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Simple Ways to Save Water – and Energy Too

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

California is yet again in the midst of a historic drought. Saving as much water as possible will be essential to make it through this parched summer.

While most folks don’t automatically make the connection, saving water also saves energy, making water conservation doubly important. California has a massive and complex water supply system with reservoirs, aqueducts, underground aquifers, and miles and miles of pipes. Moving water around the state requires enormous amounts of electricity. Providing safe drinking water requires sophisticated water treatment facilities, which use electricity to filter and purify water. Once it’s safe to drink, massive electric pumps supply this clean water to our homes and businesses. And let’s not forget the other end of the water use spectrum, wastewater treatment facilities, which also consume vast amounts of electricity.

Even though energy is our primary focus at Efficiency First, we have learned a thing or two about saving water as well. Here are some things you can do to reduce water use around your home.

Fix All the Leaks

Our first piece of advice might seem obvious: fix all your leaks. You’d be surprised, though, how often people neglect this simple solution.

At one stage of my life, I managed a large, older apartment building whose plumbing fixtures relied on rubber washers to seal. We used to do an annual check for leaks in every apartment. The fix was simple — remove the rubber faucet seals and replace them, which stopped the leaks. Afterward, the building’s water bills would drop by over $300 per month. The cost? A handful of 10 cent washers and a few hours of my time.

Leaky toilets are another source of waste. I just learned that toilets use up to 30 percent of the water in homes. If your toilet automatically refills without being used, it is leaking. This could be caused by the wax seal at the base, or the flush controls. Either way, you should fix it.

Are you checking for leaks outside too? Over fifty percent of residential water use is outside the home. A frequently overlooked source of leaks is irrigation systems. I can’t tell you how often I have walked by an irrigation system with significant leaks.

Often, these systems are programmed to come on when it is dark to save on evaporation losses. Many people turn on their irrigation at the beginning of the season without checking for leaks. Animals, kids, and weather are hard on irrigation systems. Take the time twice a year to check your drip emitters and sprinkler heads. This simple process can save thousands of gallons of water.

Changing your plantings to drought-tolerant options is another great idea. Lawns are essentially green water. Minimize where you plant grass and reduce the size of your lawn if you can. An alternative to grass is artificial turf, which requires no watering. The synthetic turf industry has come a long way from the days of “AstroTurf” and can be a great option.

Adding a simple rain gauge to an irrigation controller can save water too. A gauge will make sure you aren’t watering if it’s raining. Advanced irrigation controllers can also be a good investment. Some of the fancier ones connect to the internet and monitor local weather conditions. These so-called “smart” controllers can adjust output based on the weather conditions, which saves a ton of water. Smart irrigation controllers are relatively cheap, at $150 or so, and will likely pay for themselves over time.

The style of sprinkler head you use matters.  Newer, rotary-style sprinkler heads can keep your lawn green with much less water than older designs. Even if you water by hand, it makes sense to buy a basic moisture meter so you can verify if you are over or under watering your plants and lawn.

If you have a lot of property or a complicated garden, it might make sense to hire an expert to test your soil and provide a custom irrigation solution for your situation.

Pay attention to water use outside the home, and you will save thousands of gallons of water.


An average size pool holds roughly 20k-30k gallons of water. On hot days, evaporation losses can be 300 gallons or more!  The best thing you can do if you own a swimming pool is to use a cover. Covers save water by reducing evaporation, and they keep the water clean, so using one just makes sense.

Pools leak water too. Want to check to see if your pool leaks? Fill a five-gallon bucket by scooping the water out of the pool. Next, put the bucket on the steps in the pool so that it is mostly underwater. Adjust the water level in the bucket until it matches the water level in the pool. Then shut off your pool’s automatic filler (this is critical). Leave the bucket in place for several hours; overnight is good. The next day, check the water level in the bucket.

If the pool and the bucket are the same, you are good to go. If the water level in the pool is lower than the level in the bucket, your pool is leaking.

It’s amazing how many pool leaks go undetected. By keeping the water at the correct level, an auto-fill system can easily hide leaks by constantly refilling the pool. Pool leaks can waste thousands of gallons of water and undermine nearby building foundations.

There are other simple ways to improve swimming pool performance. Re-plumbing equipment to remove restrictive and unnecessary 90 bends and installing low restriction filtration are good options. Upgrading to a variable speed pool pump is a great solution. These basic steps can save loads of energy, which will significantly reduce your electric bill.

Want a no-cost option to reduce your pool’s energy use? Check your pool controller’s programming. Many pool maintenance people will set controllers for much longer cycles than are required. Longer cycles make their job easier, and they don’t pay the bill, so why not?

It is pretty easy to tell if you are running your filter pump too long. Most pool filtration systems require the entire contents of the pool to go through the filter once every day. Simple math can tell you how long you need to run the system. All you need to know is the pool capacity in gallons and the pump capacity in gallons per minute.

