World Water Day, March 22, is an excellent time to reflect on how much our survival as a species is connected to the fate of this precious resource.
Water is threatened on all sides by pollution, privatization, and industrial and domestic overuse, yet we often treat it as though it were a limitless commodity, a kind of earth-abuse that will come back to haunt us and our descendants for years to come.
Wanting to shrink our ungainly eco-footprint with respect to water, my family has been able to reduce its water intake to about one-quarter of the Canadian national average. Between October of 2015 and October 2016, our most recent annual water billing period, we have averaged around 250 litres per day in our household of three people, or just over 80 litres per person per day (by comparison, a March 18, 2009 National Post story states the average single Canadian and American uses about 340 litres per day).
Divided into areas where we use the most water—and in addition to what we view as standard water-saving retrofits like low-flow showerheads and dual flush toilets—here’s how we do it:
Tackling “The Big Three” of domestic water consumption: toilets, laundry, and bathing
The Big Flush: Toilet flushing accounts for 31% of the average household’s water usage—the biggest single consumer of water (Home Waterworks, Alliance for Water Efficiency). Most ultra low flush models use 30 litres/person/day or 6 litres per flush while older model toilets consume a whopping 70 litres/person/day.
It has never made sense to me that we use potable water to flush our toilets. Some schools and other multi-user businesses are installing engineered rainwater collection systems for the purpose, a wise development that recognizes the wastefulness of pre-treating water destined to flush toilets.
For those of us seeking a less engineered solution, a bucket kept under the sink will serve the purpose. Put a plug in the tub for the morning shower, and then bail out a few gallons into your designated “flush-bucket” (we use an old 4 litre detergent bottle cut out) and pour directly into the toilet bowl when needed. You’ll get a couple of flushes out of one bucket, so if you have several housemates using the toilet, keep extra water in the tub and get a second bucket.
Bath to washer: I have a kid who likes to take long baths several times a week; while we try to restrict the amount of hot water he adds to the tub, he likes the deep swimming pool effect and sneaks more in while we’re not looking.
To mitigate this habit, I started bailing the contents of the tub into the washer by the bucketful, climbing up and down two flights of stairs to the basement 10-12 times per bath, slow and strenuous work that I considered a kind of back-to-the-earth fitness regime.
My engineer husband, finding this an inefficient way of getting water from one place to another (true enough), devised a system for bypassing the tub drain and pouring bathwater directly into the washer, plumbing in a three-way diverter valve that allows water to travel either to the washer or to the municipal sewer in cold weather when the garden hose freezes up!
Our theory is that the relative cleanliness of the bathwater and the soap added to the laundry cycle, plus the fresh, municipal water used in the rinse cycle makes for acceptably clean laundry. We try to do laundry as soon as the water is transferred from bath to washer to keep the water from getting ‘skunky’.
We should be aware of the existence of building code rules and regulations around grey water reuse in our own districts. To watch a video on how one California homeowner safely and legally recycled water into his landscape, see http://www.treehugger.com/clean-water/gray-water-safe-legal-and-permitted-water-recycling-video.html.
(It’s interesting to note that in Japan, it is standard practice to use household bathwater for washing clothing, though admittedly, the Japanese preface their bath with a ‘pre-clean’ so they’re cleaner when they enter the bath). See this blog post about laundry habits in Japan: https://alicegordenker.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/recycling-bath-water-for-laundry-%E9%A2%A8%E5%91%82%E6%B0%B4%E3%83%9D%E3%83%B3%E3%83%97%E3%80%80/)
Looking for other ways to conserve or recycle the water you use?
“Warm-Up Water”: the chilly beginning to washing your hands, or waiting for the shower to warm up, this water can and should definitely be saved for doing laundry. I keep a scoop near the bathroom sink for catching it as soon as the tap gets turned on, then store it in a bucket for the laundry. The diverter on your shower drain will send warm-up water more efficiently into your washing machine.
Rainwater for laundry: Our household does a lot of laundry—we are outdoorsy types and all the gardening, hiking, and mucking about is pretty hard on our clothes. We have looked for ways to reduce the amount of water we use in this area, and in the warmer months, have found rainwater the perfect solution. (In the winter, the piping system we use freezes up, so in our northern climate, this is definitely an April through November project). Two large barrels sit on elevated stands outside the basement window nearest the washing machine: Ian has removed one pane of glass from the basement window, and replaced it with two layers of plastic board that he cut a hole in for the garden hose that attaches the rain barrels to the machine. Diverter valves mounted at the back of the machine allow us to switch easily from rain barrel water to municipal water during dry spells or when the hose freezes up in winter.
Rainwater for irrigation: As a professional gardener, I make note of weather patterns every summer that will lead to the success or failure of my crops. Last August, Nova Scotia experienced a record dry spell that saw wells drying up, especially on the south shore of the province. This was a real eye-opener in our usually damp province. With climate change making weather predictions ever more difficult, it makes sense to conserve rainwater when we do get it for the times it’s really needed. Unchlorinated, unfluoridated, and free, the rain can be stored in barrels around your property, from shed roof to porch roof, or in interconnected barrels from one location.
With a portion of your water bill now going to sewerage fees, meaning users are charged both for the water that comes into their houses as well as for the water that is discharged into the wastewater system, using rainwater for lawn and garden maintenance makes both environmental and economic sense, saving you a portion of that fee during the summer months.
Bathwater for irrigation: In very dry summers at the cottage, with well supplies running low and visitors adding to the water burden, I have resorted to using bathwater for irrigation. If you choose to do this, you should aim to use as few soap products as possible in the bath—most of these contain salts (like the ubiquitous sodium lauryl sulfate found in many shampoos) that with repeated applications can build up in the soil where you grow your food. Try using ‘all-in-one’ soap/shampoo/general cleaning products like Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap, which contains no sodium, and is certified organic.
Give plants a good soaking at ground level, trying not to splash their leaves. Aim to have the water penetrate deeply into the soil near the plant’s roots, rather than a superficial watering; this may cause more harm than good as the plant’s roots will turn upward toward the surface wetness instead of burrowing deeply into the ground.
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There are many areas of modern life which we feel are beyond our control, but water use doesn’t need to be one of them!
This March 22, just in time for World Water Day, I encourage you to find ways to reduce your own consumption of this most precious resource.