Some gizmos are right as rain for saving water
As the region faces a drought, experts take a look at innovations designed to help homeowners use less water.
Seattle Times consumer-affairs Reporter
Soggy weather notwithstanding, the drought is still on.
The recent run of rain has helped, but with mountain snowpacks still at less than one-third of normal, you'd be doing yourself — and your community — a favor by looking at new ways to cut water use.
How about a dual-flush toilet that uses half the water to flush No. 1?
Pressure-activated pedals to turn your faucet on and off with your foot?A motion-detecting hot-water system (no waiting for a hot shower)? Or an irrigation system fed data from satellites to adjust automatically to the weather in your back yard? "I hear this question a lot: Why conserve in a rainy city?" said Allan Dietemann, research analyst for Seattle Public Utilities.
The answer: It's the smart thing to do for your wallet and the right thing to do for your neighbors and the environment. There's nothing like the specter of a drought to underscore that message.
"Why waste something if you don't have to?" Dietemann said.
While you're considering these flashier water-saving gadgets, don't overlook the old standbys. You'll get the biggest payoff by doing four things first, Seattle Public Utilities says:
Replace your old (pre-1994) toilet with a newer, more efficient model. (And check regularly for leaks by putting a few drops of food coloring in the tank, then checking the bowl for color 15 minutes later.) Get a more efficient clothes washer (and, maybe, qualify for a rebate). Install a low-flow showerhead. And attach an aerator to the tip of the faucet nozzles in your kitchen and bathroom to restrict the flow of water.
By installing more-efficient water fixtures and regularly checking for leaks, households can reduce their daily water use by about one-third, to about 40 to 45 gallons a day for each person, according to the American Water Works Association.
Then consider some of the high- and low-tech innovations below to wring out more savings. (Estimated prices listed here generally don't include installation or labor costs.)
In your bathroom
The California Urban Water Conservation Council compiles information and research on water-saving products. It also offers a "virtual home tour" with water-saving ideas for homeowners and a water-use calculator: www.h2ouse.net
Seattle Public Utilities serves most of King County, and its Web site includes information about rebate programs and a list of recommended toilets in its "FlushStar" program: www.savingwater.org
For more potty talk, check out the toilet recommendations listed on the Web site of Bellevue plumber Terry Love: www.terrylove.com
Let's talk potties. They're the No. 1 water hogs in homes with older toilets — and you can save up to 20 gallons a day for every person in your house by trading in your old commode for a newer model. Federal law mandates that new toilets reduce the amount of water used to 1.6 gallons a flush, from 3.5 gallons or more.
A typical Seattle family could save $50 to $150 a year by replacing older toilets, Seattle Public Utilities says. Options include:
Dual-flush and other high-efficiency toilets
The dual-flush toilet has two buttons or levers — typically a 0.8-gallon flush for liquid waste and a 1.6-gallon flush for solid waste. Other high-efficiency toilets combine air pressure and 1 gallon of water per flush. One manufacturer is Caroma (www.caromausa.com ).
Price: $250 and up
Experts say: Many homeowners will see savings with these toilets — and enjoy the novelty of them. A Seattle study found dual-flush toilets used 6.9 gallons of water per person per day, compared with 9.1 gallons for a new toilet or nearly 19 gallons for a pre-1994 toilet.
High-efficiency toilets are relatively expensive, and the dual-flush version may require extra cleaning.
Pressure-assisted toilets can be loud (think public restroom). If your house is a long way from the street, there may not be enough water in the sewer line to provide adequate pressure to properly flush that kind of toilet.
Toilet-tank water-displacement device
Consider this only if you're ignoring the advice above to replace your old toilet.
A water-displacement device — a fancier version of the bricks once used to offset the amount of water used to flush — sits inside the toilet tank. (Bricks are bad news — they break down over time and can thereby damage your toilet or plumbing. )
Price: $2 to $6 (or free if you just fill an old glass bottle with water)
Experts say: This may save a little water, but it can decrease the performance of older toilets, leading to double flushing that cuts out any savings you might gain. Think of this as a temporary measure until you can replace the toilet.
Shower timer and water watch
These devices feed off guilt you might feel about long showers.
John Koeller, water-conservation expert and technical adviser to the California Urban Water Conservation Council, Seattle Public Utilities and water agencies nationwide
Allan Dietemann, research analyst for Seattle Public Utilities; former technology chairman for the American Water Works Association
David Broustis, conservation program manager, Seattle Public Utilities
Terry Love, owner of Love Plumbing and Remodel, Bellevue
Tom Watson, project manager, recycling and environmental services, King County Solid Waste Division
The timer attaches to your shower wall with a suction cup. Rotate the timer when you start the shower and aim to finish before the last grain of sand leaves the hourglass. Or use a digital one that beeps when time's up.
