on our existing low-flow toilet and it seems to use about a third as much water for the pee flush as for the poo flush (I won’t apologize for being explicit here – we all do it!).
The only problem we’ve had with this system is that we are still abiding by the above maxim, and sometimes things get mellow enough (with enough extra toilet tissue) that the pee flush just doesn’t do the trick.
A low flush toilet is what you’ll get when you buy a new toilet. The older the toilet, the more water it tends to use. A toilet from before the 50’s (there are still a few around) might use 8 gallons or more, one from the 70’s about 5 gallons; one from the 80’s down to 3 gallons, and current toilets use about 1.5 gallons per flush. If you have an old toilet and it gets more than a couple of flushes a week, you should definitely consider replacing it with a newer low flush (or better yet dual flush) model.
You can buy various contraptions to help you reduce toilet water usage by recycling gray water – water that has had one use and is no longer potable, but is still good for activities like toilet flushing. For example, you can buy a diverter valve that diverts drain water from your shower into your toilet tank or into a backup reservoir that feeds your toilet tank. You might as well get two uses out of the same water.
Automatically control water usage
We have a battery-controled gardening timer on our outdoor spigot; it can handle up to four outlets (it comes with a 4-way tap splitter) and can be programmed for a set amount of watering, at a specific time of day on selected days of the week or at 1-2-3 day intervals, for each tap. In the hottest part of the summer we set it to run at 5am every other day; once the weather cools a bit we set it to run every three days. And we can shut it off when there’s been rain in the previous day or so, just by turning off the tap that it connects into.
I review a number of models of Gilmour water timer, some of which are solidly built and great for keeping your garden watered while you’re away (or while you’re there for that matter), and some of which aren’t terribly reliable.
(Sometimes if I wake up at night and realize it’s raining outside, I’ll just run downstairs and shut off the whole house water supply in the basement, which is better than going outside half naked in the wee hours! By the time we’re up and about and needing water, the gardening water timer thinks it has done its job and we can turn the main supply back on without watering the rain-soaked garden.)
Automatic ground moisture sensors can be tied into a water timer or drip irrigation system to prevent an automatic watering system from turning on when the ground is already wet enough (whether because of recent rainfall or a lack of sunshine to evaporate water already in the soil from a previous watering).
A flow-meter water timer is a variation on a gardening timer: rather than measure the length of time the hose is on, you set it to the amount of water you want dispensed, and it shuts off the outlet once that volume of water has passed through it.
Composting toilets are not the most popular of water saving products – I haven’t met many people who even want one in their house – although they don’t use any water at all. They are bulky and expensive, but our failure to use them is more a reflection of the fact that we don’t do full cost accounting on water supplies and sanitation systems, than on flaws in composting toilet design.
We have an outhouse at my parents’ cottage, which we use when the indoor plumbing is on the fritz. The outhouse uses no water at all, and is a good source of reading material if you like old National Geographics!
Finally, don’t forget one of the cheapest water saving products — a brick in your toilet tank! This is great for older tanks that tend to be oversized. Putting in a brick or two gives you the same water pressure (because the height of the water line determines the pressure in a toilet tank) but the bricks displace a little water so you save a bit on each flush.
Reduce evaporation and runoff
When you water a garden or a field of food plants by spraying water over top of the plants, much of the water tends to evaporate before it has done the plants any good. Water sprayed on the leaves may evaporate, and water in the top few inches of the soil will evaporate once the sun starts beating down on it.
Drip irrigation systems are water saving products that address this problem by letting you lay out a network of hoses with small drip outlets that can drop water right at the base of specific plants. It takes a lot less water to keep a plant happy this way, since no water is wasted on the leaves (where it just evaporates), and most of the water goes into the soil in a spot that is shaded by the plant’s foliage, so again it doesn’t evaporate.
Soaker hoses work on the same principle but in a somewhat more crude fashion. These water saving products have a semipermeable surface, or one perforated with tiny holes, so that water comes out along the entire length of the hose but at a low enough flow rate that only the ground immediately around the soaker hose is watered, instead of the foliage above.
When we put in a new maple tree in our sunny front garden we bought a tree soaker ring, which is a circular soaker hose you wrap around the base of the tree. We put this on the digital water timer so that the tree got water every single day for the first summer. This gave the tree a great head start and saved it from the fate of many city trees, which tend to die within the first two years of transplanting while they are trying to establish a viable root system.
