A step-by-step guide on how to save water at home

The 50 liters project is in part dedicated to learning how to save water from cities across the globe (if you wonder why you should save water, read this). However, this blog is about the most important place to do this – how to save water at home. It’s the best place to start making a difference, with the resources that you have available at arm’s length. 

For me, home is currently in the suburbs of Pretoria, South Africa. The large house is set in a rambling garden with a big lawn, like most of the properties here. Gardens are lined with trees such as stinkwoods, fever trees, acacias and jacarandas.  Ancient and colorful bougainvillea are common, and enormous bodies of jasmine rest heavily on barbwire fences and brick walls. For the most part the properties around here used to be filled with more people but children grow up and move away, like I did.

However, I’m back, and ironically the place where I’m experimenting with how to save water at home, is the house that I grew up in. The exercise has been a great one.

Though not difficult, there is a difference between reading how to do this, and actually applying it. I have, for example, spent a surprising amount of attention on toilets. This blog is about what I have learned in the process, and how you can do the same.

First, it’s relevant to point out that Pretoria is not currently experiencing a water crisis, though residents are no strangers to water restrictions. So, my house is also in an area that has seen the impact of water scarcity, but does not suffer from it at this very moment. This brings me to my first, and one of the most important steps, if you were wondering how to save water at home.

1. Talk to the people at home

People sharing a living space can have vastly different ideas about how to use it. If you live in an area where water is currently freely available, some might not feel that saving any is necessary. Many people don’t like change. Others feel that their individual impact makes little difference, and some might just not understand why it’s necessary.

Inspirational quote to save water

This step extends to the people that share ownership of your home. Big savings can be made with small things like fixing leaking pipes and toilets. Even bigger changes can be made when old appliances are updated (more about that later). For now, have a cuppa with the person or people that you live with, or whose property you call home. You need them on board to save as much water as possible at home.

If you are flying solo – even easier! Let’s move on.

2. Check how much water you use 

There are many water use calculators out there. The City of Cape Town has one that helps you calculate your daily water use. Hunter Water, which provides water and wastewater services to around half a million people in New South Wales, Australia, has one too.

But for me, the best was just to check our municipal bill. Water costs money, so somebody is measuring exactly how much you use. I like using the daily amount of water, because its more tangible. In my case, I used the amount of water that my parents used before I moved in, and divided that in half (for two people), and then again by the amount of days in the month.

At the moment, I live in a house that guzzles 225 liters of water per person each day. Yowzer! Though this is not great, its not the absolute worst. Gauteng (the province that Pretoria is located in) is renowned for heavy water users, clocking an astounding average of 305 liters of water per person per day.  In comparison, the water savvy folks over at San Francisco (United States) use an average of 162 liters each (2018 figures) per day. Even at the height of an unprecedented water crisis, residents of São Paulo used 118 liters each. This really puts the ongoing water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa in perspective, where residents were requested to use a measly 50 liters each. 

But let’s get back to our mission: making that change at our own homes. Write your water use down and stick it somewhere were you can see it every day. The fridge works for me. In a month’s time, I will do the exercise again and divide the amount of water by three people.

One of the first steps to save water at home, is to check how much you are currently using.

3. Check for leaks

It’s easy to check if you have a leak. It’s even easier if everybody in your house remembers that you’re doing it. To do this exercise, you have to close all taps in your house for fifteen minutes. Don’t flush the toilet or use any implement that runs on your municipal water supply. We also closed the geysers before we got a reliable reading. The plan is to locate your water meter, take the reading and wait 15 minutes. In my case – five times, fifteen minutes later…

Once you are confident that nothing possible in your house is using water, take your water meter reading again. Did the needle move? Something is leaking.

If you’ve never checked out your water meter, it can be a little confusing. Meters look different, but you are looking for anything that indicates liters. In our case, it’s the second dial from the right. The first dial is marked x 0,0001, and the second is marked x 0,001. At this dial, each time the needle completes a rotation, it means 10 liters of water have been used in our house (the garden uses borehole water). One mark is 1 liter. Green Audits explains it very well:

In our case, the meter did not move substantially. It seems like we do not have any substantial leaks in our house. But, it’s still good to check.

4. Identify and fix leaks

Taps and toilets are the obvious places to start looking for leaks. Check if your taps are dripping, or if there are any wet patches around the connections. 

