Monday, March 03, 2008

Low Carbon Diet: Reducing Hot Water Usage

This will be a kind of catch all post, incorporating the other chapters we discussed last week as well, both of which had to do with efficiency of water usage. The discussion of these chapters was kind of quick and dirty, as we spent the bulk of our time sharing and discussing garbage reduction, an area that can seem like a constant struggle in our consumer society.

Water usage, while not quite as important in my discussion circle's part of the country/ world, still can make a significant impact on CO2 production, especially when heated. Climate change, too, is drastically changing the traditionally wet east coast's relationship with water, as seasonal droughts continue to ravage large parts of the South and to have significant impacts on most of Maryland. So finding ways to reduce water usage in general makes a significant difference in both CO2 reduction and environmental impact, though round these parts that means a big shift in cultural awareness of our relationship with water.

"Am I Clean Yet?"—Reducing Hot Water Used in Showers

The suggestions in the book itself are limited to installing low flow shower heads and taking shorter showers. Consider timing your average shower so that you'll have a sense of how long it takes to shower and to see how close you can get to a 5 minute shower. Heating the water for a 10 minute shower, for instance, can generate up to 4 lbs of CO2. Remember, too, that reducing that load also puts money back into your pocket in terms of fuel bills, a helpful thing to keep in mind when you long to linger.

There are some other great ideas that we discussed as a group as well, and folks raised some important points. There was a general resistance to the low flow shower heads, and several people pointed out the additional time spent in the shower trying to rinse shampoo, for instance, in a reduced water flow calling into question increased efficiency.

Speaking of shampoo, Americans in particular have a relationship with bathing that borders on the obsessive. Particularly during the dry winter months, reducing showers to every other day can be healthier for the skin as well as the environment. Shampooing, too, doesn't need to be done every day, and many people have found that their hair responds better to no washing at all, particularly those with curly hair. Some folks talk about turning the water off while soaping, often referred to as the "navy shower." In my opinion, that sounds like a mild form of torture. I'd much rather save my water by showering every other day! Young kids especially can help with water conservation by bathing together: everyone gets clean and has fun at the same time.

Bath water, too, can be saved rather than drained and used occasionally to water plants. Stick to non-edibles and be sure that you're using enviro-friendly soaps. Gray water recovery is tricky and governed by all kinds of regulations that vary by state, but it can be done. Find out more about the possibilities in your area.

In my home, waiting for the shower to heat up can waste a tremendous amount of water. Keeping a bucket handy captures that clean water for other uses, like watering edible plants, houseplants, or just pouring into your washer next time you do a load. One of our members passed around this link to, showing an easy retrofit solution to recovering clean water in the bathroom. For those building new, consider working such designs into the bathroom in the first place.

Capturing water with rain barrels can be a great way to get clean water for irrigating and can be done relatively cheaply. There are, of course, the beautiful prefab barrels that can be purchased for a tidy sum, complete with diverters for those worried about run-off from asphalt roofs, but we talked about some low-tech solutions too. Juice and soda companies can be a good resource for inexpensive, food-grade 50 gallon barrels that can be attached to downspouts with just a quick trip to the local hardware store. Here's a great website to get you started. It's amazing how much water a roof can collect in even a small rainstorm!

Another great, low-tech idea is to build a summer solar shower outside. I grew up going to the beach where we always showered outside as a way to keep the sand out of the house. While it may take some getting used to, it's a wonderful, cool, refreshing feeling to shower outside and an easy way to take advantage of the sun's power without all the fancy and expensive photovoltaics. Camping stores sell solar showers that can hold up to 5 gallons of water for easy heating and quick set up. My plan is to build a more conventional style shower by using a black storage tank in combination with a black hose snaked unobtrusively through the garden. Building an attractive shower stall for privacy near the garden takes advantage of that space while also allowing shower run-off to divert into the garden. Here's a do-it-yourself site to get started thinking about outdoor shower designs.

