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Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Water Conservation 101

What comes to mind when you visualize the word water? Do you think of clean, pure, refreshing and . . . available? Unfortunately, in today’s world, these words are decreasingly associated with our water supply, especially as we learn more about where our water comes from and the processes by which it arrives in our possession.

In order to adapt our living practices to the most sustainable and eco-conscious modes for the health of the planet, we must take into account some considerations when evaluating our use of this precious resource.


Though you, personally, may not be directly impacted by the current water crisis, it is here. U.S. city, state and governmental agencies are slowly taking action to counteract water shortages in certain areas, which includes the implementation of statutes to regulate the amount of municipal water allotted to each household. Agency-regulated residential water supply has periodically occurred in the past during times of drought, but this most recent push seems more resolute, in that it reflects the widely recognized trend of global warming and a shortage of resources.

The world-wide effects of these climatic changes are even more severe – in parts of the world, privatization of the water supply is a common practice. This privatization occurs as large corporations drain the water from entire cities and villages, sometimes even charging locals outrageous amounts for their own drinking water! And in other parts, such as Africa, civil strife has increased in proportion to a decrease of major water sources, which are shrinking to non-existence under the burden to provide for too many. This pattern is beginning to present itself in parts of the world where concern was never focused, and the situation is not predicted to improve with time, to risk an understatement.

And of course we’re all asking – what can be done, what can we possibly do to help halt these global trends that seem so far beyond any measure of control? And ultimately, the most important question has become: Do our choices and actions (with respect to conserving water, in this instance) really make a difference?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Our planet is currently expected to provide beyond the extent of its means, but we can help by educating ourselves, creating awareness and gaining the tools that will help us to help make a difference.

So, then, the issue of water conservation in our homes and at the workplace and by our acts of consumerism, become matters of social, global and historical responsibility. This is an important job – to recognize that your actions ripple out and your impact directly extends to people on this planet whom you will never see or hear of, people in the future whom you will never meet.

Our planet is currently expected to provide beyond the extent of its means, but we can help by educating ourselves, creating awareness and gaining the tools that will help us to help make a difference.

Water Conservation Tips for the Home

Here are some effective water conservation tips to give you ideas on how to get started, or to add to or improve existing conservation practices:

  • Drop that Drip! Dripping faucets and leaky pipes are among the worst water-wasting offenders. Enlist some help and invest a weekend to make certain sure that your appliances aren’t big wasters.
  • The Final Flow. Low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads help to ensure conservation by restricting the volume of water involved in each flush or during each shower. Also consider cutting back your “hours in the shower” for optimal conservation.
  • Running Nowhere. Make sure to turn off water during periods of non-use, while brushing your teeth, for example. If washing or rinsing dishes by hand, adjust the flow of water to a small stream so that the majority of water goes where you need it to, and doesn’t escape down the drain.
  • The Wash on Washers. Using an updated and energy-efficient washing machine, in addition to washing full loads, can drastically improve water conservation. Energy-efficient front-loaders can cut water consumption by almost a whopping 40%!
  • The Great Dish Debate. If you have access to a dishwasher, by all means, use it! New, energy-efficient models can conserve water, compared with hand-washing, by up to half. Try for a full load of dishes each time. If a small load is being washed, look for features on your machine that will allow you to adjust the water setting to accommodate a smaller load.

Water Conservation Tips for the Garden

  • Irrigation: Drip, or trickle irrigation has been used for centuries, and is a very water-efficient system for your yard, aimed at getting the water where it’s needed most – plants, not pavement! If your space is small enough, consider watering by hand – not only will the water get where it needs to be, you will maintain a connection with your plants and the natural surroundings. Research and experiment with various hose nozzles, observing water flow and success in reaching target areas. Consider investing in self-watering planters, which decrease the frequency of watering. Unfortunately, they don’t eliminate the need to water, as their title may subtly imply!
  • Watering Time: Water early in the day so your watering efforts are maximized and evaporation does not occur too quickly, which can dry out your plants.
  • Mulch: Apply a layer of mulch over the soil for your flowers, plants and vegetables. This will help to seal in and retain moisture, preserve your soil’s nutrient content, and keep pesky weeds at bay.
  • Landscaping: If you employ the services of a landscaper or gardener, discuss water conservation options with them. Encourage a landscape of native plants, which will thrive in your geographical climate. Pick plants such as lavender or cactus (specific to your geographical locale), that require little water and provide aesthetic adornment to a yard. Pair plants creatively with fillers such as rocks, gravel or recycled wood chips. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) resource site for native plants is: Pair plants creatively with fillers such as rocks, gravel or recycled wood chips.