Unsurprisingly, I did not locate a leaking tap, but if you do, checking if the washer is still in a good condition is a good place to start to try and fix it: 

A leaky loo is a common culprit of high water use. The problem is more difficult to spot because the water runs down the pan, so the leak is not as visible as a leaking tap. Some reports peg up to 400 liters a day to leaking loos – that’s a couple of luxurious soaks in the bathtub that just ran down the drain (more about that later too).

South Staffs Water (United Kingdom) has some handy tips for spotting a leaky loo. First, listen for flowing when the toilet has not been flushed, or look for a constant trickle at the back of the toilet pan. Wait for 30 minutes after the last flush then wipe the back of the pan dry with toilet tissue.

Place a new, dry sheet of toilet tissue across the back of the pan. Leave it there for about three hours (obviously without using the toilet) or, overnight. When you wake up in the morning, and that paper is torn or wet, you are unfortunately the owner of a leaky loo. 

If you have gone through all of these exercises, and could not find a leaking tap anywhere, or a toilet, and your water meter keeps running, you might have a bigger problem. The leak could be underground. In this case you will probably have to call in professional help in the form of a plumber.

5. Apply what you have, where it counts most 

Saving water does not have to cost you a thing, but you can go much further should you have some resources (money) available.

A lot of water is wasted in the home every day by old appliances. Ancient models of toilets, showerheads and washing machines are water guzzlers. If you can spend the money, and if the property owner is open to it, update your appliances. If your toilets are older than 20 years, and shower heads older than 7 years or so, it might be time to replace them. Washing machines are expensive, and toilets a little less so, but even small things like a showerhead will make a big difference.

Still, my dad did not want his short-term houseguest to make long-term changes to his house; especially if these entailed novice plumbing and a hammer.

So, let’s move on to the free, and less intrusive, stuff we can do to save water in your home.  Yup, saving water does not need to cost you a cent (and you will save a couple in the process).

Start at the places where you will get the most return for your effort.

Tools to show you where your water goes

Water calculators are handy for pinpointing where in your home you are using the most water. Hunter Water’s water usage calculator is interesting to give a go. I like this one by the Water Corporation (they supply water to the people in Perth, Australia). This calculator rates where you use (and waste) the most water. You get a red, yellow or green light for you water use habits in different areas of your house – bathroom, kitchen, living room and laundry. Then they give you an action plan and tips.

According to these calculators its very clear that in my house, we can make the biggest savings in the bathroom and the kitchen. So, I’ll start there. I have to hand it to my dad –  he was right. Big water saving can be made even without construction work in the house. In fact, some of my most effective pieces of equipment were saved from the recycling bin.

These are the bulk of the equipment that I have employed to save water in my home:

Water saving equipment
Some of the tools of the water-saving trade

6. Use less water in the bathroom

How to save water at the sink

The first thing you need to use less water in the bathroom, is a cup. If you do one thing today, get up, and put a cup next to your sink if you don’t already have one. Use this for shaving and brushing your teeth. The internet says that you should brush your teeth for two minutes. In my bathroom, I run a conservative estimate of 5 liters of water a minute. Let’s say we’re all busy, and we brush our teeth for only one minute, twice a day. That’s 10 liters of water a day. In a month, you could use 300 liters only to brush your teeth. If you are a household of two, that’s 600 liters. In a year, that sky rockets to 7 200 liters for a household of two.

In comparison, the same exercise with a cup of 250 ml will cost you a measly 180 liters or so per year, or 365 liters for the same household of two. That’s a saving of 6 835 liters per year. If a person drinks two liters of water a day, that’s enough water for one person – for more than 9 years! And we were letting it run down the drain. If you want to know how to save water at home, get a cup. I repeat: Have you gotten up to get your cup yet?

The same theory applies to washing hands and shaving. A tap should never be running when the water is not being used, but simply running away down the drain.

How to save water in the shower

This is a sensitive topic for me – I love taking long, hot showers. However, I’ve come to the conclusion you can have best of both. It’s possible to enjoy a shower at the start or end of a long day, without proverbially running the taps try.

Since I’ve started this exercise, my showers have decreased in duration, but increased in enjoyment. This is mostly thanks to shower songs. What does Downstream by Supertramp, Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye, Starlight by Muse and Madonna’s Material Girl have in common? Yup, they were all played at full blast in my bathroom this week.

That selection is from a Spotify playlist of four minute shower hits recently released by Water Aid. By the way, the water charity did this because the United Kingdom, country of lakes and constant drizzles, is experiencing an unprecedented dry spell. Though four minutes seems like a short time, it was actually more than I needed for my shower.

