Conserving water — one flush at a time

By Patrick Sweeney

I don’t think I ever wasted a lot of water. But since I started working for the Freshwater Society, and started reading and writing about water shortages and water conservation on a regular basis, I’ve become much more conscious about wasting water.

Last summer, I decided to incrementally raise the level of conservation I practice. It’s been a good experience for my wife and me, and it was even better for the four tomato plants we raised in pots on our deck.

I began the effort by getting an old two-gallon plastic bucket out of my basement and putting it in my bathtub.

Now, every morning my wife or I – whoever takes the first shower of the day – places the bucket under the tub spigot and runs the water until it gets warm. Even though we live in an old two-story home and the hot water heater is set nearly as low as it will go, the shower gets warm before the bucket fills.

It’s easy and it saves about one and three-quarters of gallons of water a day. In the summer, we carried the water downstairs and distributed it among the tomato plants.

Since the tomato plants went to the compost pile, we have used the saved water to flush the toilet. Just lift the lid and pour in a gallon or so and there is a real flush, just as if you had tripped the lever on the tank.

I estimate we’re saving 10 gallons of water a week on top of the conservation measures we already had begun to practice – but more about that later.

I checked my water billing records, and we used about 51,000 gallons of water in 2006, about 50,000 in 2007 and about 32,000 between November of 2007 and November of 2008.

By comparison, the average residential customer in St. Paul, where we live, uses about 66,000 gallons.

The 32,000 gallons we used this year breaks down to about 44 gallons a day for my wife and me.

That still sounds like a huge number, and it is. But it’s a lot smaller than the 80 to 100 gallons per day that the U.S. Geological Survey says most Americans use. And it’s significantly below the 75 gallons a day per person that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tells cities to aim for as an upper limit on household water consumption.

Are we saving money by catching the shower water? Not much.

At 10 gallons a week, we’ll save 520 gallons in a year. There are 748 gallons in 100 cubic feet of water, and in St. Paul we pay $1.86 per 100 cubic feet in the winter and $1.96 in the summer.

So we will save about $1.30 a year by catching that shower water.

But it’s not about saving money. It is about saving water. We’re not scrimping on water, we haven’t changed our lifestyle, we haven’t bought any new appliances — but we’ve become a lot more conscious about trying to not waste water.

We never have been big lawn waterers, and our grass showed it during much of last summer. We watered our tomato plants, our flowers and our trees, but we let the grass get brown and crunchy in mid-summer. By fall, our lawn – at least the part that isn’t heavily shaded — came back, every bit as green as the grass across the fence that was sprinkled nearly every day.

Watering lawns and gardens is one of the biggest household uses of water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that half of all the water put on lawns is wasted, and the EPA estimates that waste adds up to 1.5 billion gallons of water a day.

In addition to limiting our outdoor water use, my wife has always been frugal about setting the washing machines for smaller loads when she can, and she often rearranges the glasses to get a few more in the dishwasher after I’ve loaded it.

Another place where we have managed to save a fairly significant amount of water over the last year was our toilet. Don’t tell my kids, but we’ve started flushing a lot less than we once did. We follow that advice you sometimes see on little plaques in lake cabins with septic systems: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

I’ve never tried to keep track of much all those flushes not flushed. But it’s probably six to eight a day between the two of us.. At 1.5 or so gallons per flush, we’re saving several thousand gallons a year. If we had not replaced the toilet a couple of years ago, we would be saving twice that.

At the Freshwater Society web site, we’ve got some fact sheets on what you can do to conserve water. One of the fact sheets tells the story of a Chanhassen family that won a city-sponsored conservation contest by cutting their summertime water use by 64 percent.

Tell us what you do to save water.