How to Budget Your Family's Water Usage

Whether you live in the temperate southern regions of Europe, the steamy equatorial tropics or the rain-soaked Pacific northwest of the United States, you should be thinking about water conservation. Despite the fact the two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, only a minute fraction of that vital liquid -- about 1 percent -- is fresh water that isn't frozen in the polar ice caps. The world's booming human population means that there's more demand than ever for clean water for drinking, bathing, agriculture and industrial use [source: American Water Works Association]. On our crowded planet, water is not a resource that can be taken for granted.

Water affects everyone -- a human being typically needs to consume at least 9 to 13 cups (2.2 to 3 liters) of water a day to stay healthy [source: Mayo Clinic]. But drinking water only makes up a small portion of the water we consume. Only about 8.5 percent of the total fresh water consumed in the U.S. is used in homes for drinking, cleaning and gardening. The biggest user of fresh water, accounting for more than 40 percent of what's consumed, is thermoelectric power: Most power plants in operation today use steam pressure to run their generators (the different fuels -- coal, natural gas and nuclear fuel -- used by thermoelectric power plants all heat water to make steam). Irrigation for crop production accounts for another 37 percent of the fresh water used. So if you use electricity or consume food, you're using water there, too.


All of these uses come with costs: Water sources are taxed by overuse, and homeowners who don't pay attention to dripping faucets and running toilets can face sticker shock when the monthly utility bill arrives. Whether environmental or financial, there are plenty of good reasons to conserve water at home. Read on to learn more about some of the most common household water-wasters and the often-simple tricks you can use to help your family conserve water.

Average Water Usage Per Household

In many areas, you can buy rain barrels to collect rainwater for lawn and garden use.

It probably comes as little surprise that the amount of water used by a typical household varies widely from region to region. Likewise, it makes sense that there appears to be a connection between a nation's level of wealth or poverty and its water consumption.

The United States leads the water-consumption pack, with an average per-capita consumption of 660,430 gallons (2,500 cubic meters) of water per year -- enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. That's roughly double the worldwide average of 328,894 gallons (1,245 cubic meters) per year. Nations such as Italy and France use similar amounts of water, while China and many southwestern African countries have consumption levels as low as 158,503 to 211,337 gallons (600 to 800 cubic meters) per year -- about one-third of the U.S.'s average [source: Streeter].


Those numbers may seem high across the board, but remember that they take a very wide water footprint into account. A consumer's water footprint includes not only the water he or she directly drinks, washes in or spills, but also accounts for the water used to make the products he or she uses, eats and wears. A person eating a 2-pound (1 kilogram) steak, for example, is eating a product that required roughly 4,226 gallons (1,600 liters) of water to raise the cow and process the meat. Likewise, clothing maker Levis estimates that one pair of cotton blue jeans consumes 919 gallons (3,479 liters) of water -- for growing the fibers, producing and shipping the fabric and washing the finished product -- during its life cycle [source: Kaufman]. Nearly every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the jeans we wear, requires fresh water.

Some of these water uses are so broad and widespread that a single household can do little to affect them. But there are still many ways that you can change your water use and see a direct benefit. The average American household spent $51 per month in water utility bills in 2009. You can make a significant difference in the amount of water you use around the house -- and save hundreds of dollars each year on your utility bills. [sources: Streeter, WaterSense]. We've got a few tips to get you started on the next page.


Tips for Budgeting Your Family's Water Usage

Button-flush toilets like this one with settings for full flushes and half flushes are already popular in several parts of Europe where water is more expensive.

Keeping your family's water usage -- and water utility bills -- under control and within budget may at first feel like a daunting task: Every dripping faucet, slowly leaking toilet seal or extra half hour of accidentally overwatering the garden can seem impossible to track. But there are a number of easy and effective ways to evaluate your water use, starting with an educated look at your monthly utility bill [source: WaterSense].

Some utilities offer a record of your water use from month to month -- perhaps this comes as a chart on your bill or can be checked online. If your utility doesn't offer this option, start recording your total monthly water use and cost in a spreadsheet, file folder or notebook. After a few months, you'll start to see usage trends. Note the times when you used more water than normal, and consider what those high-use periods say about your water habits.


Did your bill spike in certain months? Perhaps you used more water during the warm months, when family members were watering plants in the garden. Did your bill increase and then stay high after a certain month? A sudden increase that continues from month to month could indicate that a fixture started leaking, or show that an appliance such as the dishwasher isn't working properly. Evaluate these clues, and see if they point you toward a water-wasting culprit in your home.