If your pump moves 50 gallons per minute and your pool holds 20,000 gallons, your pump needs to run 6.6 hours per day to run all the water through the filters (50 gallons per minute x 60 = 3,000 gallons per hour. 20,000/3,000 = 6.6 hours per day). If, in this scenario, the controller is programmed to be on more than 6.5 hours per day, it runs more than needed and is wasting energy.


If you have a spa, keep it covered too.

Spa water needs to be changed when it becomes saturated with total dissolved solids (TDS) from the sanitation chemicals. Eventually, the bromide or chlorine won’t work if the TDS levels are too high. Many people drain the spa entirely and then refill it to solve this problem.

Here’s a trick a pool guy taught me. Only drain 2/3 of the spa and then fill it. Draining 2/3 of the water is enough to reduce the TDS count and will save water too.

In addition, use an ozone purification system. Ozone generators sanitize the pool by using a small amount of electricity to generate ozone. Ozone is a powerful oxidizer and will kill most of the bacteria and other funk in a spa. Using an ozone generator reduces the quantity of chemicals you need to sanitize the water. Fewer chemicals mean less TDS. You don’t need to change the water as often in a spa with an ozone generator, which saves water.

Full Loads

Fully load your dishwashers and laundry equipment before you use them. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but most laundry machines and dishwashers work better when fully loaded. Partial loads do less work with the same amount of water. Pack them full before you run them.

Water Heaters

I am a fan of storage-style water heaters. Gas storage is the norm, but Heat Pump Water Heaters can do the same job with significantly less energy. They are safer, too, as they don’t rely on an open flame or natural gas. Tankless gas water heaters may provide endless amounts of hot water, but their basic design wastes water. With a storage water heater, you heat a large quantity of water over a slow period. Then when you need hot water, it is ready to go.

Tankless heaters, by contrast, heat a small amount of water with a huge flame. It can take several minutes before the tankless heater is fully fired up and can provide hot water. Computer controls help, but inherently, tankless water heaters provide convenience (in the form of unlimited showers), at the expense of water use.

Demand Recirculation

One of my favorite technologies is demand recirculation pumps.

Hot water recirculation is not a new idea. Lots of commercial buildings have a dedicated recirculation line plumbed in. Hot water is circulated through a loop; when someone needs hot water, it is there and ready to go. The problem is that you are heating water and recirculating it at times when there is no demand. That equals waste. You can add controls to minimize the losses, but there is always some waste with this design.

The average home does not have a recirculation loop for hot water. To make things worse, builders typically put the water heater far from the point of use. As a result, you need to run the water for several minutes before the hot water makes it through all the pipes to the shower.

When you install a demand recirculation system, a pump pulls the water to the shower. All you have to do is push a button and wait a bit, typically 15 to 30 seconds. When you turn on the shower, it is hot. Without getting too technical, demand recirculation systems work by forcing the tepid water down the cold supply line until it receives hot water. You can install remote buttons in multiple locations, such as each bathroom, to maximize their effectiveness. I have installed several of these systems, including one in my own house, and they work great.

Smart Shower Heads

Today, most plumbing fixtures in California are low flow. Aggressive rebate programs have done a great job convincing people to replace toilets with low-flow models. Most faucets are now low-flow by design or use low-flow aerators.

Showers use a lot of water. So don’t forget to check your showerhead to make sure it is low flow too. The 2018 CA building code requires shower heads to be 1.8 gallons per minute (GPM) or less. There are a wide variety of models to choose from, and most work very well.

Want to do even better? Consider the new class of water-saving showerheads that automatically shut off when the temperature gets to a specific point. Temperature or thermostatically controlled shut-off showerheads save water. Some models are a small adaptor that fits between the pipe and your existing showerhead. Others replace your shower head completely. To use them, you turn on your shower and wait as you would normally.

The cold water will flow until the water reaches a specific temperature before slowing down to a trickle. When you get in the shower, you pull a string or turn a valve, and presto, like magic, you have hot water. Gone are the days of waiting for several minutes and checking to see if the water is hot yet. These units are an affordable way to save water while waiting for it to get hot.

As an alternative, you can do the old trick of putting a bucket in the shower and filling it while you wait for hot water. Then use the water for plants or other uses. Regardless of your approach, reducing hot water use with shorter showers and smart devices is a good idea.

It All Matters

Water is a limited and precious resource, and I suspect this will not be the last droughtwe experience in California. Therefore, it is essential to consider ways to reduce water consumption. The state’s goal is for homeowners to reduce their consumption by 20 percent this year. Using a few of these tips should allow you to meet that goal easily.

Efficiency is the process of doing more while using less. It applies to energy, and it applies to water and a lot more. So do your part to reduce your water usage. The world will be a better place because of your efforts.

Charley Cormany

Executive Director

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