The average American shower uses 17.2 gallons of water and lasts 8.2 minutes. There must be some really short showers out there, because I’m pretty sure our average length is about twice that!
We’re going to talk about real ways to save money on your water bill, and how many gallons and dollars that actually means. We’re measuring and calculating specific numbers here, not just repeating conventional wisdom.
In many countries, clean drinking water is abundant and cheap. But it’s not free. Depending on where you live, your water bill may be $30 a month or $230 a month. If your bill is higher, changing your water usage will make a bigger difference in your budget, but it will make SOME difference no matter what size your bill is. Today we’ll examine the conventional wisdom about saving water and discover what matters most.
A study done by water companies and University of California researchers showed indoor water use for an average single-family household in California was 360 gallons per day. That includes homes with a wide range of efficient and non-efficient appliances and water use habits, so yours might be higher or lower. Check your water bill to see by how much. At our house we sometimes come in below that, but with the eight in our family and an occupied apartment above the garage, it’s more commonly higher than 360.
For our illustrations we’ll a California average water cost of 4.1 cents per cubic foot of water. That’s .55 cents per gallon. Of course, most water bills also include a base charge that remains the same every month, but since we can’t change the base charge, we’ll focus entirely on usage costs.
So let’s get down to what makes a big difference and what makes little difference.
Turn off the Tap
If your faucet is turned halfway up during teeth brushing, it’s pushing out about 1.5 gallons each minute. Brushing your teeth for two minutes, plus 15 seconds of rinsing and washing the sink turns uses just over 3 gallons of water. If you justwet your toothbrush and do the rinsing and washing, but leave the water off while you’re brushing, you use just 5 cups of water instead!
Multiply this difference by the number of people in your house. If you have two adults brushing twice a day for two minutes each, leaving the water on while brushing could use an extra 12 gallons of water every day! At our house we could waste 30 gallons of water a day if we just left the water running during tooth brushing! At half a cent per gallon, that’s $60 a year and over 10,000 gallons of water going down the drain, untouched and unused. Those are good reasons to turn off the water while brushing teeth.
The same type of calculation could be done for leaving the kitchen tap running while rummaging through the fridge or wiping up a spill. At full flow, a standard faucet releases about 2.5 gallons per minute. If the faucet is running straight into the drain for five minutes a day, that’s about 4000 gallons and $25 a year.
It’s not a bad idea to put a faucet aerator or a flow restrictor on every faucet in the house. That reduces maximum flow by about a third, which means it takes longer to fill up a glass, but less water gets wasted when you’re not actually trying to fill something.
The average household uses about 68 gallons of water from the faucet each day. Some of that is legitimate use, but there are probably also some times that you’re running water and money straight down the drain. Pay special attention to the faucets in your house over the next week. You might find out that you’re in great shape. Or you might find out that there are great opportunities to save. Keep track of what you find in your Frugal Fresh Start workbook.
Fix Your Flush
Now let’s move on, to toilets. The US EPA estimates that 20-30% of water in a house is used by flushing toilets. The California study found 21% on average. Either way, toilets are the single largest water users in most homes. One conventional wisdom idea for saving water is to put a brick in the toilet tank. Is that really effective?
That depends on your toilet. Really old toilets use between 4 and 7 gallons per flush. If yours is that old, you’re literally flushing money every time you use it. If your home was built in the 80s, your standard toilet probably uses about 3.6 gallons per flush. If it’s an older high-efficiency model, it might use 1.8 or 1.6 gallons per flush. The newest low flow models use 1.28 gallons per flush.
If you have the newest model, you won’t want to put a brick in the tank, even if there were space for it. You’d be leaving yourself with too little water to effectively flush. If you’re using 3 gallons or more, though, you’re in prime water-saving territory. You don’t actually need that much water to flush effectively, so one way to save water is to displace part of the area inside the tank, so it takes less water to fill the tank and uses less when it flushes.
For a full description, check out the video above, but if you just want the outcome, try this. Don’t use a brick. Instead, find an empty two- or three-quart juice or water bottle. Clean it out, drop some rocks in it to make it heavier, and fill the rest with water. Then set the full bottle into the toilet tank and put the lid on. This can reduce each flush by up to half a gallon, saving the average household 3,000 gallons per year and $20. If you really want to save water, update your toilet to a high efficiency model. The most inexpensive models start at about $150, so it might take a few years to make back your money via water savings. But if you’re trying to save water as much as save money, it could be worth looking at.
Shorten Your Shower
After the toilet, the next biggest water user in your house is the shower. There are two ways to use less water in the shower.
1. Take shorter showers.
2. Use a low-flow shower head.
A low flow shower head can save up to 40% of the water an older model uses. A shorter shower is harder, at least for me. But it’s easy to see the result. If your normal shower is ten minutes (including running the water while it warms up) and you can get it to eight minutes instead, that’s a 20% reduction in shower costs, about 1500 gallons per year for each person who takes showers.
That’s 6,000 gallons and $33 saved for a family of four that cuts 2 minutes off each shower for a year. It might be worth adding a simple shower timer to your bathroom to help your family save water and money.
And on top of the water savings, you’ll also save what you would have spent heating that 6,000 gallons. Water heaters are one of the largest single users of power in your home, so reducing hot water use is a double win.
Limit Your Leaks
This is the big one. A study of over 800 homes in different regions of California found that, on average, about 18% of the water use was for drips and leaks in the home! A faucet that drips, a toilet that runs, a shower that never turns off quite all the way–these add up to serious wasted water!
If your house has average drips, stopping 90% of them saves over 20,000 gallons a year! That’s enough to fill up an 18 x 36 foot swimming pool, about $115 worth of water. The biggest single water and money saver we’ve found is to fix your drips and leaks!
