home water use

Using Water Wisely

By Faye Griffiths-Smith – Extension Educator Family Economics and Resource Management

faucet_Iowa StateDid you know that the average person in the U.S. uses 100 gallons of water every day? Drinking, taking a shower, brushing your teeth, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, gardening and lawn care — with its many uses, water is essential to our lives yet our supply is limited. At the same time, our national and world populations are increasing. As a result, some areas around the world have been experiencing water shortages. What changes might you be able to make to reduce our water footprint?

Sustainable Water Use Inside Your Home

The ideas listed below focus on changes we can make to use less water in our homes.

  • Around the House
    • Installing water efficient appliances and devices, families have the potential to reduce their water use by about 30 percent. This may also lead to lower household water and sewer bills.
    • Repair leaky faucets and fixtures now. Small leaks can grow into larger ones over time, leading to large amounts of wasted water. 2,700 gallons of water can be wasted annually by a leaky faucet dripping only one drop per second.
    • Try not to pour clean water down the drain unnecessarily. Save it for watering plants, cleaning or other uses.
    • Look for the WaterSense label to help identify products that use water more efficiently. The WaterSense Program is a partnership program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • In the Bathroom
    • Turn off the water when soaping up your hands, brushing your teeth or shaving. This one step can save as much as 3000 gallons per year.
    • Consider taking shorter showers. Use a timer to get a sense of how long a typical shower takes. Would it be possible to shorten your shower time by one minute or more? You can shut off the water while applying shampoo or using soap.
    • Install water saving showerheads. There are aerating low-flow shower heads which mix air into the water stream and non-aerating heads that reduce water volume used.
    • Showers are usually more water efficient than baths. For those who prefer baths to showers, a shallow bath will still save some water. Collect water run for a bath while it comes up to the desired temperature for other uses such as cleaning or watering plants.
    • Check all faucets, toilets and pipes for drips and leaks. One method to check for water leaks in toilets is to put a few drops of food coloring in the tank, let it sit for at least one half hour and then check the toilet bowl to see if the water in the bowl is now tinted. If so, there is a leak between the tank and the toilet. 200 gallons can be wasted a year from a leaky toilet!
    • Toilet tank displacement devices may help reduce water usage in older, less efficient toilets-possibly as much as 35%. There are toilet dams available for purchase. You can also make your own using a small plastic bottle weighted with rocks and water with the cover tightened securely. Do not use a brick for water displacement as a brick will deteriorate and clog pipes. Take care to place the device so that it will not interfere with the working parts within the tank. Test to make sure that there is still enough water in the tank so that it will flush properly.
    • Consider replacing older toilets with newer, more efficient models. Toilets manufactured before 1992 when the Energy Policy Act became law and mandated more water efficient devices generally use about 3.5 to 7 gallons per flush. WaterSense labeled toilets are even more efficient. Newer technology has led to changes that make these toilets 20 % more efficient than other models currently available. As toilets use about 30 percent of indoor water, there is great potential to save water and money on water bills over time.
  • In the Kitchen
    • Keep a full water pitcher in the refrigerator for cold drinking water rather than run the faucet to get colder water.
    • Use a spatula to scrap any remaining food on dishes before placing in the dishwasher rather than rinsing with water.
    • When peeling and cleaning vegetables, use a large bowl of water and vegetable brush rather than running water.
    • Food waste can be added to a compost pile instead of using a garbage disposal.
    • Consider replacing your older dishwasher with a newer model. To be labeled with the federal EPA’s voluntary Energy Star label, dishwashers built since January 2012 are required to use about 9% less electricity and 27 percent less water.
    • When hand washing dishes, use a dishpan instead of running water.
  • In the Laundry
    • Wash only full loads of clothes. If you must wash a less than full load, adjust the load selection size or water level.
    • Your clothes washer is the second largest user of water in the home. Energy Star TM rated washers with a water factor of 9.5 or below use about 1/3 to 1/2 less water and half the energy per load according to the EPA. High efficiency washers are available and can use significantly less water, but they do cost more than conventional washers.

What are you already doing? Which practices might you consider changing in the near future? Even small changes in our water usage will add up over time.

Where’s Your Garden’s Water From?

By Karen Filchak – Extension Educator – Residential Environmental & Water Quality

garden hoseWater for farms and gardens can come from several possible sources, including wells, municipal sources, ponds and rain barrels. Some water sources are more likely than others to be harboring harmful pathogens that might contaminate your garden goodies with salmonella and E. Coli and other creepy things. Public water supplies are monitored and treated for contaminants, so city dwelling gardeners are usually pretty safe. But it’s up to the home gardener to have the garden’s water source tested (private well, rain barrel or pond) before watering the garden’s edibles.

