Efficiency and Cutting Water Waste (part 2)

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The next stage in water management is efficiency and cutting back on waste. The reason for this is the less water you use, the less water you need. This can also save you money two ways. Water is certainly cheap enough, a penny a gallon or so, but why pay for more than you actually need? And, you pay for it again with your sewage bill. Your sewage bill is based on your water usage, as the sewage company assumes that all the water that comes into the house leaves it through the plumbing. People with large swimming pools or who water their lawn religiously (!!!) often have a second water line installed so as to not pay for sewage treatment for water that goes onto the grass.

A water cube can store plenty of water to take care of your garden's needs.

A water cube can store plenty of water to take care of your garden’s needs.

The first thing to do is check for leaks in your system. Find your water meter. It will most likely be in a dark corner of your basement. Wipe off the decades of dust and you will see a meter that clicks over, counting your usage. If no water is being used, then the meter doesn’t change. The best test is to get everyone out of the house for several hours or more. Just before you leave (and after everyone has gotten that last bathroom break, hand wash, and glass of water), wait till the meter stops spinning. Write this number down. When you come back, hours later, it should be the same. If it is not, you forgot your automatic sprinkler system or your ice-maker, or, quite likely, you have a leak somewhere. A pinhole leak may take hours to register on the meter, but it does cost you some money as it never stops on its own. Tiny leaks have the bad habit of becoming big, damaging, expensive leaks so that is another reason to check the meter. The difference between the two numbers will give you an idea as to how large the leak is.

Your water meter should be co-located with the main water shut-off valve into your house. Everyone should know where this is, so if you have to, you can shut the water off, keeping it outside your house and your plumbing lines. If you need to do plumbing work, and the fixture you are working on does not have it’s own set of shut off valves, you will have to shut off the water to the entire house! Old houses often have this problem. As you upgrade and do repairs, install shut-offs to every sink, toilet, dishwasher, ice-maker line, washer, etc. Having to shut the water off to the entire house in order to do repair work is yet another reason to be prepared with some stored drinking water.

If you know you have a leak, the next step is finding it. Do any faucets drip? Does the toilet run? Is there a suspicious damp spot that keeps recurring on the basement floor? Stains in the ceiling underneath the second story bathroom?

Leaky faucets can often be fixed by a handy person with a plumbers guide from the library. If your faucets are in terminal condition, replace them with better quality ones that will hold up better. If you replace faucets, choose a single brand (see Consumer Reports for ratings) throughout your house. That way, they all work the same, and they all have the same repair parts. Ten different brands mean ten different sets of washers and other fittings.

Toilets may have very slow leaks. Test by putting a bottle of red food coloring in the toilet tank. Keep everyone away from the toilet being tested. If the water in the bowl turns red on its own, (and not with the assistance of your toddler) then there is a slow leak in the toilet tank guts. Again, many of these can be repaired or replaced by a handy person with a plumbing book.

If your toilet is in poor shape, consider replacing it with a low-flow toilet as old style toilets use a LOT of water per flush. Be very careful what you buy as some models work much better than others. A toilet that will only flush liquids will make you nuts as you flush and flush and flush in a vain attempt to get more solid items down. And, you will use up lots more clean drinking water. Toilet technology is changing rapidly so check out what is current before spending any money. When you do choose a toilet, see if you can get one installed with a four inch diameter throat as opposed to the standard three inch throat. Family members who have a larger output will spend less time plunging the toilet so that someone else can use it.

Traditionally, you cut down on water usage in old-style toilets by sinking bricks or half gallon jugs of water into the tank. This seems of dubious merit as the bricks might crumble over time and mess up the works of the toilet and then you have more problems. If anything bumps around in the tank, it can mess up the guts and then they have to be replaced. Also, toilets are designed to use a certain amount of water to flush and clear the bowl. Changing the amount of water in the tank may mean the toilet doesn’t work as well.

The other standard response to cutting back on the multiple gallons of water per flush is to follow the little saying: If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down. This is a decision that needs to be agreed on by every member of the household for it to work at its best. It will be troublesome to guests, toddlers, and pets. It isn’t that sanitary. You will save a lot of water, but again, at a penny per gallon (or five cents a flush) how much are you saving? If you pay more for your water, you will of course, save more pennies, both on the water bill and the sewage bill. This option may best be reserved for water emergencies and if you really need to save every penny possible.

