As the human population of planet Earth continues to grow, supplies of resources like fuel for energy and fresh water for drinking continue to dwindle. It is thus especially vital that we manage our resources as efficiently as possible.
Utilizing green plumbing practices and products can have a substantial impact on the amount of water and energy we use in meeting our plumbing needs, and will affect our home-related spending and saving habits accordingly…
- Water Conservation
- Rainwater Harvesting and Permeable Pavements
- Graywater Recycling
- Drip Irrigation and Leak Monitoring Systems
- Energy Conservation
- The Green Future of Plumbing
In addition to water and energy conservation, going green with plumbing can have a huge impact on the amount of toxins in your home as well as the amount of greenhouse gases you are producing.
Simple steps like installing more efficient fixtures and appliances, using environmentally friendly pipes and cleaners, and more advanced solutions like converting to a solar water heater, gray water recycling, or a rainwater harvesting systems, can drastically reduce the environmental (and economical) footprint of your home.
To reduce the amount of water you use, low-flow and aerator faucets and shower heads are an easy and obvious choice. Low-flow and ultra-low-flow toilets are also a simple and effective way to reduce the amount of water you are literally flushing down the drain.
While many of these options might cost more up front, the savings on your water bill will make up for it in no time. These are rather minimal changes that you can do yourself in many cases, and they can save as much as 50% of the water used by regular plumbing fixtures.
There are ways to save even more water in the bathroom, if you’re feeling a bit bolder:
- Faucets that use sensors to shut off while you’re lathering your hands can save up to 70% of the water used by manual faucets, which can equate to as much as a gallon per use!
- Dual-flush toilets are another big water saver: they have two handles, one that uses 0.8 gallons to flush urine, and another that uses 1.6 gallons for solid waste, as opposed to the nearly three gallons used per flush by conventional toilets.
- Waterless urinals and composting toilets are options for the very bold indeed, but they use little to no water, drastically reducing your household’s total water usage.
If you’re the really adventurous type, or perhaps already planning to build a new home or remodel an old one, there are a lot of great ways to shrink the ecological footprint left by your house. Rainwater harvesting can be a simple way to start.
Rather than directing roof runoff into gutters, downspouts, and ultimately the sewers, collect rainwater in barrels, tanks, or cisterns. These systems are doubly advantageous, as they not only provide a free source of water for your garden or lawn, but they also take some of the burden off of municipal storm sewer systems, which can easily be overrun in big storms.
With a little more effort, you can use harvested rainwater for showering, washing laundry, and flushing your toilet. Rainwater harvesting can even be used as a source of free drinking water, though the rainwater may require treating before it is potable.
As rainwater travels down sidewalks, driveways, and streets, it can pick up all kinds of pollutants and contaminants. Worse yet, directing rainwater into storm sewers instead of allowing it to become groundwater has a damaging impact on surface water levels. Not only do permeable pavements filter out impurities, they also allow rainwater to percolate through and become groundwater.
If you’re laying a driveway down for a new home or feel motivated enough to rip up your existing sidewalk and lay down a more environmentally friendly permeable pavement sidewalk, you have several options.
- Porous asphalt requires no specialized equipment, just a special formula for porous bituminous pavement. This material does not have a high load-bearing capacity, and should only be used for pedestrian walkways or low-traffic parking lots and driveways.
- Porous concrete uses larger pea gravel and a lower water-to-cement ratio, and also does not require specialized equipment. It can be used for more heavily trafficked driveways or parking lots.
- Plastic grid systems are quite versatile. Filled with gravel, they can be used as roadways for heavy vehicles. Filled with soil and sand, they can be used as landscaping structures that help prevent erosion. The best part is that they can even be made from recycled plastic!
- Paving blocks are, of course, a very simple way of creating a driveway or sidewalk that allows water through to the ground instead of channeling it to gutters and storm sewers.
A great way to conserve water is to make sure all of the water you use serves its intended purpose. Not to mention, over-watered plants and flooded toilets don’t just waste water; they also cause damage to your property, which costs you time and money.
Drip irrigation systems use perforated pipes laid underground to channel all of the water you use for watering your lawn or garden directly to the root systems of your plants. Moisture sensors within the drip irrigation system detect when water is needed and shut off the water when it’s not. An effective, less expensive option is a soaker hose watering system, which features a garden hose full of tiny holes. To maximize water savings, use a timer with these systems.
Similarly, leak monitoring systems, installed in your home, will automatically shut off the water when a leak or other abnormal usage is detected. These systems not only save water, but can also keep your home and garden from suffering disastrous and costly floods.
The ultimate way to conserve water is to recycle it with a graywater treatment system. Graywater is the wastewater from sinks, showers, and laundry. While graywater isn’t potable, meaning it is no longer suitable for human consumption, it is safe to use in your garden or even in your toilet, where nonpotable water will do.
A graywater system stores wastewater from your sinks, showers, and laundry in a tank where it is run through a very simple filtration or treatment process. The system then reroutes the graywater to the toilets in your home or the irrigation runs in your yard.
Some areas do not permit graywater recycling systems for home use, so you’ll want to check your state’s regulations before embarking on a remodeling venture that will require permits. Visit the SAHRA (Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas) Residential Water Conservation section for a review of gray water re-use and a great collection of do’s and don’ts.