Advanced Water Conservation Tips

  • Rain BarrelCatching the Rain. Diverting storm gutters into rain barrels allows you to catch un-used rainwater that can then be used to water plants and vegetables.
  • Xeriscaping, Anyone? Xeriscaping is a form of landscaping that relies on the use of natural plants, among other principles, for maximum water efficiency. Xeriscaping also addresses space issues, irrigation techniques and mulching.

Homes are definitely a central place to be mindful of water origin and usage. The water crisis is beginning to show its face more in our choices outside of the home as well – some restaurants in the U.S. will now only provide drinking water to patrons upon request, in an effort to ensure that water conservation practices rank as part of their eco-friendly business structure. We have all heard about problems with bottled water, but what options are available for making better choices as a consumer?

Many eco-friendly alternatives for water-related products are still in the development or testing phase, but here are some current, sustainable options to consider:

  • Use your local, municipal water source and invest in a reverse osmosis purification system or carbon filtration system for your home to reduce your ecological footprint significantly.
  • Purchase a stainless steel or aluminum bottle with lining to transport your local, filtered water in a reusable and sustainable manner. Many environmentally-friendly technologies, such as biodegradable water bottles made from corn-based bioplastics are available now. Research a bit and see what’s out there to fit your style.

Though the U.S. population accounts for much of the world’s bottled water use, in actuality, the tap water from our homes is often much, much cleaner than anything you would find in a bottle. Some bottled waters indicate that their source is municipal, which means that you’ve just purchased nothing more than tap water that could have flown from your own faucet. And if you’re purchasing anything other than bottles made from corn-based bioplastics, it’s likely that you’re also downing a healthy dose of phthalates and other toxic chemicals from the bottle’s plastic constituents. This includes those hard-plastic reusable water bottles that were once considered eco-chic. Studies indicate that these too are toxin-leaching culprits.

In addition to health hazards of drinking bottled water, the plastic constituents pose a big problem for our planet. Due to the toxicity level of the plastic, collective wisdom tells us that we should refill these bottles no more than once to avoid any harmful risks associated with ingesting them. This one-fill rule severely limits the lifecycle of a plastic bottle, which hopefully makes it to a recycling center, though many still don’t. Plastics are such a pervasive part of packaging, and until now, there weren’t many options for reusing our plastics. But industries are starting to get really creative with how to process the excess. Recently, many companies are showing consumers that old really can become new – recycled plastic bottles are showing up in everything from coats to carpets to swim goggles. Many eco-designers are also looking at widely-available alternative sources like canola oil (processed differently than corn biopolymers). Your best bets for the time being are purchasing a stainless steel or a lined aluminum bottle, or looking in your local store for companies that sell their water in reusable glass containers or biodegradable plastics. For long trips, fill a large container with your purified water and take it with you for more sustainable travel.

In addition to health hazards of drinking bottled water, the plastic constituents pose a big problem for our planet.

A little-known fact is that bottled water companies are not required to comply with many state regulations applied to your local municipal utility district. This suggests that aside from bottling issues, tap water in and of itself may be more pure than bottled. Despite this, U.S. bottled water sales are continuing to surge upward, hungrily consuming massive amounts of oil and plastic in the process, not to mention wasting precious energy in the transport. Armed with all of this knowledge, please seek out sustainable options that best serve your health and that of the planet. Also, if you’re still skeptical, inquire with your local utility district about the origin of your water and the filtration processes it goes through. Find out where your local tap water comes from – you have a right to know! Your knowledge base equips you to make the best decisions for your health and to connect with our planet by understanding the delicate ecosystems that we co-habit with.

Water Quality

Besides knowing where your water comes from, equally important is the standard of quality. Drinking water in the U.S. comes from a combination of groundwater sources, rivers, and lakes that are sourced or fed by rivers. In addition to the groundwater pollution from domestic use (which includes a wide array of chemicals, pesticides, oils, sewage and hazardous waste), chemicals and pesticides from industrial and agricultural sources are also finding their way into our water. Even more alarming, trace amounts of toxic cleaning products and medications that regulate hormonal changes in the body, such as antidepressants and birth control pills, are showing up. What can we do to ensure water quality?

  • First, know what’s in your water. Though county water management utilities are required to perform annual water quality reviews, it’s good to educate and inform yourself about the specifics. The EPA has created an index of labs where you can send your water for testing:
  • Second, be aware of what’s out there. The EPA’s Envirofacts Data Warehouse gives a list of common contaminants by geographical area.
  • Filtration. Investing in a home filtration system can be a very direct way to monitor the cleanliness of your water. Some filtration systems are equipped with multiple cycles which target specific toxins to purify the water.

    Safe Drug Disposal. Do your part by ensuring that any of your own medications don’t end up down-stream. Check with your State Health Department or your local pharmacy and inquire about programs for safe disposal.