It’s pretty easy to tell if you have a drip in your sink or bathtub faucets, but the toilet leak can be stealthy. An easy to check is to add two drops of food coloring to the toilet tank. Come back after an hour. If the food coloring has made it into the toilet bowl, your toilet is using water even when you’re not around. You can get easy to install replacement parts at any hardware or home improvement store.
Dishwashers Don’t Matter
One surprising result when we looked carefully at water saving conventional wisdom, was that what you do with your dishwasher is unlikely to make a big difference. A standard dishwasher uses about 6 gallons of water per load. A more efficient dishwasher can use slightly less, as little as 4 gallons, but it’s not a huge difference. Updating your dishwasher is likely to give you less of a return than putting a water bottle in your toilet tank.
Of course, it’s still a good idea to only run full dishwasher loads. And make sure to turn off the heated drying cycle. It doesn’t use water, but it uses far more electricity than the actual washing does!
Watch the Washer
We’re ready for the last big water user in the house. Standard clothes washers use an average of 41 gallons per load. High-efficiency washers use about 28, a third less. That’s a lot of water either way. Don’t run the clothes washer until you have a full load.
And don’t wash clean clothes! With a family of eight, the laundry piles up in the blink of an eye. One of my pet peeves is finding clothes that I know were not even worn in the hamper. Sometimes they are even still folded! I’ve also been stressing to my kids that their pajamas are not dirty after being worn once and that their jeans can often be worn more than once too.
But your total clothes washing water bill is only $125 a year. It probably doesn’t make sense to get rid of a working washer and spent hundreds of dollars on a new high efficiency model just to save $40 on your water bill. If you want to update your clothes washer, go for it, but saving money on water is not a strong rationale for that purchase.
Study Your Sprinklers
There’s just one final big water user we haven’t talked about at all. This one varies wildly depending on your location and housing situation. I’m talking about outdoor sprinklers and other irrigation. In some places, rain takes care of the watering. In the arid western United States, we have to help things along if we want them to stay green all summer.
The average household used, for outside watering, an amount equal to 53% of their indoor water use! That means the water bill was half again as large because of outdoor watering.
Of course, that number varied from about 30% in coastal regions to 80% in the desert valleys. But it’s a huge number either way. If your water bill includes outdoor watering, consider letting the grass go dormant during the summer. That takes either no water or very nearly none. We water the lawn once or twice a year, when the kids want to play in the sprinklers during summer time. Other than that, we let it go natural.
Or if you decide the luscious green law is important to you, at least be really careful about watering. First, aerate the lawn so the water can soak down to the roots. And don’t water if recent rain has already soaked the ground. You’ll know when its time because the grass picks up a bluish grey tinge or footprints on the lawn don’t bounce back after a few minutes. When you do water, do it in the morning and late at night, and using a low, coarse spray. If you use a misty spray in the hot afternoon, nearly a third of your sprinkler water blows away or evaporates! With average usage, that wasted one-third equates to 22,000 gallons of water and $125 each year.
A Few Hard Core Ways to Save Water
Shower Less Frequently
Most people can still have good personal hygiene without a shower (or multiple showers) every day. In fact, in many cases, it’s actually better for your skin to not shower daily. Personally I would rather take a longer shower less frequently than a short shower every day.
Use Water Twice
Wash your produce over a bowl or bucket so you can use the water for your garden. Keep a bucket in the shower to collect the water as you’re waiting for it to heat up. You can add the water to the washing machine or use it to water your plants or garden. The most hard core version of this would be to re-use all of the shower water by leaving the tub plugged during the shower and siphoning or pumping the full tub into a holding tank for later use. This water could be used to fill the toilet tank or water plants, depending on the soaps and shampoos you use.
Rainwater can be collected and used to water your plants or garden. Your roof and gutter system concentrates all the water falling on the house into a few convenient downspouts. A barrel under the downspout is an easy way to save some of that runoff to use for outside watering.
You can get more complete catchment and filtration systems, but the cost starts mounting pretty quickly, so unless you’re ready for a serious commitment, use buckets or barrels you already have or can find easily and inexpensively.
You Can Do Something
The good news is that no matter how terrible or terrific your current water usage habits are, there is always room for improvement. And reducing the amount of water you use is frugal in more than just the money-saving sense. In addition to financial reasons for saving water, using less water leaves more in the aquifers and waterways we get our water from, helping our budget and our earth.
So let’s take a look at our average California water user again. We’re not going to have him make huge lifestyle changes, but even with just a few simple things he can make a big difference. First, he’ll fix drips and leaks in his house. This is often as simple as a new ‘o’ ring in a faucet and a new seal in the toilet tank. This saves $115 and 21,000 gallons during the next year! Then he reduces an older toilet’s flow from 3.6 to 3.1 gallons by adding a water bottle to the toilet tank, saving $20 and 3,780 gallons of water. Finally, he cuts showers down from about 10 minutes to about 8 minutes, saving another $28 and 5,000 gallons of water. In total, with three small changes, our average household saves $164 just on water, plus whatever it saves on heating costs, and uses 30,000 gallons less during the year! That’s enough to get excited about.
Day 20 Challenge
Decide what your family will do to save water and write it down in your Frugal Fresh Start workbook. Your current water usage will probably look a little different than the average Californian, so choose what will make a difference for you. Focus on easy wins that make the biggest difference. Even if you don’t feel particularly compelled to conserve water, choose something. It may not make a big difference in your finances, but it will increase your frugal mentality, and that frugal way of thinking will extend to other areas in your life.