Saving water with low-flow fixtures and other simple upgrades

water saving faucet

Kelly Sussman, assistant to the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron resource efficiency manager, checks a faucet for its low flow aerator at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Nov. 15, 2012. Low flow aerators can save up to 13,000 gallons of water, which equates to savings of $100 per year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Phillip Butterfield) 

Planet Earth is about 70% water, but only about 3% of that is freshwater. Most freshwater is found mostly in glaciers or underground aquifers. The Amazon basin contains about 20% of the water all the world’s lakes and rivers. Nature recycles fresh water through evaporation and rain. What we have is all that exists, or ever will. Saving water matters.

Even places that normally get a lot of rain suffer water shortages from time to time. One place may experience flooding while someplace else suffers an extreme drought. So far, we have no way to get excess floodwater to drought-stricken areas. 

Even the best water saving habits don’t help much if your whole house wastes water. Modern building codes require various water saving fixtures, but if you live in an older home, you can decrease your water usage dramatically by replacing some of your water hogs. Here are six simple upgrades:

Fix leaks

A leak of one drop per second wastes almost 1,700 gallons of water every year. Depending on local water rates, that leak alone can cost $35 in a year.

The sinks in your kitchen, bathrooms, and laundry room can all leak. So can your bathtub and toilets. Worse yet are the leaks in pipes where you can’t see them. You should have your plumbing inspected regularly. 

Fix any leaks promptly. It’s one of the fastest ways to save water. If you think calling a plumber is expensive, compare it to the cost of allowing the leak to continue.

Pressure reducing valve

This tip has nothing to do with the age of your home. If you’re on city water, it concerns the water pressure. Excessive pressure not only uses too much water, it stresses the pipes in the house. 

Everything there works well at about 35 pounds per square inch. Some homes, however, receive water at 70 pounds per square inch or so. Have your plumber check the pressure. If it’s excessive, you can install a pressure reducing valve.

Low-flow showerheads

low-flow shower head
Low-flow showerhead

Current building codes require shower heads with a flow rate of no more than 2.5 gallons per minute. Homes built before the 1990s may have shower heads that use much more than that.

Low-flow shower heads, on the other hand, use about 1.75 gallons per minute. That amounts to a 30% savings over standard shower heads. Don’t worry about low pressure and a wimpy shower. Have you ever put your thumb over a garden hose? It makes the water shoot a lot farther and with more force.

That narrowing of the stream is called the Venturi principle. You don’t need to know the physics. If you have a garden hose, you already know how it works when you block it with your thumb. Low-flow showerheads narrow the openings in the same way.

Growing up, I enjoyed a good, brisk shower. In places I have lived since, I had to endure some pretty wimpy showers even before modern building codes.

My gym once switched out its shower heads for Oxygenics low-flow shower heads. Finally a shower I could really enjoy! Apparently not everyone liked that strength, because the gym replaced them all in a few months. But I bought a water-saving Oxygenics shower head for myself. Ah, bliss! And if I can swap out a shower head all by myself, almost anyone can. 

Low-flow toilets

Older toilets used 3.5 gallons of water or more per flush. You may have seen advice to put a brick in the tank so it wouldn’t hold that much. It hasn’t been legal to install those toilets for decades now, but older houses still have them. Newer toilets use 1.5 gallons per flush or less. Each one can save thousands of gallons of water per year. 

I remember when I moved into a new house with  low-flow toilets. I found myself having to flush two or three times to get everything down. It didn’t seem like an especially good idea. My plumber assures me that they have gotten better. In fact, the company that made my contractor-grade toilets now makes one of the better models. 

Nowadays, it’s possible to buy a dual-flush model to save even more water. You can use the entire gallon and a half to flush solid waste but much less than that if you’re only flushing urine. 

Water-saving faucets

You can install newer low-flow faucets on all your sinks, but you don’t necessarily have to. You can get an aerator and screw it onto your existing faucet and save just as much water and money. It will reduce the flow of water to about 1.5 gallons per minute. And if you can screw in a  light bulb, you can screw in an aerator. 

Recirculating hot water systems

This idea is unrelated to modern building codes. In my parents’ house, which they bought in  1965, hot water comes instantly. In any place I have lived since, I have had to run water for what can seem like forever until it gets hot. Water that runs directly from a faucet down the drain is wasted.

In doing the research for this article, I find that it is possible to get a pump to attach to my existing hot water heater that will keep water constantly circulating. I’ll have to look into it. A house with that kind of system will use a little more electricity for the pump and a lot less water. 

Shop related products

American Standard 2887.216.020 H2 Option 2-Piece Dual Flush Elongated Toilet

American Standard 288DA114.020 Toilet, Normal Height

High Sierra’s Solid Metal Handheld Low Flow Shower Head Kit

Oxygenics 27223 SkinCare Fixed
Shower Head

Tri-Max 3 Flow Rate Aerators – Niagara Conservation | Chrome Aerator

Watts Premier Instant Hot Water
Recirculating Pump System with
Built-In Timer

5 things to know about low-flow faucets and fixtures / Glenda Taylor, BobVila.com
5 water-saving plumbing fixtures / Ed Del Grande, Seattle Times. June 10, 2009
Reduce hot water use for energy savings / US Department of Energy

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