Water Recycling with Grey Water

The water that we use to take showers and wash our clothes with is actually so pure that it is drinkable, and the water used to rinse our produce is definitely drinkable! Once we use this water and it has passed through the drain, it is referred to as “grey water,” and is combined with water from our toilet (called “black water”). Generally, these are then sent to a sewage treatment facility. Instead of sending this nearly-clear grey water to an expensive and complex sewage treatment facility for later disposal into rivers, oceans or lakes, reusing grey water allows for the recycling of in-home water to outside sources.

Because this water is used and no longer considered “drinkable,” many states have strict codes that either prohibit or regulate the use of these systems, because contaminants can abound if the water is not properly reused. A system works like this: water used to wash food, take showers and wash clothes (provided that these activities utilize biodegradable soaps and detergents, now sold at most stores) is collected. A very simple way to use grey water is to place a bucket or tub beneath your kitchen sink, to catch clean water that is running down the drain, or has been used in the ways described above. Other grey water collection hotspots include your washing machine, laundry tub, spa, shower and dishwasher. The water collected from these sources can then:

  • Be manually carried to water houseplants, or outside nonfood plants, fruit trees or shrubs
  • Be redirected – a plumber installs a diversion device that redirects grey water outside in order to irrigate lawns and gardens
  • Be treated – treatment requires installation of a system for in-home reuse with washing machines and toilet flushing. NOTE: This is not approved in some states and areas.

When using a grey water system, keep the following things in mind:

  • Ensure that grey water is not used to wash clean food or to water garden plants that you will harvest for eating.
  • Never consider reusing water that has detergents, bleach, fabric softener or other harsh chemicals – it is best to stick with biodegradable options.
  • Always check with your county and local health department for grey water regulations. If you are installing a grey water home system for redirection or treatment, check in with your local government.

New Water Technology Developments

Ocean WaveAs the water crisis becomes more evident in our lives each day, scientists and corporations alike are investing resources in designing innovative methods of conservation and ways to help alleviate the harshest effects of this crisis worldwide. Earlier in 2007, droughts in the remote Marshall Islands near Guam impacted local populations so much that some U.S. governmental and relief agencies supplied these areas with reverse osmosis purification systems. Many technologies aimed at reducing the water crisis, especially for rural areas, are currently in use or still in the development phase. Here’s a brief overview of these various water-tech innovations:

Desalination: Though costly and energy-intensive, this process could prove considerably effective if a more efficient and environmentally-friendly method, such as solar extraction, can be employed. Desalination is the purification of water (especially ocean water) by removal of salt and other minerals, often producing table salt in the process. Only complete extraction of salt renders the water available for human consumption. This is most popular in arid Middle Eastern regions, though it’s gaining in prominence worldwide. Many ocean water desalination plants are paired with power plants, raising considerable concern about the preservation of marine life. The U.S. has responded to these concerns by citing the Clean Air Act in banning most of the cooperative desalination and power plant efforts, which also result in substantial air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Living Machines: Now a trademarked name, these systems were initially designed by John Todd in the 1960’s, with the goal of producing clean water and biomass by passing sewage through a variety of stages of an artificially-created micro-ecosystem. This design relies on the filtration efforts of microorganisms, small invertebrates (snails and even small fish), and plants, especially photosynthetic plants and algae which intake solar energy to oxygenate the systems. Though these systems were initially thought to be impractical for production on mass city-wide scale due to their inability to process some heavy chemicals that appear in our drains (such as toxins found in paint) , smaller versions are used domestically in some European countries in order to purify in-home wastewater.

LifeStraw: This drinking straw is used to filter bacteria that causes disease and often results in fatality. The design was made especially with rural, third-world regions without access to clean drinking water in mind. This cost-effective little wonder comes equipped with filters which kill strains of E. coli, typhoid, cholera and salmonella. It is said to have a filtration lifespan of up to 700 liters of water per day.

Micro Hydro: In many remote and rural regions, micro hydro is the new small-scale power currency. These systems draw off of water-created energy to generate electric power, and work well combined with the efforts of photovoltaic (PV) solar systems. One renowned designer, Dean Kamen, has developed a “locally powered water distillation system” which is still in the patent process. A small machine (currently powered by cow dung) produces electrical power while supplying enough heat for the distillation and purification of brackish, contaminated water. While his creation was made to reduce the incidence of disease-spreading water contaminants in rural areas, Kamen hopes to market his design by simultaneously creating an entrepreneurial niche in the communities in need of his product. According to this model, one individual would operate the product and sell the electricity, a second individual would collect dung and market it to the electric provider, and a third would lease out appliances. Clean water and a sustainable model for economic growth – it doesn’t get much better than that!

Though much is being done in the world to alleviate the symptoms of this crisis, it is an ongoing process and every conscious contribution helps. Doing what you consider to be your part really does make a difference. So, roll up your sleeves, get creative, and test out our water conservation tips. And don’t be afraid to come up with your own methods, and share them with the rest of us!

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