Green Plumbing & Alternatives

The following sections present examples of conservation and water use efficiency practices that can benefit residential users and is courtesy of the official EPA guide on conservation. More information can be found at

An engineering practice for individual residential water users is the installation of indoor plumbing fixtures that save water or the replacement of existing plumbing equipment with equipment that uses less water. Low-flow plumbing fixtures and retrofit programs are permanent, one-time conservation measures that can be implemented automatically with little or no additional cost over their life times (Jensen, 1991). In some cases, they can even save the resident money over the long term.

The City of Corpus Christi, for example, has estimated that an average three-member household can reduce its water use by 54,000 gallons annually and can lower water bills by about $60 per year if water-efficient plumbing fixtures are used (Jensen, 1991). Further support for this conclusion is provided below.

Low-Flush Toilets

Residential demands account for about three-fourths of the total urban water demand. Indoor use accounts for roughly 60 percent of all residential use, and of this, toilets (at 3.5 gallons per flush) use nearly 40 percent. Toilets, showers, and faucets combined represent two-thirds of all indoor water use. More than 4.8 billion gallons of water is flushed down toilets each day in the United States. The average American uses about 9,000 gallons of water to flush 230 gallons of waste down the toilet per year (Jensen, 1991). In new construction and building rehabilitation or remodeling there is a great potential to reduce water consumption by installing low-flush toilets.

Conventional toilets use 3.5 to 5 gallons or more of water per flush, but low-flush toilets use only 1.6 gallons of water or less. Since low-flush toilets use less water, they also reduce the volume of wastewater produced (Pearson, 1993).

Effective January 1, 1994, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (Public Law 102-486) requires that all new toilets produced for home use must operate on 1.6 gallons per flush or less (Shepard, 1993). Toilets that operate on 3.5 gallons per flush will continue to be manufactured, but their use will be allowed for only certain commercial applications through January l, 1997 (NAPHCC, 1992).

Even in existing residences, replacement of conventional toilets with low-flush toilets is a practical and economical alternative. The effectiveness of low-flush toilets has been demonstrated in a study in the City of San Pablo, California. In a 30-year-old apartment building, conventional toilets that used about 4.5 gallons per flush were replaced with low-flush toilets that use approximately 1.6 gallons per flush. The change resulted in a decrease in water consumption from approximately 225 gallons per day per average household of 3® persons to 148 gallons per day per household a savings of 34 percent! Although the total cost for replacement of the conventional toilets with low-flush toilets was about $250 per unit (including installation), the water conservation fixtures saved an average of $46 per year from each unit’s water bill. Therefore, the cost for the replacement of the conventional toilet with a low-flush toilet could be recovered in 5.4 years.

Toilet Displacement Devices

Plastic containers (such as plastic milk jugs) can be filled with water or pebbles and placed in a toilet tank to reduce the amount of water used per flush. By placing one to three such containers in the tank (making sure that they do not interfere with the flushing mechanisms or the flow of water), more than l gallon of water can be saved per flush. A toilet dam, which holds back a reservoir of water when the toilet is flushed, can also be used instead of a plastic container to save water. Toilet dams result in a savings of 1 to 2 gallons of water per flush (USEPA, l991b).

Low-Flow Showerheads

Showers account for about 20 percent of total indoor water use. By replacing standard 4.5-gallon-per-minute showerheads with 2.5-gallon-per-minute heads, which cost less than $5 each, a family of four can save approximately 20,000 gallons of water per year (Jensen, 1991). Although individual preferences determine optimal shower flow rates, properly designed low-flow showerheads are available to provide the quality of service found in higher-volume models.

Whitcomb (1990) developed a model to estimate water use savings resulting from the installation of low-flow showerheads in residential housing. Detailed data from 308 single-family residences involved in a pilot program in Seattle, Washington, were analyzed. The estimated indoor water use per person dropped 6.4 percent after low-flow showerheads were installed (Whitcomb, 1990).