Leaks in the pipes will have to be repaired by a plumber. If you find leaks of this kind, do NOT put off the repair work. Tiny leaks can suddenly become catastrophic leaks that pour water into your house; far more costly in every way than the plumber will be. Leaks may show up in the dishwasher lines (a stain on the ceiling below may be your only clue) and in the ice-maker line in the fridge.

I had an ice-maker in an apartment refrigerator many years ago. It failed while I was away and flooded the apartment kitchen below. The landlord was responsible so it didn’t cost me anything. I now purchase refrigerators without the ice-maker. This is the most likely part to fail, and may cause extensive damage due to flooding. Not buying the ice-maker attachment saves money upfront and possible damage down the road. How do I make ice? Like your grandmother did, in trays that get emptied into a bin in the freezer compartment.

Mindful Water Usage

Once you have tracked down and repaired all the leaks you are ready to be more efficient in actual intended water usage. There are loads of ways to cut back but they are all, essentially, the same. Don’t let water run down the drain without using it.

That is, don’t run the water to get a cold glass to drink from. Use a pitcher in the fridge. Don’t run water to shave. Fill the sink and use the stored water. Don’t spend forty-five minutes in the shower. Full loads in the washer and dishwasher only. Scrape your dishes into the compost bin before you put them into the dishwasher rather than rinsing them under running water. Washing your car? Do it on the lawn or use a car wash that recycles the water. Is it absolutely necessary to wash a garment if it has been on your body for less than a day? Underwear and socks? Sure. Pants that the only physical work you did in them was sitting at a desk? Maybe not. Do you need a thirty minute shower twice a day? If you work in the bilges of a ship, then oh yes. In an air-conditioned office? Doubtful. Every single time you turn on the tap, use only what you need. Pay attention to what you are doing and be mindful of your money washing into the drain.

Next we start catching water inside the house. If you have a dehumidifier, don’t dump that water into the drain. Use it for houseplants or outside ornamentals. If you hand wash dishes, use rubber tubs to wash and rinse in. Dump the water outside on ornamentals, trees, or grass. If you are more serious (and in a worse drought), plug up the bathtub when someone showers. Bail out the water into buckets and use it outside to keep your trees alive or to flush toilets. Some people shower with a Rubber-Maid bin at their feet to catch the extra water. Is it easier to not do this? Sure. Once again, you are using your energy so as to spend less money and waste less water. Think of carrying water as part of your exercise routine if that helps. It is also good practice, because if you HAVE to cut back on water usage, having the habit of being mindful of how you use water will make it easier.

Water is considered to come in three types. Clean water is what comes out of the tap and it is drinkable, pure, free of contaminants. Our houses are set up to use this water for everything, including our toilets.

Gray water is water you don’t want to drink. You washed dishes, your body or clothes in it; it has some detergent residues, food particles, stuff you would rather not drink but your fruit trees won’t care. Black water is what comes out of your toilet. It is contaminated with urine and feces and is not reusable as is on anything.

Catching clean or gray water in Rubber-Maid bins is easy to do and doesn’t involve replumbing your house. Catching gray water from bathtubs, sinks, dishwashers, and washing machines for reuse requires much more effort. Many municipalities frown on replumbing your house to route used washing machine water onto your lawn. It doesn’t meet the building code and you have to be very careful what detergents and soaps you use as you could contaminate the ground water or poison your garden.

If you live in town in a place where it rains regularly, gray water replumbing will be complex and expensive and not hugely useful. If you live in Arizona, where every drop counts, the thousands of gallons of water your household uses every month may mean a lot to your garden. It may be the only source of irrigation water you can afford. There are books available on the subject so study up before calling a plumber. You also have to be sure if it meets your local building code. Some places don’t care. Some places care a lot and you won’t be able to resell your house without returning it to it’s original condition.

