A Short List of Effective Actions to Conserve Water at Home

Conserving at home can help keep water in your local river, reservoir or aquifer. Photo: S. Postel

With droughts and water shortages slated to affect ever-larger portions of the United States, more and more people wonder how they can meaningfully make a difference.

Lots of websites offer water-saving tips, but which actions actually conserve meaningful volumes of water?  And which offer the most conservation bang for the buck?

A new study out in the July-August issue of Environment provides some helpful, well-researched answers, and happily the bottom line is reassuring: by taking simple, practical actions, a household can cut its indoor water use by 60% and its outdoor water use by 10-100%.

Using the best data sources available, policy analyst Benjamin D. Inskeep and Shahzeen Z. Attari, an assistant professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, methodically estimated the water that would be saved if a theoretical 2.6-person household took various actions.

Importantly, the researchers distinguish between technology upgrades, such as buying a more water-efficient showerhead, and behavior changes, such as taking a shorter shower.  Both save water, but for any given activity sometimes the behavior change saves more than the appliance or fixture upgrade, and sometimes the reverse is true.

Before getting to the list, a couple background facts: the average 2.6-person US household uses 255 gallons of water per day.   On average, 71 percent of that use is indoors and 29 percent is outdoors.  In the drier western part of the country, households that have thirsty lawns and landscapes can use 50-70 percent of their water outdoors and, as a result, have much higher water use overall.

Tackling indoor water use first, here’s what Inskeep and Attari found to be the five most effective conservation actions a household could take, along with the percent of indoor water that action would save:

  1. Replace standard toilets with WaterSense-labeled toilets (19%).
  2. Replace clothes-washer with an Energy-Star-labeled washer (17%).
  3. Reduce showering time from 8 minutes to 5 minutes (8%).
  4. Wash full loads of clothes (8%).
  5. Reduce toilet flushes by one-fourth (7%).

Taken together, the five fixture and appliance upgrades the researchers analyzed – toilets, clothes washers, showerheads, faucets and dishwashers – could reduce indoor water use by 45%.  But you get can get a 35% reduction just by upgrading your toilet and clothes washer, the two biggest-ticket items.

Behavior changes do make a difference, too.  In fact cutting your showering time to 5 minutes from 8 saves more water than replacing your standard showerhead with an efficient one.  Of course, you could do both.

And don’t forget that saving water indoors not only cuts your water bill (and helps keep water in your local river, reservoir or aquifer), it saves energy, too.  Any time you reduce the use of hot water you’re cutting your energy bill, as well.

Moving outdoors, water-savings estimates get more complicated due to the wide variations in climates and landscapes across the country.  But with irrigation being the single biggest end-use of household water, it’s crucial to consider effective ways to curb water use outdoors.

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), a drought-tolerant perennial and member of the mint family, adds beautiful color to a desert landscape.  Photo: Sandra Postel
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), a drought-tolerant perennial and member of the mint family, adds beautiful color to a desert landscape. Photo: Sandra Postel

Here are five of the most effective options analyzed by Inskeep and Attari, along with the range of outdoor water savings possible from each:

  1. Don’t water your lawn: let it go dormant in summer (up to 100%).
  2. Irrigate plants and grass with water you collect in a rain-harvesting system (up to 100%).
  3. Replace most plants and grass with climate appropriate (water-wise) landscaping, and irrigate no more than necessary (20-100%).
  4. Replace cool-season turf grass with a warm-season, native or low-water-use variety (20-100%).
  5. Install a soil moisture sensor to determine when to irrigate (11-92%).

Becoming a water-conserving household may cost some money.  But besides the satisfaction of being a good water steward, your investment will typically pay you back within a few years, depending on your water and energy costs.  According to an EPA-funded study mentioned by the authors, the typical household will spend $1,584 to upgrade to water-efficient fixtures and appliances, but the savings on water and energy bills will pay this amount back in six years.

Some water utilities will actually compensate you if you rip out your lawn and replace it with water-conserving landscaping.   The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves Las Vegas, rebates its customers $1.50 for every square foot of turf replaced with desert landscaping.  And in June, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced a boost to its “cash in your lawn” rebate, upping it to $3 per square foot of turf replaced with drought-tolerant plants.

Though rebates and incentives do help, in most cases saving water at home makes sense – and cents  — anyway.  The short-list of home water-saving measures Inskeep and Attari have pulled together is a great place to start.

Two final ideas: don’t forget about the other components of your personal water footprint, especially your diet and energy use.  Check out our National Geographic water footprint calculator.

And second, make a pledge to take some action to conserve at changethecourse.us. For every pledge (it’s free) we return 1,000 gallons to a depleted part of the Colorado River Basin.  Join us!

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Martha Sullivan

    Really have appreciated this whole series by the Natl Geographic! Especially your larger section on Water Conservation Tips: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/water-conservation-tips

    Was disappointed to see the very important “Diet” facts given there not reflected in this Blog post:


    The water it takes to produce the average American diet alone—approximately 1,000 gallons per person per day—is more than the global average water footprint of 900 gallons per person per day for diet, household use, transportation, energy, and the consumption of material goods.
    That quarter pounder is worth more than 30 average American showers. One of the easiest ways to slim your water footprint is to eat less meat and dairy. Another way is to choose grass-fed, rather than grain-fed, since it can take a lot of water to grow corn and other feed crops.
    A serving of poultry costs about 90 gallons of water to produce. There are also water costs embedded in the transportation of food (gasoline costs water to make). So, consider how far your food has to travel, and buy local to cut your water footprint.
    Pork costs water to produce, and traditional pork production—to make your sausage, bacon, and chops—has also been the cause of some water pollution, as pig waste runs into local water sources.
    On average, a vegan, a person who doesn’t eat meat or dairy, indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.
    A cup of coffee takes 55 gallons of water to make, with most of that H2O used to grow the coffee beans.

    Would be very helpful to our local education efforts to know the source of these very helpful facts.

    • Martha, thanks for your important comment. My blog was focused on a study that helped prioritize the importance of actions one can take to conserve household water, but it’s always important to remember that the biggest part of our water footprint is embedded in our diets. And thanks for pointing to our tips! — Sandra

  • Dr. Chuck Byvik

    I have had a recent interest in quantifying the consumption of energy and water both in the US and the world and have come to a conclusion that these two fundamental elements for life are rapidly approaching a critical stage–water being the greater issue in my estimation. Has there been any analyses that project when, in the future, the availability/lack of water in the US will become a national security issue? It appears to me that this may occur in about one generation from now. I am interested in assembling a data set with an analysis that may estimate the decade this may occur.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I believe we are already seeing water as a geopolitical issue that affects the US. Water stress and drought have factored into recent spikes in food prices (2008 and 2011) that spawned food riots in a dozen countries. Some analysts have even linked the Arab Spring to discontent over rising food prices. Water stress creates an interlinking web of threats that will affect the US in various ways. In terms of water depletion in our country, the burgeoning groundwater debt is something to watch.

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