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Water Efficiency: What You Can Do

The average American consumes about 100 gallons of water each day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Indoors, routine activities such as flushing toilets and taking baths and showers account for the largest fraction of this usage in most homes. (Outdoor water use is, on average, the largest factor, accounting for 57% of per-capita use in the United States.)

The demand for water- and energy-saving plumbing fixtures and fittings to meet these critical hygienic needs has grown substantially over the past decade, giving home and business owners more options than ever. Here are a number of effective actions you can take to maximize water efficiency where you live and where you work.


What you can do in the home…

Replace old toilets: The EPA estimates that replacing all the old, water-guzzling toilets — that is, those manufactured before passage of the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 1992 — with high-efficiency models bearing the WaterSense label could save approximately 2 billion gallons of water per day in the United States. The WaterSense label assures toilet performance, so there is no reason to be concerned about flushing power and cleanliness. Find a list of WaterSense-labeled toilets here.

Replace or upgrade bathroom sink faucets: Faucets account for 15 percent of indoor household water use, according to the EPA. WaterSense-labeled faucets reduce this standard flow by at least 20 percent (see note 1). Switching to WaterSense-labeled bathroom sink faucets or faucet accessories could save your family enough water annually to do 14 loads of laundry. Source: EPA.

Try a higher-efficiency showerhead: Higher efficiency showerheads, which use less than the 2.5 gallons per minute mandated by Federal law, represent a promising opportunity to conserve water. However, there is a critical need to ensure that water savings are being realized, performance is meeting consumer needs, and health and safety are being maintained with the use of these showerheads. (See “Larger Shower Systems and Water Efficiency” sidebar.) Always be sure that the shower valve is sized to fit your showerhead.

Shorten the distance hot water travels: There’s nothing mysterious about it. The farther the heat source — whether a water heater, a heat pump or a boiler — is located from the outlet, the longer it takes the hot water to arrive. Water is wasted down while you wait for the right temperature. One solution is a recirculating pump that moves hot water to the outlet while bringing cold water back to the heat source. In this scenario, water is not wasted, because hot water is automatically pumped to the fixture before the consumer turns on the water (see note 4). The pump should be activated by a special switch or sensor.

Turn off the tap when you brush your teeth: The EPA says this simple practice saves as much as 3,000 gallons per year (see note 1).

Cut outdoor water waste: The WaterSense label is not just for plumbing products, but also for labeling irrigation-training programs for landscape professionals. The label assures the use of water-efficient products as well as verification of professional proficiency in water-efficient irrigation system design, installation and maintenance, and performance audits.


What you can do in commercial spaces…

Conduct a water inventory to determine the flow rate of all plumbing fixtures and fittings. Any using more than EPAct 1992 levels should be upgraded immediately.

Eliminate leaks: Look for and repair any water leaks in faucets, toilet flappers, and so forth.

Upgrade urinals: Replace older inefficient urinals.

Check the aerators on faucets: High-flow aerators can be replaced quickly and cheaply.

Install hands-free faucets: Consider changing lavatory faucets to metered or electronic sensor-operated models that shut off automatically.

Halt the long waits: Consult a plumber to see if a demand-driven recirculation system can be retrofitted to your hot-water system. As in the home, these devices eliminate lukewarm water dumped down the drain while users wait for hot water.

Switch to low-flow valves: Replace commercial kitchen pre-rinse spray valves with low-flow models.

Ease the pressure: Consider reducing the water pressure of your entire plumbing system.


Key sources for this section

1. High Efficiency Bathroom Sink Faucets. WaterSense. [Online]

2. PMI Newsletter. PMI Updates Position Statement On Showerhead Flow Rates. May-June 2007.

3. Klein, Gary. Multiple Headed Shower Systems. s.l. : California Energy Commission, Fall 2007.

4. Trends in Shower Design and Their Effect on Energy and Water Use. Biermayer, Peter. 2007 Spring.

5. Coordination of North American Water Efficiency Program. Martin, Shawn. 2007 Fall.

6. NSF and the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. MO-Survey of ASDWA Members: Use of NSF Standards and ETV Reports. March 2006.

7. PMI. PMI Position Statement on Arsenic in Drinking Water. [Online] 2001-2002.

8. U.S. EPA’s Focus on Lead in Faucets & Import Safety. Caroline Hermann, U.S. EPA, Office of Civil Enforcement. 2007. PMI Fall 2007 Conference.

9. PMI Newsletter. PMI: Not Your Grandfather’s Industry Association! by PMI President Ken Martin. Sept/Oct 2007.

10. PMI Newsletter. The Summer of '07 — A Tale of New Beginnings At PMI! by Barb Higgens. July-Aug 2007.

11. PMI Newsletter. Capitol Hill Outlook: Conflict, Compromise and PMI Progress. Sept/Oct 2007.

12. PMI Newsletter. PMI Updates Position Statement On Showerhead Flow Rates. May-June 2007.

13. Building Design + Construction. The Do’s and Don’t’s of Super-Low-Flow Showerheads by Shawn Martin. August 2008.

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Large Shower Systems and Water Efficiency

Multiple-showerhead systems should be specified responsibly, so that consumers can enjoy the showering experience they desire safely, reliably and efficiently. That means considering the total showering installation, including the energy used to heat and deliver the water.

The ideal hot water distribution system has the smallest-possible pipe run – considering both pipe length and diameter – from the source of the hot water to the fixture. All hot-water piping should be insulated, with a minimum of R-4 rating, which increases the time pipe stays hot between usages. R-4 insulation doubles cool down time with ½ inch pipe and triples it with ¾ inch pipe (see note 3).

Each shower head and body spray can deliver up to 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm), but a mix of shower outlets that deliver less than 2.5 gpm is more efficient, while still delivering an enjoyable showering experience.

End users bear responsibility for efficiency as well. The key is to make the system as easy as possible for homeowners to use safely and responsibly.