Family members' habits can also have a big impact on your water bill. Some issues are obvious, such as a child who takes extremely long showers or a parent who leaves the hose running after washing a car in the driveway. But other, more subtle behaviors can also increase water use. Leaving the sink running while brushing your teeth or washing your face, for example, wastes water. Work with your family members to teach them that unless they're actively washing, rinsing, filling a container or doing something else that directly requires a tap to be running, they should turn off the water [source: Water - Use It Wisely].

When your family institutes a change in water use, watch your utility bill over the next few cycles for a change. It may be small, but even a tiny drop in your average water use can validate your family's changes and give you a reason to celebrate: You've saved money and a valuable resource, and your entire family should feel good about that.

On the next page, we'll share a few types of products that can help your family conserve water automatically.


Products for Budgeting Water Usage

When reducing your home water use, the first products to consider are the ones you already own: A leaky faucet that drips about five times per minute, for example, wastes roughly 173 gallons (655 liters) per year. That much lost water can have a significant impact on your utility bill [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. The solution for these water-wasters can be as simple as tightening the fittings or purchasing an inexpensive set of new seals.

There are also a number of inexpensive devices that can improve your water use. Many of them focus on a major domestic water consumer: your lawn and garden.


Green, grassy lawns are water hogs: A 1/8-acre (506-square meter) plot of grass may need 3,500 gallons (13,248 liters) of water per week to remain lush and healthy. Compounding that number, traditional sprinkler-based watering techniques throw the water they use into the air, where some of it evaporates without doing a thing for the lawn [source: Service Authority of Prince William County].

But there are simple solutions to this major drain on the water supply. A drip hose, which replaces the sprinkler with a perforated hose that leaks water in a controlled fashion, allows you to release the irrigating water near plants' roots, where it can do the most good. Rain barrels cut down on your utility bills by replacing water from the tap with water from the sky. They collect water from your gutters for garden use; some offer spigots that connect directly to hoses, making it easy to garden without wasting water [source: EnergySavers]. Keep in mind, though, that water barrels may not be legal in your community: Some areas have banned them to protect the water table and prevent mosquito population overgrowth. Check your local regulations before investing in one.

However, if you see a water conservation makeover as the perfect opportunity to invest in new fixtures, you'll be happy to know that manufacturers are offering a wide range of low-flow faucets, showerheads and appliances.

Showerheads may be a simple place to start: Bolt on a new one and you can instantly begin saving water. U.S. federal regulations limit showerheads to a maximum flow rate of 2.5 gallons (9.4 liters) per minute. Low-flow showerheads can often cut that flow rate in half. Some even feature built-in regulators to ensure that the flow stays consistent, regardless of your home's overall water pressure level [source: The Home Depot].

This is a good time to be a water-conscious homeowner. Whether you decide to change your family's water-use habits, invest in technology that makes conservation a no-brainer or embark on a combination of the two, there is an ocean's worth of options, support and technology out there to help you save water -- and money -- around the house.


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More Great Links

  • U.S. Geological Survey. "Water Science for Schools." Nov. 7, 2011. (Nov. 14, 2011)
  • Service Authority of Prince William County. "Wise Water Use Tips." (Nov. 14, 2011)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Resource Manual for Building WaterSense Labeled New Homes." Feb. 2010. (Nov. 12, 2011)
  • Elliott, Sara. "How dual-flush toilets work." How Stuff Works. 2011. (Nov. 13, 2011)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Water: how much should you drink every day?" Aug 2, 2011. (Nov. 13, 2011)
  • Streeter, A.K. "We use how much water? Scary footprints, country by country." June 24, 2009. (Nov. 13, 2011)
  • "The Average Monthly Household Water Bill." March 11, 2009. (Nov. 13, 2011)
  • Kaufman, Leslie. "Less Water is Bottom Line for Blue Jeans Maker Levis." Mercury Nov. 4, 2011. (Nov. 13, 2011)
  • The Home Depot. "Showerheads." (Nov. 13, 2011)
  • "Landscaping water conservation." U.S. Department of Energy. Feb. 9, 2011 (Nov 9, 2011)
  • Water-Use It Wisely. "100 ways to conserve." 2011. (Nov. 9, 2011)
  • EPA WaterSense. "Water Use Today." Nov. 2, 2011. (Nov. 9, 2011)
  • American Water Works Association. "Water Conservation." 2010. (Nov. 9, 2011)