"Scrub-A-Dub-Tub"—Reducing Water Used for Washing Dishes

The big debate is often which uses fewer resources: hand washing or a dishwasher. The answer seems to be a very qualified it depends how you do it, but in general, the dishwasher is probably more efficient. Running a dishwasher can generate up to 2 lbs of CO2 whereas hand washing inefficiently can produce almost 3 lbs, as well as using significantly more water.

As an exercise, take a large tupperware-type container and determine the volume: some will tell you on the bottom, but it's easy enough to measure with an old gallon milk jug. Place the container under the spigot as you rinse, wash, etc. This will let you measure just how much water you go through during your normal dishwashing routine, and it will help you target where you could reduce. Pre-rinsing with a dishwasher, for instance, uses approximately a gallon of water whereas inefficient hand rinsing with the water running can use up to 25 gallons of water in just 5 minutes!

New, energy-star dishwashers can use significantly less water than older models, which also translates into less water heated by your water heater. A dishwasher with a soil sensor can tailor the amount of water to the job, and those with internal water heaters can spot heat water for dishwashing, allowing homeowners to turn down the water heater for all other household tasks. Replacing a 10 year old dishwasher with an energy star model can save more than 1,000 gallons of water per year!

There was some debate over whether pre-rinsing was necessary, as many sources suggest scraping only to reduce the amount of water used in rinsing. Personally, I've found that my dishwasher does not get things clean without pre-rinsing the dishes. What I do is keep a dish tub in my sink, which I fill while waiting for my water to get hot to wash those large pots and pans. This dish tub is enough water to pre-rinse all dishes from plates to silverware to the big pots and pans without using any more water.

What are your tricks and tips?


Woody said...

When we built our home we plumbed for gray water. Everything except the toilets are plumbed gray. At the termination of the line I dug a small pond(not quite 8'x8') that is full of cattail and duckweed. A very nice filter for return to ground water.

As for pre-rinsing our dishes before going in the dishwasher, we have three very willing and capable dogs who just love to pre-wash our plates.

When my wife takes her bath she leaves the hot water in the tub to radiate its heat out of the cast iron before draining. It may not be much heat gain for the living space but why run hot water out the drain. She also waters house plants with her bath water too.

Anonymous said...

Rain barrel kits and rain barrels from are great

Danielle said...

Those are great ideas, Woody, and I think it's awesome that you guys plumbed for gray water. It sounds like a really nice system.

Question: did you all have any permitting issues with your gray water system? It sounds like you did much of the work yourself—would you be willing to talk a little bit about the process?

Woody said...

Danielle..One of the great things about our rural area is there are no permits or regulation for systems installed on over 3.1 acres. And that is on septic systems only.(state regulations) The bad thing about lack of regulation is that my neighbor could start hauling in junk cars and stacking them to the stars.

The plumbing is pretty straight forward. A can of spray paint helped me to make sure I didn't make a real nasty mistake on the lines. I get easily confused. With two toilets on the main floor and a rough in for a third in the basement all the lines were run in the same trenches as the gray water before the concrete pour of the basement floor. Gradient was the same as septic line up to the tank then we just trenched past the tank to terminate the gray water on the other side of our road. The "pond" was an after thought because of my concern for any thing that might inadvertently get dumped down the drain.

karl said...

our toilet is the only thing that makes it to the septic tank. we use cloth wipes exclusively for the the toilet--believe me it is better. our hot water usage is deplorable. the bath is where i relax. more often then not the entire family uses the same bath. our soap usage is negligible, face and hair are washed very infrequently--healthier, happier and more attractive. i have 3 solar hot water panels queued as my next project. it should cut our electric bill by $30 or more. the water from the bath waters our walnut tree.

one nice ting about this area is, our electricity is supplemented by the dam. the ecological damage done by the reservoir is almost forgotten history.