Can You Wash Away Those Garden Worries?

Is your watering hose attached to a well, a pond or your local public water supply? You may think that this is not a question that needs to be asked this year, when we have been deluged with ample water from the sky for months now. Things can change quickly enough, though. I am currently sitting on my sister’s porch in Virginia looking out on a lawn that is golden brown. They had a wet spring too. You may be turning on the spigot soon enough. August could be dry as a bone.

Several foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years have been attributed to irrigation water that is contaminated with a variety of pathogens. In 2003, green onions from Mexico sickened 500 and killed 3 people. Irrigation water was thought to be the source of the hepatitis A virus that caused the illnesses. Remember the E. coli outbreak attributed to spinach a few years ago? While a definitive cause has never been identified, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers contamination of surface/ground water by manure from a nearby ranch as one possible source. And, more recently a salmonella outbreak tied to Serrano peppers may also have been the result of contaminated irrigation water.

Water can be the source of a variety of pathogens or microorganisms that cause food or water borne illness, including E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella spp., Shigella spp., Cryptosporidium parvum, Giardia lamblia, Cyclospora cayetanensis, and the Norwalk and hepatitis A viruses. A lot of research is going on right now to figure out if these microorganisms are simply hanging out on the surface of crops (which means you can wash them off) or if they are actually finding their way INTO the plant from contaminated soil or irrigation water. This is why commercial farmers are being asked to pay attention to the source of their water.

We always think that these outbreaks are only going to happen on big factory farms. But, the bugs that cause foodborne illness are just as likely to be in your compost, your soil, on your hands or in the bird poop that lands on your very own lettuce crop. And, they can also turn up in well water or pond water you use to water your garden. Or, maybe in the rain barrel that is catching the rain off your roof (that same roof where pigeons, squirrels and other wildlife like to frolic and perch).

Just like commercial farmers, home gardeners use water for irrigation (we call it watering), sometimes to apply pesticides and to clean produce of the major dirt before we bring it inside.

Water for farms and gardens can come from three possible sources (not counting rain). Municipal or public water systems are the best source of water for use on fruits and vegetables. They have the lowest risk of contamination. Public water supplies are monitored and treated for contaminants. Private wells that are tested annually and found to be safe are also unlikely to contaminate produce. Ground water is less likely to have microbial contaminants than surface water. Surface water (ponds and streams) is most likely to be affected by watershed activities and season and, therefore, present the greatest risk of contamination from harmful pathogens. Rain barrels have become quite popular, but there is not a lot of research out there addressing the risk of microbiological contamination from this water source. So…If you use a public water supply there is no issue, really.

  • If you have a well, test your well water at least once per year.
    At the same time, it is always a good idea to check the condition of your well, well cap, and the area around your well. If there are any signs of a maintenance problem or indications of access by mice or other wild life, have it professionally evaluated and fixed. Also, if you notice changes in your water quality, such as cloudiness after a storm, this may indicate that surface water is contaminating your well. Have it checked and test the water.
  • If you use surface water, do a baseline test.
    It might not be a bad idea to do a baseline test to determine the quality of that water. Surface water is the source MOST likely to be contaminated with microorganisms that can cause illness. So, water that is heavily contaminated may not be a good choice for watering edible crops.
  • If you use a rain barrel, keep in mind that the jury is still out on this one.
    Some dismiss the notion that there is risk from salmonella from bird or squirrel poop or other microbial contamination. But, if you do have the option, it might be best to save rain barrel water for use on non-edible plants.
  • Where should you test, what does it all mean?
    If you need to test your water source (well or surface), how do you do this and what to the tests mean? Water testing can be useful tool, providing you with information about the quality and safety of your water supply. First, you can go to Connecticut’s Department of Public Health website to find a list of licensed environmental laboratories in Connecticut or contact your local health department.

Standard/conventional water tests will tell you if your water supply contains “fecal coliforms” or “generic” E.coli. The presence of these organisms shows that your well is contaminated with bacteria, but does not tell you about the presence of pathogens (bacteria, viruses or parasites that can make you sick) like E. coli O157:H7. Only a small portion of E. coli strains are pathogenic. If you are concerned about possible contamination by specific bacteria or other pathogens, you should request that your water sample be tested for these.

While standards do exist for drinking or potable water (find them at the EPA website), there are no universally accepted standards for irrigation water used on fruits or vegetables. In California, current recommendations follow a guidance level of 1000 fecal coliform or 126 generic E. coli per 100 ml of water. You might consider using this level to guide your own use of surface water on the home garden.

Paying attention to the source of the water used in your garden is a good idea. And it doesn’t take much time or money. The lucky recipient of your extra zucchini will surely appreciate it. It doesn’t take too much time to do things right.