You are freaking out about this drought, and you want to do something, anything, to conserve water. But where to start?
Should you purchase rain barrels? Replace your toilets? What if you don't own your home -- is there anything you can do?
The good news is that saving water does not have to be difficult or expensive -- and even if you are renting, you can start right now.
What follows is a short list of the most effective actions U.S. households can take to curb indoor water use. The list was published last summer in the journal Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development.
Please note that this particular set of advice does not address outdoor water use (irrigation), which often makes up a larger percentage of total household water use than what we use inside. However the researchers explain that irrigation is extremely variable across regions of the country, so they were not able to gather enough data to inform best practices for warm climates like Southern California.
Still, indoor water use makes up at least 40% of most household's total water use, and it is worth trying to conserve in this space too.
I'll explain how the researchers came to the various conclusions presented below in a bit, but this drought is serious, so let's get to the best ways to save water right away.
Rethink your toilet
Most indoor water use involves toilets, so this is a good place to start.
If you are willing to spend some serious cash, the gold standard option would be to replace old toilets that use up to 5 gallons of water per flush with WaterSense-labeled toilets that use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush. On average, upgrading a toilet can create a water savings of 18.6%.
For a lot less money, you can reduce your household’s indoor water use an average of 5.9% by installing a water-saving insert in your toilet tank. You fill it with water and then leave it in the tank where it takes up space and saves you about 1/2 a gallon of water per flush. You can get these inserts for less than $5 per toilet. You can also put a few marbles in a plastic water bottle, fill that up with water, and place that in your tank for free.
In addition, you can just flush less. Reducing daily toilet flushes by 25% can save 7.3% of your indoor water use.
Wash your clothes responsibly
Energy Star-certified clothes washers use 40% less water than other washers, and can reduce your indoor water use by 16.7%, according to the study.
If you can't spring for the upgrade, you can still save 7.9% of indoor water by making sure the washer is filled all the way up when you use it (or adjusting the water level to match the load).
Shorten the shower
Reducing the amount of time you spend in the shower from 8.2 minutes to 5 minutes can help you save 8.2% of the indoor water you use, the researchers write. Replacing a standard shower head with a WaterSense-labeled shower head will save you an additional 1.9%.
Consider the sink
You know the drill: Turn off the water when you brush your teeth or wash your face and fill the sink up when you shave rather than let the water run. These strategies pay off. A family of 2.6 people can lower its indoor water use by 4.4% if they reduce the amount of time the faucet is left running by two minutes per person per day.
Adding WaterSense-labeled faucets or flow-reducing aerators to faucets can limit the amount of water pouring out to 1.5 gallons per minute from 2.2 gallons per minute. WaterSense aerators are easy to install and cost just a few dollars. It can help you reduce your indoor water use by 1.9%, the researchers said.
Do the dishes differently
Changing your dish-washing routine saves the least amount of water on this list, but it is still worth considering. Refraining from pre-washing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher can lead to a savings of 0.4% of total indoor water use. Replacing a standard dishwasher with an Energy Star-labeled dishwasher will save you another 0.4%. And if you put dirty dishes directly in an Energy Star-labeled dishwasher instead of hand-washing them, you can expect an average savings of 2.1%.
It all adds up!
The scientists conclude that replacing water-hungry appliances with water-wise ones can lead to a savings of up to 45.1% of total indoor water use. But just changing your everyday behaviors can lead to water savings of 30.2%.
And for those who want to know how the researchers arrived at these savings percentages ...
The report in Environment was written by Benjamin Inskeep of the North Carolina Clean Energy Center and Shahzeen Attari, who studies human behavior and resource use at the Indiana University, Bloomington.
The researchers looked at data collected from 1,888 homes in 14 American cities by the Water Research Foundation's Residential End Uses of Water study.
To calculate the estimated water savings available to the typical American household, they compared the average water use of the households in the study with the theoretical use of a household that is taking water-conserving steps.
They acknowledge that their data might not be perfect. The data in the study were collected 15 years ago, and homeowners may have become more waterwise since then.
But following their advice is a good place to start your own water conservation as Los Angeles enters its fourth year of drought. And if you have other water-saving ideas to share, please leave them in the comments.