we heat entirely with wood--a clean burning 75%+ efficiency wood stove. the trees are being cut to create more pasture for our cows. prior to settlement this wooded area was originally prairie.

we use charlies soap to wash clothes--tell'em we sent ya. you won't believe this stuff. clean fresh smell--no perfumes masking crappy detergents.

we eat 70% from our garden in the summer and 40% in the winter from preserved garden harvest. we raise and butcher 75 chickens for meat for the year. this fall we'll have a calf ready to butcher. pork is our only real short coming. hamburger from the local butcher is also purchased between calf slaughters.

our root cellar, solar dehydrator and summer kitchen projects should save us tons of energy--if i ever complete them. the summer kitchen will be wood fired. the root cellar and the solar dehydrator should efficiently increase our garden stores. canning is great but energy intensive. frozen food is not shelf stable without constant power.

our water usage is awful, especially in the summer. rain water collection in earnest is queued for next summer. i'll manage some from the solar collectors but the entire house needs to be re-roofed with steel before i'll use it to fill our cistern.

our hens live off table scraps and bugs 8 or 9 months of the year. they provide us and three other families with eggs.

what food we can't get locally is mostly bought in bulk--it's cheaper that way anyway. we are not exclusively organic but damn close.

oops, sorry to blog on your blog maybe i should go home now...

p.s. sorry about the usual unusual confusion.

Hayden said...

I'm urban & local permitting issues kept me from using grey water when I planned my remodel (first time since the 40's, so not just a cosmetic issue!) so I bit the bullet and outfitted the whole house with instant hot water. Expensive to install, but using a lot less energy to heat water and not throwing gallons of extra water down the drain waiting for the water to warm.

nita said...

Danielle, thanks for sharing your low carbon diet info. Your blog topics are always so timely.
Even here in rainy western Oregon, water is at a premium. We use a hydraulic ram to pump our water from a spring, it uses water power to pump - so no electricity is used. It pumps to a large holding tank and it is gravity flow from there to a water trough at the barn and to the house. Our place is old so most of the gray water was already plumbed to a french drain/dry well. We have replumbed so nothing is hooked to the septic tank except the toilet and one sink that we rarely use.
Our hot water is heated through coils in our wood fired furnace. We have two hot water heaters that are plumbed together so if we are burning wood the water is preheated before going into the electric hot water heater. Our electric usage is higher in the summer than in the winter because of this.
Our goals are, to continue dialing in our year round vegetable growing to decrease our dependence on freezers. But also to not have as much canned food. I can in my pressure cooker to save water and electricity. I know if I had to, I could can all our meat, but prefer to leave those high value items in the freezer. But at this time I have 6 freezers. Chicken, beef, pork, meat for dogs, fruit and butter/lard. Even with all this our monthly bill runs $80 to $100 a month. We rarely use the clothes dryer and don't own a dishwasher. So that's not too bad, considering the # of freezers.
I have discovered that our oldest (1950's) freezers are the most economical and our new ones are manual defrost so that helps too.

We also use a gutter system in the winter for the cattle while we are deep bedding them. If it rains too much I disconnect the gutter to their tank to stave off what could be a mud problem.

We use the dust mulch method in our garden, so popular in here in days before municipal water was available. Steve Solomon's most recent book, GROWING FOOD WHEN IT COUNTS" details this very well.
I do however, have to irrigate in our greenhouses.

To further drought proof our farm we have hooked up to the municipal water system. It is at one remote pasture, so it alleviates having to haul water to the cows when they are at that location. So we save gas and time. We use that about 1 month total out of 12 months. We had heard through the grapevine that there were only a limited # of hookups available. The # of wells drilled is also being curtailed. So it was a prudent decision on our part.

Since we have to be aware of our water situation every day, we try to use as little as possible. This makes it easier in low water season, it is just a habit.