Faucet Aerators

Faucet aerators, which break the flowing water into fine droplets and entrain air while maintaining wetting effectiveness, are inexpensive devices that can be installed in sinks to reduce water use. Aerators can be easily installed and can reduce the water use at a faucet by as much as 60 percent while still maintaining a strong flow. More efficient kitchen and bathroom faucets that use only 2 gallons of water per minute–unlike standard faucets, which use 3 to 5 gallons per minute–are also available (Jensen, 1991).

Pressure Reduction

Because flow rate is related to pressure, the maximum water flow from a fixture operating on a fixed setting can be reduced if the water pressure is reduced. For example, a reduction in pressure from 100 pounds per square inch to 50 psi at an outlet can result in a water flow reduction of about one-third (Brown and Caldwell, 1984).

Homeowners can reduce the water pressure in a home by installing pressure-reducing valves. The use of such valves might be one way to decrease water consumption in homes that are served by municipal water systems. For homes served by wells, reducing the system pressure can save both water and energy. Many water use fixtures in a home, however, such as washing machines and toilets, operate on a controlled amount of water, so a reduction in water pressure would have little effect on water use at those locations.

A reduction in water pressure can save water in other ways: it can reduce the likelihood of leaking water pipes, leaking water heaters, and dripping faucets. It can also help reduce dishwasher and washing machine noise and breakdowns in a plumbing system.

A study in Denver, Colorado, illustrates the effect of water pressure on water savings. Water use in homes was compared among different water pressure zones throughout the city. Elevation of a home with respect to the elevation of a pumping station and the proximity of the home to the pumping station determine the pressure of water delivered to each home. Homes with high water pressure were compared to homes with low water pressure. An annual water savings of about 6 percent was shown for homes that received water service at lower pressures when compared to homes that received water services at higher pressures.

Gray Water Use

Domestic wastewater composed of wash water from kitchen sinks and tubs, clothes washers, and laundry tubs is called gray water (USEPA, 1989). Gray water can be used by homeowners for home gardening, lawn maintenance, landscaping, and other innovative uses. The City of St. Petersburg, Florida, has implemented an urban dual distribution system for reclaimed water for nonpotable uses. This system provides reclaimed water for more than 7,000 residential homes and businesses (USEPA, 1992).

Behavioral Practices

Behavioral practices involve changing water use habits so that water is used more efficiently, thus reducing the overall water consumption in a home. These practices require a change in behavior, not modifications in the existing plumbing or fixtures in a home. Behavioral practices for residential water users can be applied both indoors in the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room and outdoors.

In the kitchen, for example, 10 to 20 gallons of water a day can be saved by running the dishwasher only when it is full. If dishes are washed by hand, water can be saved by filling the sink or a dishpan with water rather than running the water continuously. An open conventional faucet lets about 5 gallons of water flow every 2 minutes (Florida Commission, 1990).

Water can be saved in the bathroom by turning off the faucet while brushing teeth or shaving. Water can be saved by taking short showers rather than long showers or baths and turning the water off while soaping. This water savings can be increased even further by installing low-flow showerheads, as discussed earlier. Toilets should be used only to carry away sanitary waste.

Households with lead-based solder in pipes that flush the first several gallons of water should collect this water for alternative nonpotable uses (e.g., plant watering).

Water can be saved in the laundry room by adjusting water levels in the washing machine to match the size of the load. If the washing machine does not have a variable load control, water can be saved by running the machine only when it is full. If washing is done by hand, the water should not be left running. A laundry tub should be filled with water, and the wash and rinse water should be reused as much as possible.

Outdoor water use can be reduced by watering the lawn early in the morning or late in the evening and on cooler days, when possible, to reduce evaporation. Allowing the grass to grow slightly taller will reduce water loss by providing more ground shade for the roots and by promoting water retention in the soil. Growing plants that are suited to the area (“indigenous” plants) can save more than 50 percent of the water normally used to care for outdoor plants.

As much as 150 gallons of water can be saved when washing a car by turning the hose off between rinses. The car should be washed on the lawn if possible to reduce runoff.

Additional savings of water can result from sweeping sidewalks and driveways instead of hosing them down. Washing a sidewalk or driveway with a hose uses about 50 gallons of water every 5 minutes (Florida Commission, 1990). If a home has an outdoor pool, water can be saved by covering the pool when it is not in use.

Read about Universal Plumbing