Drought makes water saving a household necessity

01/25/2014 12:00 AM

10/06/2014 9:30 PM

When every drop counts, water saving becomes a way of life.

State and local officials got homeowners’ attention with last week’s declaration: No kidding, this really is a drought. Cut water use now or face more severe restrictions later.

Start with a 20 percent reduction, urged Gov. Jerry Brown. But how much is that? And where to begin?

According to local water agencies, the average single-family home in the Sacramento area uses about 380 gallons a day. A 20 percent cut represents 76 gallons. Think of it as two loads of laundry or seven short showers. Other estimates peg use at 260 gallons per person in Sacramento; squeeze out 52 gallons for each – or about 10 (inefficient) toilet flushes.

To help entice Sacramento residents to save water, the city of Sacramento increased its rebate for low-flow toilets to $125, up from $100. In a program with the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District and local cities, a water-efficient clothes washer can earn a rebate ranging from $50 to $200; in Sacramento, it’s $125. More rebates are available for retrofits of landscape irrigation systems.

To get those rebates, residents first need a “water-wise house call,” a free consultation that reviews a home’s water use and pinpoints ways to save by finding leaky toilets and drippy faucets as well as busted sprinklers or water-hog appliances. (Find links for requests at www.BeWaterSmart.info.) So far, Sacramento has already done about 1,000 house calls.

“Absolutely, we’ve definitely seen an increase in interest, particularly with the rebates,” Hess said. “With most water-wise house calls, you can get a shower head for free, too.”

Amy Talbot, program manager of the Regional Water Authority’s water efficiency program, said winter “is a great time for improving water efficiency indoors. We’re all preparing for a dry 2014.”

She suggested an easy visual aid: Imagine every gallon of water as a 1-gallon milk jug.

“You squeeze out 2 gallons of savings with a shorter shower, that’s two full milk jugs,” she said. “Picture it like that, and it’s easy to see how much water you’re using.”

Visualize those milk jugs next time you’re in the bathroom.

“Toilets account for a quarter of all household water use,” she added. “Swap out the old and inefficient toilet for a high-efficiency toilet, and you save 5 gallons every flush. Most people flush five times day; that adds up to a pretty substantial amount of water.”

Toilet retrofit savings equal about 13,000 gallons a year.

Clothes washers rank No. 2 in indoor water use. Older models use 40 gallons a load; high-efficiency front loaders need about 15 gallons a load. They also use less energy and detergent, and are gentler on clothes.

“Showerheads are definitely an easy fix,” Talbot said. “Look for the ‘Water Sense’ label; it’s like the ‘Energy Star’ for appliances. It means that shower head will use less than 2 gallons a minute. A five-minute shower is 10 gallons. We can always say, ‘Take shorter showers,’ but this elevates those savings – usually by 17 percent.”

Other incentives also are under consideration in cities throughout drought-stricken Northern California, but those incentives depend on available funds; apply early before 2014 programs run out of cash.

Changing out high-water for low-water fixtures can bring quick savings, but it doesn’t change habits, noted Talbot. “Think about it; every little thing you can do adds up a ton,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for people to really focus on what they can do.”

Longtime Sacramento remodeling pro Darius Baker, owner of D&J Kitchens and Baths, has seen a trickle-down effect when it comes to drought awareness. Impending or recently installed water meters may prompt some questions, but that’s nothing like facing a 20 percent reduction of use.

Baker will be among the speakers at this weekend’s Northern California Home and Landscape Expo at Cal Expo. At noon Sunday, he’ll discuss “Getting All You Can for Your Kitchen or Bath Remodeling Dollar.”

Recent laws such as Senate Bill 407, which took effect Jan. 1, make water-efficient fixtures mandatory on many projects. Passed in 2009, it requires retrofits of plumbing fixtures to high-efficiency models when permitted work, such as a remodel, is done. By 2017, this mandatory upgrade extends to all non-compliant plumbing fixtures in any single-family home.

“I cannot honestly say folks ‘request’ water saving products,” Baker said. Once in a while, they do ask for a water-efficient upgrade or brand of low-flow toilet, he said.

If customers don’t ask, Baker brings up water efficiency. “As a matter of fact, when I bring up the 2009 SB 407 and tell them we ‘have to’ address water flow in every fixture in the house, they become upset,” he said.

He noted that no one has asked – yet – about “gray water” systems that recycle laundry or bath water for landscape or other use. “We have installed lots of recirculating pumps even on tankless water heater systems,” Baker said. The systems can help prevent water waste while a user waits for the flow to heat up.

“There are two ways I know of to get instant hot water,” Baker said. “The first is to install a ‘point of use’ water heater, such as the small units you may have seen under a sink. The other is to install a re-circ pump whether you have a tank or tankless system. Depending on the situation, this can add anywhere from $450 to over $1,000 to a water heater change-out.”

New technology makes water watching easier, especially as the savings add up.

Dan Palmer, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, faced a common issue: His sprinklers went on when it rained, and the irrigation control box was stuck somewhere behind his windsurfing equipment in his garage. So he let the sprinklers run, although he hated to.

“It was a very intuitive issue,” he said.

An engineering friend came up with a way to operate his own sprinkler controller from a smartphone. That led Palmer to develop WaterPoint and the soon-to-be-released WaterSage, two Wi-Fi-operated irrigation controllers that make set-up as easy as point and swipe. He originally envisioned them as technological time-savers, but then he became aware of the huge water savings such a tool could produce.

“I wasn’t from the water industry originally, but this was a problem I could identify with,” Palmer said. “The more I learned about potential water savings, the more I realized what this product could do. It led us to a much different product and a better one.”

Available from Amazon.com, WaterPoint “smart” controllers start at $249 and can be operated anywhere via smartphone, computer or iPad.

Potential vendors swamped Palmer’s booth at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“There’s been a lot of interest,” said Palmer, president of OnPoint Ecosystems. “People are at the forefront of seeing the well dry up. That’s a little bit scary.”

Technology can help us save water, but the real savings come down to personal awareness.

“In the end, I think it still gets down to just being more conscientious about how you use that resource,” said Baker, the remodeling pro. “You could have the lowest flow fixtures throughout your home, but if you leave the hose on all night or let a faucet drip, you have wiped out your effort at conservation.”

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