Our neighbors are always mad at us because our lawn, which is really our orchard seldom turns brown. (If it did turn brown we would not care) Meanwhile the only time they come out of their house is to turn off the lawn sprinklers and to ride their riding lawnmowers around!

I wish you were my neighbor instead!

Danielle said...

Thanks all for the great comments!

Karl, no worries about length—the more ideas in one place, the better, I say!

Nita, thank you for the kind comment. I wish I were your neighbor too so I could come get advice! I'm so glad you started blogging—I really enjoy reading your posts that are so chock full o' experience and wisdom.

Hayden, I've heard really mixed reviews about the tankless hotwater heaters. Good to know you're pleased with yours.

linda said...

i wanted to make a couple of quick comments here.

We use a composting toilet, heat with a wood stove, and i wash dishes by hand... which i'm pretty sure (from our camping experiences) that i can do using less water than a dishwasher.
When doing the dishes i rinse in cool (not cold) water because i use a 3 step washing system (wash, disinfect, then rinse) so i don't need to rinse in hot water.
i also stack the dishes on top of each other while washing and disinfecting... and then when i rinse, i am able able to rinse several dishes at the same time.

As you can see, for the most part, we live pretty low tech here... at least appliance wise. But, a couple of years ago, when we needed a new washer, we decided to purchase one of the new 'Energy Star' HE models(very high tech), even though it was quite a bit higher in price. The idea that it would wash ... and completly rinse the clothes using less than 14 gallons of water... when most similar load capacity sized machines needed more than 45 gallons (saving more than 30 gallons each wash!!!) made the difference in price worth it.

Well, just a little more than two years later we feel quite differently.
It's not that we've changed our minds about saving water... or the energy needed to heat it, but this machine is able to wash, and rinse using less water because of the computized operating system of the machine... and in the 30 months or so that it's been since we purchased it, it's needed to be repaired twice... something we now (because it's so high tech) can't do ourselves.
The repair cost (parts and labor) for the two repairs totaled well over $500.00, and the several year maintenance contract we're in process of purchasing will be at least another couple of hundred.
If i had to do it over again, i'd look for a water efficent machine... but, because we live on less money than many i would take the time to look for one i was pretty sure we could repair ourselves (like a Staber)... or factor in the cost of the maintenance contract when purchasing the machine.

Danielle said...

linda, thank you so much for your thoughts!

I was actually considering buying a Staber for the reasons you mention, but Jenny said they've been disappointed in theirs for several of the reasons you mention, saying that it really wasn't all it's cracked up to be.

I'll ask if she's willing to leave a comment about it here.

Jenny said...

Yes, the Staber. Well, I think my husband hates it more than I do, but neither of us are terribly pleased. One of the biggest drawbacks is the fact that it is top-loading but it's still a horizontal axis drum. The design has you close the drum while the top lid is still open, which leaves all kinds of nice space on the sides of the drum for things to fall in there (most often the laundry soap cap). Once in there, the whole thing has to be taken apart to remove it from the discharge pump, which is where it gets lodged. Also, as a farming family we have very dirty clothes, and the washer doesn't wash *itself* very well. A bunch of grimy dirt builds up on many of the surfaces inside the lid.

We have had to repair it at least once a year in the 5 or so years we've had it. The main circuit board failed, the pulley needed to be replaced, and there have been several problems with the pump and hoses.

I'm also worried about a high-tech machine pooping out on us too, although I hear great things about the Maytag Neptune. Is that the model you have linda?

It's likely that if we can afford it, we'll replace the Staber with the Maytag but keep the Staber around as a backup.

linda said...

jenny wrote:
<"...although I hear great things about the Maytag Neptune. Is that the model you have linda?">

No, actually we have a Sears Kemore... although it was made by Maytag... and is very similar to the Nepture.