Price: starts at about $3.50
The water watch attaches to the showerhead and measures how many gallons of water you use to shower. It doesn't shut the shower off.
Price: about $10
Experts say: "Shower habits are hard to change," says John Koeller, a water-conservation expert who works with Seattle Public Utilities and other water agencies. "Timer or not, people are going to take as long as they need to get the shampoo out."
The novelty of these products may mean they work temporarily, but they're easy to ignore.
In your kitchen or bathroom
On-demand hot-water systems
Letting the water run while it warms up can waste gallons. With an on-demand system, you touch a button or activate a motion sensor when you walk into the bathroom or kitchen; hot water is available in about 40 seconds.
Some systems activate a pump that sends the cooled water in hot-water pipes back to the water heater and fills the pipes with hot water.
ACT Inc. Metlund D'Mand Systems is one manufacturer (www.gothotwater.com). The company says its system costs as little as $1 a year to operate and can save $200 and 14,000 gallons of water a year for a family of four.
Price: $250 and up
Experts say: The real attraction is the convenience of hot water without the wait. There are some energy costs in operating the systems. The potential water savings isn't clear.
You control this faucet with a foot pedal. Step on it to wet your toothbrush. Step off while brushing your teeth. One manufacturer is Pedal Valves (www.pedalvalve.com).
Price: $259 and up
Experts say: It's expensive, but potentially a good way to save if you leave the faucet running when you're at the sink.
A cheap variation: A faucet aerator on-off switch. This attaches to your aerator, allowing you to flip a lever to shut it off temporarily rather than repeatedly reaching back to the faucet handles.
Price: about $2.75
Outside your house
Weather-based automatic irrigation controllers
These automatically adjust your sprinkler schedule based on local weather. Called evapotranspiration, or ET, systems, they either use preprogrammed historic weather data or real-time, satellite-fed data to make adjustments based on the microclimate in your neighborhood. One manufacturer is HydroPoint (www.hydropoint.com).
Price: $300 and up; some require a monthly fee of $4 to $20 to download the data.
Experts say: Koeller says it has cut his water bill in half. The system is able to adjust watering based on wind, humidity, soil type, precipitation and more, downloading data daily from a satellite. One study found savings of as much as 41 gallons a day for each household.
Average daily water use
(Gallons for each person each day)
Toilet Average home: 19; Efficient home: 8.
Clothes washer Average home: 15; Efficient home: 9
Leaks Average home: 7; Efficient home: 2
Shower/bath Average home: 13; Efficient home: 11
Faucet/other Average home: 10; Efficient home: 10
Source: Seattle Public Utilities
Homeowners with high water bills might see big savings that pay for the system quickly. Those with smaller water bills probably wouldn't be so lucky.
Seattle Public Utilities offers rebates on these systems.
This attaches to your hose and uses a combination of water and air pressure to clean decks, patios, driveways and other hard surfaces.
Made by JV Manufacturing (www.watermiser.com)
Price: $179.95 and up
Experts say: This is better than using a garden hose or pressure washer, but many water-conservation advocates say using any water to clean hard outdoor surfaces is a waste.
Koeller has one, though, and admits it can be fun to use — maybe too much so.
"When I use it, man, I just clean everything!" he said. "It's my downfall."
Attach these 8-inch spikes to a 2-liter soda bottle, flip the bottle upside down and insert it into the ground next to a plant. Presto! A drip-irrigation system releases water to the plant's roots, with the added "green" benefit that you're reusing old pop bottles.
Available through the National Gardening Association (shop.store.yahoo.com/nationalgardening/13-4114.html).
Price: $8 for a set of 4
Experts say: These come in handy because you don't have to water every night, and they can save some water that would be lost to evaporation or overwatering with a garden hose. It could be labor-intensive, though, to fill up each soda bottle with water as it empties. Consider investing $50 to $150 in a real drip-irrigation system.
This can be mounted on your house or fence, and temporarily shuts off your sprinkler system when it rains.
Price: about $25
Experts say: Just plain common sense. Some Seattle-area homeowners may be eligible for rebates for upgrading their irrigation systems with a rain sensor. See www.savingwater.org.
Droughts are good for at least one thing besides prompting you to pay attention to how you use water: encouraging creative inventors. Among products still in development:
• A pressure-activated bar installed waist-high at the sink, being developed by Puyallup-based Aqua-Lean. Lean forward and let the water flow. Step back to shut it off.
• Devices to recycle water from your bathroom sink or shower back to your toilet. An electric pump recirculates the water to the toilet tank after it passes through a filter.
• A gadget that senses when your shower water is hot enough and shuts off the flow of water until you're ready to step in. Pull a lever to start it again.
Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.
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