Dishwashing and laundry machines represent another big water conservation opportunity. Major appliances can use a lot of water, but new technologies on the market—such as horizontal-axis (front-loading) laundry machines and high-efficiency dishwashers that use sensors to gauge how soiled your dishes are and optimize water usage and cycle times accordingly—use around 40% less water than older appliances.
Machines equipped with newer technologies don’t only use less water—many are far more energy efficient than older models and are Energy Star certified. According to Consumer Reports, front-loading laundry machines (made by companies like Asko, Kenmore, KitchenAid, and LG) are not only capable of drastically reducing your water consumption, they are also so energy efficient they can save you serious money on your energy bills.
For the average single-family home, water heating can cost several hundred dollars a year in energy costs. Even a step as basic as washing your clothes in cold water can save you over $60 a year—a significant savings from a single change.
To save energy, there are other really simple green plumbing measures you can take without the aid of a professional plumber:
- Turning your water heater’s thermostat down to 120 degrees instead of 140 can save as much as 10% in water heating costs.
- Wrapping your water heater’s tank and your house’s hot water pipes not only conserves energy that would have been spent heating water, it also reduces the amount of water you waste while waiting for the water from your shower or faucet to heat up.
If you’re willing to get a little more advanced, here are some more ideas:
- A drainwater heat recovery system uses the hot water going down your drain to pre-heat the water entering your water heater. The two streams are never mixed, so you’re always showering in clean water. Drainwater heat recovery significantly reduces the energy needed to heat the clean water coming out of your shower or faucet.
- Tankless water heaters offer another highly effective way to conserve both water and energy, as they only heat water when you need it. Conventional water heaters use a lot of standby power to keep a full tank of hot water, but still keep you waiting when you turn them on because the water trapped in the pipes between your faucet and the hot water tank has grown cold.
- Solar water heating is a great way to cut down on the amount of energy you’re using to heat the water coming out of your shower or faucet, and it also makes use of the cleanest, most renewable energy source out there. There are several types of solar water heating systems that all basically work the same way: a solar collector uses the sun’s energy to heat water in an insulated tank, and the water is then piped into your shower or faucet.
Existing solar water heating technologies can supply as much as 80% of your hot water needs. Because they can’t supply 100%, solar systems are always backed up by a conventional water heater—either in the same tank or in a second one—so that you never have to go without your hot shower.
Still, using the sun’s free energy to heat your water even partially is a great way to save money and energy while reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions your house releases into the atmosphere.
If you’re concerned about how much your house contributes to air pollution by using energy sources that emit greenhouse gases, then chances are you’re also concerned with the toxins you’re bringing into your house in the form of typical household cleaners.
Luckily, there are a number of safe, non-toxic cleaners out there that you can use. Many such cleaners—made from soy, citric acids, and other natural ingredients—are not only toxin-free but also biodegradable, so they’re safe for you, your pets, and the Earth.
One of the most environmentally unfriendly materials in your house is also one of the most hidden, if you’ve got polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, piping in your walls. The manufacturing process for PVC is the chief source of toxic dioxin, a carcinogen that is one of the worst environmental pollutants in the U.S.
PVC is also not recyclable, which means that as long as it’s being used as piping in our homes, we are pumping dangerous amounts of heavy weight toxins into the atmosphere. There are greener piping options, but keep in mind that each has their own unique set of specifications. Before you invest, do some research or get a few opinions about what will work best for your situation.
Here are some of the ecologically friendly options for your house’s water supply, drainage, and sewer pipelines:
- Cast iron: recyclable; contains a high amount of recycled content; heavy; energy intensive production; low expansion coefficienct
- Vitrified clay: heavy; often used for large-scale projects
- Recyclable plastics like high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or cross-linked polyethylene (PEX)
While copper piping is an option with eco-merits (it’s 100% recyclable), it is important to consider the potential hazard of copper toxicity in your drinking water supply, which occurs as the copper pipe dissolves into the water. Read more about Copper in Drinking Water, an article from the Minnesota Department of Health.
For any home plumbing projects, make sure to use lead-free solder. Lead is extremely toxic to the vital organs and it can leak from your pipes into your household water supply. Read more about common sources and health effects of lead exposure at the National Institute of Health Lead Poisoning Page.
Many green plumbing products and systems are currently more costly than their conventional counterparts. Going green with plumbing is still a smart investment, as it pays for itself and then some by reducing your water and electricity bills. Plus, many local and state governments offer rebates for installing green plumbing components in your home. Green plumbing may even increase the resale value of your home, as more and more people demand environmentally responsible plumbing systems.
Because of its many environmental, economic, and health benefits, green plumbing is catching on in a big way. Facing up to the impending crisis of booming populations and limited resources, Australia has chosen to become a global leader in environmentally responsible plumbing for both residential and commercial properties.
- Australia’s GreenPlumbers program—also used by California’s Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors Association as of June 2007—claims to have reduced water consumption in Australia by as much as 50% since the 1990s.
- Check out GreenPlumbers USA for stateside updates.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is sponsoring a voluntary program called WaterSense for labeling green plumbing products. The Energy Star label has become a reliable indicator for energy-efficient electronics and appliances. In time, perhaps WaterSense and other eco labels will be the new standard for water-conserving appliances and fixtures as green plumbing goes global.