I then moved on to this list of 2 minute shower songs released by Sanlam in South Africa. Actually, a two minute shower is also not too bad, especially if you close the taps while you wash. I also used that handy basin pictured above to catch the cold water, while waiting for the shower to heat up. This is clean water that can be put to good use. I’ve used this for a variety of stuff, from watering my houseplants, to washing the floor.

Shower tips! 

Here’s how I save water in the shower:

  • Time your showers and keep it short. In the shower, every minute counts. Try and stick to two to four minutes.
  • Use the running water to soak and rinse. Close the taps while you wash. This also counts for brushing your teeth or shaving in the shower.
  • Catch the cold water that would have run down the drain while you are waiting for the water to heat up.

How to save water at the bathtub

Bathtubs are not at the top of the list of water saving heroes in the house. Estimates pin an average bath at anything from 80 to 180 liters per luxurious soak. In general, it should be something of an occasional treat, more than an everyday habit. In comparison, the average shower is said to use about 22 litres of water each minute, and less than half of that if low-flow showerheads are installed. 

7. Streamline your toilet 

If your toilet is not leaking, you’re halfway there. If the loo has been serving its purpose for decades, and is likely to remain there for many more, there are still a couple of tricks you can do to lower water use here. 

I don’t know when our house was built, but it was already here for a long time when we moved here in 1992. It’s a safe bet to say the toilets are around 20 years old, at least. Back in the day, people were not afraid to throw a lot of water at little problems. The toilets we have installed can flush 20 liters at a go. That’s a lot of water for a little pee. 

To save a bit of water, you can put filled glass bottles in the cistern. This way, I’m at least saving a litre or so per flush. I can also pull the lever back up again before the cistern is empty. For the really old loos, you can lower the water level to where the cistern fills up, by bending the wire balancing the float (that big white ball) downwards. You need to do this very carefully to not break it. Even a slight angle more downwards will have relatively big impact on the water level in the cistern.

In other models, you can lower the water level by dialing the button on the float down.

Toilet tips!

This is how I can save water in my home at the toilet:

  • Don’t flush after every pee. Hygiene is key, so you’re going to have to make a judgement call here, but if its yellow, its okay to let it mellow. 
  • Put full, glass bottles in your cistern
  • Don’t flush the entire cistern if not necessary 
  • Lower the cistern water level if possible 

8. Use less water in the kitchen

Apparently, the dishwasher is the biggest water user in an kitchen. We don’t have one, but if you do, you should:

  • only use the dishwasher when it’s full;
  • use short wash cycles for everything but the dirtiest dishes, as these use less energy and work just as well; 
  • turn the dishwasher off after its final rinse and open the door, if there is no air-dry setting. The dishes will dry slowly, but without using any extra electricity (which also uses water); and if possible
  • select to use a water efficient model of dishwasher.

Kitchen tips! 

In my house, the most handy ways that I could save water in the kitchen were to:

  • wash the vegetables in a bowl of water, not under a running tap;
  • keep water after boiling eggs, vegetables and food like pasta for other purposes, like watering plants (once cooled) or filling up the dog bowls; 
  • not wash the dishes under running water; and 
  • scrape any leftover and food scraps off plates before washing, instead of rinsing dishes before washing

9. Use less water for laundry

Apart from buying a water efficient washing machine, there are a few tricks that you can apply to save water when doing the laundry. For me, the best I could do so far is to only wash full loads, and to select the ‘economic’ function.

Greywater from your washing can also be captured to flush toilets with, but I have not gone that route in our home. I am also careful to use this quality water on our plants, though I might experiment on a secluded part of the garden and keep an eye on the impact. This water could potentially also be used to was the floors, but as it turns out, I’m not nearly as pedantic with a mop as I am about clean laundry.

So, for the moment, my tips for saving water while doing laundry is kept simple and basic.

Laundry tips!

  • Only wash full loads
  • Use the most economic setting on your machine 

10. Practice what you preach

Not to sound cliched, but when it comes to saving water, you need to be the change that you want to see in the world. While telling people how they can save water is very helpful (look at this blog!), practicing it in your everyday life will make small, lasting impressions that will lead to big results in the long run.  Want your boyfriend to stop running the tap while he’s brushing his teeth? Make a point of taking much shorter showers. Wash the veggies in a bowl of water, which you use to water the plants afterwards, and see if your housemates do the same, tomorrow.

Do you have any tips to save water at home? Please share your tips in the comments.

Comments 2

  1. I love this and it’s so helpful to now know where I can improve to be even more water conscious. Can’t wait for the next one 🙂

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