.Get Creative About Conserving Water

As the drought persists and California rolls out unprecedented water restrictions, consider small investments that can dramatically increase your home's water efficiency.

With only one year of water left in California’s reservoirs, Governor Jerry Brown has ordered cities across the state to reduce water usage by 25 percent. At home, people can change their habits to minimize personal water waste, including taking shorter showers; turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth or shaving; running dishwashers and washing machines only when they’re full; using a dishpan filled with water to hand-wash dishes instead of running the faucet; and identifying and fixing leaks. Cutting back on water-intensive foods — especially meat — can also help reduce your own water footprint.

But for East Bay residents who want to take their conservation efforts a step further, there are also many opportunities to invest in upgrades and retrofits that can yield dramatic water savings in the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, garden, and lawn. Here are some affordable options recommended by local experts.

Toilet Retrofits

Save money on your water bills and up to two gallons of water per day per person by turning the lid on your toilet tank into a sink. With SinkPositive (SinkPositive.com), available for $140 at Cole Hardware in Rockridge (5533 College Ave., Oakland, ColeHardware.com), you can wash your hands with the clean water that is typically wasted each time a toilet is flushed. It’s a touch-free system where the flush turns the sink faucet on for washing, with the water ultimately draining back into the toilet bowl. It takes five minutes to install.

Alternatively, the East Bay Municipal Utility District offers $50 rebates for residents who replace old toilets — ones using 3.5 gallons per flush or more — with high-efficiency models, which use 1.3 gallons per flush or less (Bit.ly/ToiletRebates). Look out for Environmental Protection Agency “WaterSense” labels (Bit.ly/EPAWaterSense). East Bay MUD further offers free dye tablets to test for toilet leaks, which can save a lot of money and water (available at the agency’s service center at 375 11th St.).

Faucet Upgrades

The East Bay MUD service center also has a range of free low-flow devices (Bit.ly/EBMUDDevices) that can significantly increase water efficiency around the house. That includes water-conserving showerheads (which use two gallons per minute as opposed to the standard 2.5 gallons per minute), kitchen faucet aerators (1.5 gallons per minute), and bathroom faucet aerators (one gallon per minute). The EPA estimates that the average family could save nearly 3,000 gallons of water per year by installing more efficient showerheads, which also bring reduced water and energy bills.

If you tend to leave the shower running while the water heats up, you may also want to consider purchasing a $28 Evolve ShowerStart Showerhead Ladybug Adapter (Bit.ly/EvolveShowerhead), which monitors the water temperature and allows you to flip a switch to release water only when it’s hot. With savings on utility bills, it quickly pays for itself. For your kitchen, you could also consider installing foot-operated faucets (footfaucet.net), meaning pedals that make it much easier to turn the faucet off when it’s not needed (when you’re scrubbing your hands while washing, for example).

Hot Water Delivery Systems

A more comprehensive way to stop wasting water due to heating is to install a modern “hot water delivery system,” which is designed to recirculate cold water in the pipes back to the heater until hot water is available. That can save a lot of water over time compared to traditional heating systems where water flows out of taps before it’s hot. These systems work best when they are built in new homes, but homeowners can also do retrofits that introduce this recirculation technology to your plumbing and water heating systems.

In the East Bay, residents of Berkeley and Albany can explore a range of water-saving technologies — including this hot water delivery system — through the Home Energy Renovation Opportunity (HERO) Program (HeroProgram.com), which partners with those municipalities to finance upgrades. HERO covers upfront costs of product purchases and installation, and homeowners subsequently make repayments through their property taxes.

Laundry Renovations

For homeowners with yards, it can be surprisingly easy to install “laundry to landscape” graywater systems that allow residents to divert their laundry water waste to the landscape — instead of to a sewage treatment plant. Carrie Bennett, education and engagement program manager with the Ecology Center, a Berkeley-based nonprofit, showed me an example of this on a recent visit to the EcoHouse, a demonstration home and garden in North Berkeley that showcases a wide range of energy-efficiency and water-conservation features (EcologyCenter.org/EcoHouse). The washing machine there has a valve that allows users to route water to either the yard or to the sewer (when you’re using chemicals that you don’t want to go into the ground).

The EcoHouse laundry water helps sustain a lemon tree, a butterfly bush, and other plants that would otherwise require more tap water. “It should really go to plants that you’re going to get a lot out of,” Bennett explained. Instead of going to the sewer, the laundry water can also recharge groundwater.

The Urban Farmer Store in Richmond (2121 San Joaquin St., UrbanFarmerStore.com) has $100 laundry-to-landscape graywater starter kits that are easy to install on your existing washer.

For additional environmentally friendly laundry practices, consider purchasing the SmartKlean Ball (SmartKlean.com), a $50 alternative to laundry detergent that can save up to 8,000 gallons of water. The plastic ball with ceramic mineral beads inside can be used for roughly 365 loads of laundry and does not create any soapy residues, which allows you to skip the rinse cycle — and thus save a lot of water. It also leaves zero traces of chemicals in the water streams.

Drought-Tolerant Lawns And Gardens

As the Brown administration pushes forward with its goal of replacing 50 million square feet of lawns in California with drought-tolerant landscape, get a head start with do-it-yourself retrofits. Even with minimal rainfall, rainwater catchment systems — where people capture and reuse rainwater — can go a long way in reducing water waste. At the EcoHouse in Berkeley, a rainwater harvesting system features a 1,100-gallon cistern in the backyard that captures water from the roof that can later go toward garden irrigation and other purposes. The Urban Farmer Store has helpful tips at Bit.ly/GraywaterGuide.

The EcoHouse also demonstrates how East Bay homeowners can rethink some of the fundamental components of lawns and gardens during the drought. The front “lawn” there features recycled cardboard pieces covered in mulch — a design that conserves moisture and water and is a very inexpensive way to replace a water-wasting grass lawn. Adding organic compost to the soil also helps hold onto water, further limiting gardening water waste. Drip irrigation systems, drought-tolerant plants, and artificial turf can also make a big difference in reducing water waste outside your home.


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