Slow the flow of wasted water

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Q. I don't read much about ways to save water, but our home's water bill has been growing steadily for the past few years, and now isn't a whole lot less than our electric bill. What are the best ways to cut these water bills?

A. There are a lot of people in the scientific community who think our biggest resource problem in the future will be the availability of water, not of energy. We tend to take water for granted in this country since it is readily available, but most people don't really notice it until it becomes very expensive. Your situation is not unique, and rising water bills have many people concerned both about the costs and about conserving this precious resource.

When I talk to people about water issues and suggest some alternative strategies for them, I frequently get stopped quickly with "we tried some of those water-saving things years ago and hated them." I remember the little showerhead flow restrictors that many utility companies gave their customers in the 1970s, which might have saved water but cut the flow to a trickle. I've read about the low-water-use toilets of a few years ago that worked fine if you flushed them several times, probably using much more water than a conventional toilet in the process. And I've bought expensive showerheads and faucets that were supposed to cut water use considerably but left me frustrated with their poor performance.

The good news is that there really are a lot of good water-saving products on the market today, and I think people need to give them another chance. Federal water-efficiency standards were put into effect in the 1990s to cut down on water use, and manufacturers have responded with some great products that work well and reduce water use.

The Rocky Mountain Institute has estimated that the average home in the United States could save a third or more on their monthly water bill, reduce their annual water heating bill by as much as $40 (and considerably more than this if water is heated by electricity), and reduce expenses for septic tanks and other capital items if they take some simple steps to save water. These include fixing leaks, putting in water-efficient showerheads and faucet aerators, buying water-efficient clothes washers and other products.

They have a terrific publication online athttp://www.rmi.org/images/PDFs/Water/W95-36_WaterEff4Home.pdf that gives lot of detailed information on ways to save water in your home.

About a third of the water used in the typical home is for showers, and all showerheads sold today must meet the government standards of not more than 2.5 gallons per minute. To find out how much water your current showerhead uses, turn the shower on and time how long it takes to fill a one-gallon container. A flow of 2.5 gallons per minute will take 24 seconds, but if your container is full before that time, you're using too much water. Get a new showerhead and you'll start saving money.

The American Water Works Association also has a great Web site athttp://www.waterbudgets.com/conservision/CUWCC/datainput.htm that calculates how much water you're using in your home. Fill in the information on your current water use and you'll be able to find out changes both indoors and out that can save you money.

All this is nice, of course, but I think one of the biggest reasons to save water is for the environmental impact. As I already said, the availability of water to meet our needs in the future depends on how wisely we use it today. Saving money is nice, but saving the planet can be even nicer.

Q. I always use my computer screensaver to save energy as well as protect the screen, but a friend just told me that this won't do anything to cut down on energy use. Is he right?

A. He is. Many of the great designs and pictures that help protect the computer screen actually use as much energy as if you were typing the Great American Novel. The only screensavers that save energy actually turn the screen off or turn off the laptop backlight. The best way to save energy when you're not using the computer is to turn it off.

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