In the 31 months that we've owned it, it has needed to be pulled apart twice to remove small items (a sock and a pair of undies) from the drain. The repair tech told us that since the spin/extraction cycle is so intense (and it is intense... i've had a couple of tee shirts get ripped by getting caught wrong during the spin cycle... and Sears won't even talk to me about this), unless everything small is put into mesh bags, they can actually be spun out until they are so tiny that they can be ejected from the machine drum. Each of the visits cost around $120.00. We know the proceedure now ourselves and could do it if we have to, but the problem is when it has a problem... any problem, everything shuts down, so it's hard for us to diagnose what's wrong.
The most recent problem we had, was that the motherboard (a part that they can or will not tell us how long the life expectancy is) went out on it... and it was $200 to replace the part, and 135.00 to diagnose the problem and do the repair work.
The machine was around 900. to start with, and the repairs have been 575., we are now in process of purchasing a 3 year service/maintenance contract that will cost us another 295.00. That means for six year of a working HE washing machine we will spend almost 1,800.00... :(
As you can tell, some of us are not so happy.

We also live on a farm... surrounded by Amish fields, and everything gets dirty and dusty here too. To have to wait weeks (they don't carry all the parts for the newer machines on the service truck)for a washing machine repair is a pain... and to have to put all sock, hankies, undies, hats, scarfs, and little kid clothes in a bag to wash is too.

We have also learned (from our repair tech) that some HE owners are having *drum* troubles. Detergent residue can be trapped in between the inner and outer drums (neither of which is stainless steel) and then collect dirt and backwash into the machine during the rinse cycles. When this happens the drum needs to be replaced, and the charge for that is around $800.
He serviced a Neptune the week before he serviced ours that was having *spin* problems and that had knocked a hole in the wall next to it.

We have a couple of friends who have Stabers, one family likes theirs, the other has had some problems... but is currently *pretty* happy, since Staber just replaced theirs because of the problems.
Even though i like the idea of the low water use machine, i'm thinking that until the technology improves, perhaps for us the *best* thing would be to have a laundry room that is plumbed to use either rain water that is collected, screened and kept in a cistern, or water from a shallow *groundwater* well that is returned to the cycle via a graywater system.


Jenny said...

Wow. That's really excellent information to have, linda. Thanks! Maybe we'd be better off getting a used bucket agitator washer and just plumbing it all to grey water. It is really nice for line drying to have the clothes spun out so well (which the Staber does do), but then again here in NM it's so dry anyhow that the extra spinning isn't really all that crucial.

I forgot to mention that the Staber freaks out with any large, unbalanced loads so something like a big comforter has to be taken to the laundromat.

Very interesting.

Danielle said...

Yes, great information from both Jenny and linda—thanks so much for posting! Except, now what's a girl to do? sheesh

Kinda makes me wanna go back to banging my clothes on a river rock... or my head maybe. ;)

ways to reduce water usage said...

It's a waste to irrigate with great quantities of drinking water when plants thrive on used water containing small bits of compost. Unlike a lot of ecological stopgap measures, graywater reuse is a part of the fundamental solution to many ecological problems and will probably remain essentially unchanged in the distant future. The benefits of graywater recycling include:

Lower fresh water use
Less strain on failing septic tank or treatment plant
Graywater treatment in topsoil is highly effective
Ability to build in areas unsuitable for conventional treatment
Less energy and chemical use
Groundwater recharge
Plant growth
Reclamation of otherwise wasted nutrients
In practice, greywater legality is virtually never an issue for residential retrofit systems—everyone just bootlegs them. However, graywater legality is almost always an issue for permitted new construction and remodeling, unless you're in a visionary state such as Arizona or New Mexico.

Great post!

John said...

We live in Maine on 25ac. doing many of the same things one thing we have done is significantly reduced or hot water cost/emissions by installing a homemade solar hot water heater(<$1000). I found the design at Gary Resas' Build it Solar website:, I think he is an engineer he documents his work very carefully and the site has many great links. BTW Resa lives in norther Montana and we here often see temps<-20f. Thank you for your wonderful writing.