One of the main benefits of water saving products that control evaporation in gardens and fields is that, when water evaporates, it leaves behind the salts and minerals that were dissolved in the water, and over time these saline and mineral deposits make the soil less and less productive. While not strictly a water saving product, a sodium PPM water tester is a useful tool for anyone wanting to know how much sodium is in their water. It can be especially useful for hydroponics growers, since hydroponically grown plants, being fed on a liquid diet, have to have their sodium level carefully monitored.
Cut hot water waste
There are plenty of products that will help you heat your hot water more efficiently,. But will a more efficient hot water heater do anything to save on your water bill? Perhaps not. For instance, tankless hot water heaters may use less energy than hot water tanks, because you don’t use energy keeping a big tank of water hot for when it’s needed, only to have much of the heat leak through the tank insulation into the living space. Tankless water heaters purport to solve this problem by only heating water on demand. The problem though is that whenever you turn on a tankless water heater, there is a brief run of cold water through the heat exchanger before the heater kicks in, which means that, to get hot water, you have to run the tap a little longer than for a hot water tank. This is especially true where there are several short uses over a brief period.
Given a half inch pipe, an on demand water heater will fill roughly one yard or meter of hot water pipe length with cold water for every second it takes between a tap demanding water, and the heater kicking in. So if it takes your tankless water heater five seconds of flow to kick in, that’s five yards or meters of cold water in the pipes.
Now imagine that my son finished washing the dishes in the kitchen ten minutes ago (that is, actually, quite a stretch of the imagination!), and my wife washed her hands in the bathroom sink five minutes ago, and I decide to take a shower now.
Not only am I in for a cold surprise after I’ve felt the first hot water – because as the hot water from the bathroom sink use is drawn forward, there are a few seconds of cold water running through the tankless water heater before the heating element kicks in – but overall more water is used because you have to run the tap longer, for the two bathroom uses, to get to newly heated water. In the case of the hot water tank, chances are the hot water left over in the lines is warm enough for my wife to start washing her hands, or for me to start my shower, even ten minutes after my son has stopped washing the dishes.
Other ways you can cut your hot water waste – water saving products that are actually designed mainly for saving the energy in hot water – are hot water shutoff showerheads such as the Evolve showerhead, which automatically shut off when the water coming out of them switches from cold to hot. In this way, you can turn on the shower, let it run until the water turns hot, and then get into the shower at some point later at your leisure without a whole lot of hot water going down the drain. (Of course, these don’t work well with tankless hot water heaters!)
Another invention I have not tried, and have some doubts about, but others swear by it, is a hot water recycler to address the problem shown in the animation above, where we always have to run cold water for a while before the hot water fills the pipes. These recyclers let you turn on the flow of water without having any water come out the tap, until the water gets hot. Instead, the cold (or lukewarm) water in the hot water pipes is recycled back into the tank until hot water comes out at the tap, so while you still have to wait for your hot water, the water running through the tap beforehand gets reused within the system instead of flushed down the drain.
Replace a water-intensive process
Some of the best water saving products are those that let you do a task that normally uses a lot of water, without using water at all.
A waterless car wash is another way you can cut water use. Did you know that it takes 80 to 140 gallons of water for an average driveway car wash if you’re just spraying the car, soaping it down, then spraying it again to rinse? Why not buy water saving products for the car wash – a waterless car wash cleaner, which lets you do the whole job without a drop of water?
And speaking of driveways, how about using a broom instead of a spray nozzle to wash it off? (Sometimes water saving products are just what you have at your disposal, combined with a little lateral thinking!) I’ve seen many people wash their driveway or the section of sidewalk before their house by spraying a tightly focused jet of water on it from a garden hose. But a broom works just as well!
Energy efficient home appliances
Finally, when you buy an ENERGY STAR rated dishwasher or clothes washer (for example, a front-loading clothes washer) you will not only save energy compared to an older model or a non-ENERGY STAR rated equivalent, but in most cases the appliance will use less water too. (Much of the energy savings of these newer dishwashers and clothes washers comes from the fact that they use less hot water, since water heating is one of the biggest household users of energy. But as a side benefit, when you use less hot water, you’re also using less water period!)