By Katie Marks, Networx
I grew up in a house that relied solely on a 1,000 gallon tank of rainwater for our water supply. Once we ran out, that was it, and running out was a serious concern some summers, especially in drought years. (We ended up having to buy water to refill the tank on three occasions.) As you can imagine, growing up in that environment, I learned a number of tactics for conserving water and being efficient...just like every other Californian.
While California may have a reputation for being lush and green, the state can actually endure extremely serious drought conditions (like those behind the terrible wildfires the state is also famous for). When drought threatens, as it is this year, with alarmingly low snow pack and almost no rain, our conservation modes start activating and we start saving water like it's our job, which it sort of is.
Since water conservation has benefits even if you're not in a drought area, I thought I'd share some of our hard-earned conservation lessons with you.
In the Bathroom
The bathroom is a key area for water wastage, because, well, most of the functions that happen there involve water, starting with the toilet. Every time you flush, you're wasting potable water. Fortunately, there are a couple of options you can use to mitigate water loss. One is simply adding one or more bricks to the tank, which displaces water, forcing the tank to store less and thus use less with each flush. You can also install a dual flush mechanism, which uses less water when pulled one way and more water when pulled the other way -- and you might want to consider adopting the California aphorism "when it's yellow, let it mellow, if it's brown, flush it down."
Low-water toilets are also available, including pressure-assisted toilets, which help things along with a blast of water. All of these options are great, but there's even more you can do. You can have your plumber set up a greywater recycling system that routes greywater to the toilet for flushing (hey, might as well use it twice), or you could consider a composting or incinerating toilet. These models use no water at all!
Your bathroom sink is another area where you can probably cut down on water use. We recently covered the news that it's a good idea to wash your hands in cool water, so you can encourage members of the house to stop running water while waiting for it to heat. Turn water off while brushing your teeth, too. In addition, consider installing a faucet aerator, a very small part that helps save water, and doesn't require a master plumber's license to put in!
In the shower, greywater recycling is an excellent idea (you can recapture that sink water, too). If you can't afford such a system or it's not legal in your area, you're not out of luck when it comes to water conservation in the shower. You can capture cold water in a bucket while you're waiting for it to warm up (it feels dorky, but that water can be used to flush the toilet and water the garden!), and you can also consider installing a toggle showerhead. Use the toggle to turn the water off after rinsing, while you're lathering up and getting clean. Flip it back on to enjoy nice warm water to rinse off. You'll save gallons this way.
In the Kitchen
The big water-sucker in the kitchen, of course, is dishes. You could pony up for a set of these weird Swedish dishes that never need to be washed, or...not. Did you know that an energy-efficient dishwasher actually uses less water than handwashing, when used correctly? If you're going to invest in one water-saving appliance this year, this is definitely the one, especially if you have a big family. The long-term savings will be immense, and, bonus, you won't have to do dishes anymore (or do battle with your aging dishwasher).
Plus, your city may offer assistance with purchasing energy-efficient appliances, especially in drought periods. Ask your plumber about various options.
In the Laundry Room
Another area of high water use, the laundry room in general can be a big energy sink, between your water demands and the heat for drying and warming water (tip: consider using a laundry line in fair weather!). Make sure to use your washer settings correctly, including the setting for load size, encourage people to reuse items that aren't that dirty (yes, you can wear the same pair of jeans twice), pool laundry to make for more efficient loads...and consider a high efficiency washer. Used correctly, these washers use less water -- and like other washers, they can be connected to a graywater recycling system for even more savings.
While you're at it, talk to your electrician about options for saving energy with your dryer.
In the Garden
This is where some of the bad news comes in. If you haven't already established drought tolerant plants and xeriscaping, your garden may be in trouble. In drought conditions, you should be watering with recycled water only, not fresh potable water -- which means that if you want to have a nice garden even in drought, you should plant a combination of drought tolerant plants and you may want to consider a graywater recycling system to keep them healthy even when conditions get harsh. If it's too late to magically go back in time and redo your entire landscaping scheme, start reusing your water! Collected water from dishwashing, showers, and laundry can be applied to the garden to keep it going, as can water from other sources like dehumidifiers.
You may also need to scale down the vegetable garden if conditions get dire, something we're considering doing this year, much to our regret.
Water in the early morning or early evening to reduce water loss through evaporation and give the water the best chance of seeping all the way through to plant roots. Mulch well to help plants retain water, and plant appropriately for the conditions; don't plant high-water plants in arid, exposed areas of the yard where they'll need to be coddled to thrive.
Be aware that in some regions, when drought conditions are declared, there are severe penalties for watering your garden at certain times, or at all. Make sure you know the rules!