Gray water systems do need more maintenance than just using the sewage system for all your household’s used water. They are, by definition, more complex. They dump large amounts of water all at once in one place (like when your washer finishes a cycle). Soaps, detergents, shampoos, anything that goes down the drain has to be biodegradable in a way that regular laundry soap may not be. These products may cost more and may not clean as well. Gray water systems do work and work quite well for many people. Do your homework so you can be one of them.

Once you have caught all the water inside your house for reuse, it is time to move outside. Roofs, even small ones, can collect thousands of gallons of water in a heavy rainstorm. This water can be captured and saved to water your garden between rains. There are two ways of dealing with this water to keep it from being lost to the storm drains.

Six people could easily lift this empty water cube. It can hold 250 galleons.

Six people could easily lift this empty water cube. It can hold 250 galleons.

The first way is to install rain barrels or water cubes at downspouts. The amount of water you collect will vary depending on the size of the collection unit, the amount of rain, and more subtly, the square footage of roof that is being drained. If the gutters and downspouts are draining a small roof area, you won’t collect as much rain. If you have a complex roofline with many sides, gutters, and downspouts, you can have huge variances in the amount of rain that flows through the downspouts. If you have a choice in location, put larger collection units (like 250 gallon cubes) under larger flow downspouts and smaller collection units (like 50 gallon rain barrels) under the lesser flow spouts. It doesn’t take much of a storm to fill a 50 gallon rain barrel to overflowing. Install a 250 gallon cube in the same location and you may discover that a typical rain only delivers 100 gallons to that spot.

Rain barrels and cubes only work when you use them! They are an active system and require regular management and maintenance. Therefore, a few days after each rain, you need to have a sullen teenager empty the barrel into buckets and water everything that needs to be watered. If your rains are regular in nature (and you pay close attention to weather forecasts) you can empty the barrel or cube at the midpoint of each rain/dry cycle. Or, you can water the garden with the stored rain when it needs it and hope it rains in time to refill the barrel for the next dry spell.

All rain barrels and cubes MUST have an overflow valve for when the monsoon comes. Make sure any overflows are directed away from your foundation walls. If you get huge amounts of rain at irregular intervals, use as many cubes and barrels as you can fit into your space to catch all that precious water for later use. Rain barrels and cubes can be chained together so you can catch more water.

All rain barrels and cubes should have the gutter opening screened off to keep out mosquitoes. If someone complains to you that you are running a mosquito farm, point out your screens. Then point out that mosquitoes can breed in a tea cup of water in four or five days so the real problem is standing water in sand box toys, litter, and unmaintained piles of junk. If your climate requires it, rain barrels need to be drained when the temperature goes below freezing. The screens need to be cleaned occasionally.

You can buy rain barrels ready made or convert RubberMaid trash cans using the wealth of online instructions. Make your rain barrel or cube easier to empty into a bucket by putting them up on concrete blocks. The faucet is at the very bottom of the container and if you put the barrel right on the ground, you will have about two inches of room for a hose or bucket. Don’t do this to yourself. Rain barrel water should be strained and purified before drinking (think of what the birds do on your asphalt shingles!) but, in a water emergency, it will work fine to flush toilets.

There are, apparently, some areas that get nasty about collecting rainwater that lands on your property. Check first! If it is a home-owners association (HOA), then why are you living there? Most of these places also dislike vegetable gardens, clotheslines, and compost bins; all items so necessary for fostering your resilience. Either get on the board and change the rules, or sell the house and move someplace less restrictive. If it is the local government, then you can be very discreet so the neighbors don’t rat you out, you can move, or you can run for local government office and change the laws.

The second way to easily catch rainwater from your downspouts is in the ground. This is NOT going to be drinking water. This water will keep your garden going longer between rains. Walk around your house and note where all the downspouts are. With time and a sullen teenager with a shovel, you can dig shallow, mowable swales to divert the water into your landscaping. The only active part of this method is the digging. After that, gravity does the rest. Why do this? Because rain water that drains from the downspout into the neighbor’s driveway is lost. Rainwater that drains into a swale (moving it away from your foundation) aimed at the vegetable bed or the berry bushes will have a chance to soak into the soil. Better water penetration will help your plants make it between rains more easily.

Next Week: Long-Range and Long-Term Water Storage