Here’s what I learned on my summer vacation: Americans use 410 billion gallons of water a day, according to The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century. In his compelling new book, Alex Prud’homme reports on water science, politics, and true-life stories of people faced with drinking water shortages due to pollution, privatization, droughts, and waste.
But I also learned a hard lesson after a personal experience. The average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day, most of it from flushing the toilet. A leaking toilet can waste up to 200 gallons of water a day, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In my four-person household, we have three toilets, and two were leaking! The good news? Our leaks, like most, could be easily and quickly repaired. But you'll never guess how much water we wasted before we fixed ours.
We returned from a three-week trip to gurgling toilets and a message from the Board of Water Supply. They’d just read our meter and the dial was moving, which indicated a leak. Plus, our water consumption had spiked to six times higher than normal!
I got that sinking feeling. Up until our departure, two toilets had shown an occasional tendency to keep trickling, post-flush, until we lifted the tank top and adjusted the rubber flapper valve to stop the water flowing out. Just before leaving, we checked to make sure the toilets weren’t running. But that wasn’t enough. Unfixed leaks can get worse, fast. Plumbing is unpredictable, and even spontaneous flushes can occur. Turns out that family members who stopped by to check on things during our absence didn’t check on the toilets after flushing.
“Exactly how much higher was our water use?” I asked the water board rep.
There was a pause, followed by a half-strangled cry. “Your average water use in each two-month billing cycle is 27,000 gallons. But this cycle, you used 176,00 gallons!”
If you have ever fallen flat from the top of the jungle gym and knocked out all your air, you will know how I felt. Twenty-seven thousand gallons sounded bad enough. We’d been trying to conserve water by taking shorter showers (second highest personal water use), but we shouldn’t have neglected those toilets! The meter reader observed that our plumbing had been leaking four gallons a minute.
“Does that mean our water bill will be seven times higher?” I asked, hoping against hope that this would not be the case.
The answer was yes. Hello to the $1,350 water bill! Goodbye to our painstakingly accumulated household savings, which we’d planned to invest in solar water heating. Worse, all that precious water had literally gone down the toilet!
“This happens all the time,” the water rep said. “We had an old toilet out back we never used. Turned out it was leaking for three weeks, and our water bill tripled!”
Talk about the ripple effect! An estimated trillion gallons of water are lost in United States' home leaks every day. This, at a time when global clean-drinking-water supplies are shrinking due to industry, agriculture, urbanization, and drought; and sea levels rise linked to climate change, as Prud’homme reports in harrowing detail. “Borrowing from the notion of peak oil–a point at which the supply of oil is outstripped by human consumption—academics worry that the earth could be reaching a point of ‘peak water.'”
At least now that we’ve fixed our leaks, I don’t have to worry about being such a huge part of the problem. But I'm still plenty worried.
What You Can Do
Be on the alert for trickles and drips.
If your toilet flows for longer than a minute after a flush, it means the flapper valve is not closing, so the tank keeps filling...and draining...
Fix leaks right away.
1. Note the model number on inside wall of tank, go to hardware store and buy new flapper.
2. Check the gasket. One toilet also had a worn-out gasket inside the float, so the float didn’t rise with the water level and the flapper didn't close.
Reduce tank capacity.
In our 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) toilet, we moved the lever on the float down so that the tank only fills halfway. And in the old 3.5 gpf tank, I placed two filled glass quart bottles, which, by displacing a half-gallon of water, will save 4,000 gallons a year until we replace that toilet.
Consider buying an efficient toilet.
If your toilet was made before 1992, it’s likely using 3.5 gpf. The federal standard is now 1.6 gpf, and an EPA-approved Water Sense toilet uses an average 1.24 gallons per flush.
When you go on vacation, shut off the water.
If you leave the electricity on, turn off the hot water heater. If neither of those things are practical, you can just stop the water flow to the toilets by turning the valve handle on the water pipe that feeds them.
Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s “Econundrums” columnist. She regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.