Remodeling an existing bathroom or putting together a brand new one can be a fun and exciting challenge. Among all of the things to consider, something like water or energy efficiency can easily fall by the wayside as finishes and design take center stage. Luckily, it's not hard to create an efficient bathroom these days, thanks to various regulations and popular certifications. Still, it helps to have some familiarity with the options available to you...and it's even better to go in with a plan. The following tips - for new construction and remodels - will help you get started.
Quick Tip: In the case of a remodel, check for leaks in bath plumbing and fixtures before starting anything. Beyond getting a heads-up on any additional work you (or your plumber) will need to do, this can also help you figure out which fixtures you can repair, and which to replace.
Any discussion about water efficiency in the bathroom has to start with the toilet: flushing accounts for over a quarter of total indoor water use! Older houses that haven't had a new toilet since before 1994 are using 3.5 gallons or more per flush - an entirely unnecessary amount. New toilets use 1.6 gpf or less, generating significant water savings. Some models go even further, providing two separate flush options for liquid and solid waste: usually 0.8-1.1 gpf and 1.6 gpf, respectively.
If you already have a 1.6 gpf or lower gpf model that you don't want to part with, make sure it's working at maximum efficiency by doing a quick toilet checkup and replacing any parts that could be leaking.
Bathtubs get a bad rap when it comes to water savings. This is understandable when you consider that the average tub holds anywhere from 30-50 gallons of water - if you fill it up. If you fill it only halfway, you're using considerably less water. Before you ditch your tub, keep in mind that the time spent in your bath doesn't mean more water is used (unless you're letting some out and re-heating!), whereas the longer you shower, the more water you're using. Additionally, most people don't take a bath every single day, they primarily shower and mix a bath in occasionally.
There are plenty of reasons to keep your tub. Bathtubs make bathing young children easier, it can be expensive to replace a bathtub with a shower only, and there's a certain relaxing quality you can get from a good soak that a shower just can't mimic. However, if you are truly concerned about the water savings, you're trying to make your home more accessible, or you're just not a bather, a well-designed shower can still offer plenty of relaxation and significant water conservation. When switching to a shower-only design, you may also want to consider adding a steam shower. Many people find that 15-20 minutes in the steam shower offers exceptional relaxation, physical health benefits, and overall improved well-being - for about 3 gallons of water. Remember though, that a steam generator will still use some energy, just less than the average tank-style water heater.
The other major water-guzzler in the bathroom is the shower. Pre-1994 shower heads can use up to 8 (!) gpm, while new shower heads are currently capped at 2.5 gpm (in California, this will be further reduced to 2.0 gpm in July 2016, and to 1.8 gpm in 2018). As with the earliest low-flow toilets, low-flow shower heads were often disappointing, and are still treated with suspicion. Fortunately, manufacturers have come up with all kinds of designs to ensure a powerful, effective shower using very little water. And because less water is used, less energy is required to heat it!
Check out our reviews of several multi-function heads, and our water-saving (2.0 gpm or less) recommendations for some ideas.
Quick Tip: Not sure how much water your shower head is using? Grab a 5 gallon bucket and direct the full flow into it (if the gallon increments aren't marked, use a 1 gallon jug to mark them yourself). If it takes less than 20 seconds to get to a gallon, you could use a new shower head.
Faucets are one of the easiest and cheapest things to make water-efficient with the addition of a simple aerator. By adding air to the faucet's water stream, a steady and stable flow is produced that feels like more water than it is. Some of these handy little devices can go lower than a gallon per minute, saving a lot of water in the long run. And don't forget that a slow drip can still waste hundreds of gallons per year, so make sure to attend to needed repairs quickly.
Note: If you have a tankless water heater, be aware of the minimum flow rate required to activate it. Be sure that the aerator you select will give you the hot water you need.
If you're wanting a new faucet, choose one that already has a lower flow rate, preferably a WaterSense® certified model. Manufacturers have risen to the challenge of providing fixtures that work well, look great, AND save water, so you have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to lavatory faucets. And for the forgetful (and germophobic) among us, touchless faucets are a godsend.
The bathroom's biggest energy user isn't even in the same room! Water heating accounts for up to 30% of a home's total energy use, and with a standard tank heater, anywhere from 10-20% of that energy is wasted as water sits and loses its heat to the environment (prompting endless heating cycles). You can reduce the water temperature to save some energy, but keep in mind that below 140 degrees, bacteria like legionella can still reproduce.
If it's time for a new water heater, consider going tankless. Although standard tank heaters are more efficient than ever, tankless units heat water only when there's demand, eliminating standby heat loss and cutting down on energy use. To save even more energy, a solar water heater can be used to preheat the water going into a heater, be it standard or tankless.
Note: Converting to tankless can involve more than a quick swap-out. Because they're on-demand, tankless heaters require a lot of energy at once. Depending on the electrical setup in your home, upgrades might be necessary to power the unit. The same is true of some gas units.
Another method of efficiently pre-heating water for the water heater is called drain water heat recovery. In most systems, incoming cold water is directed through copper pipe coiled around a drain pipe. As hot water flows down the drain (from a shower or dishwasher, say), its heat is transferred to the cold water, which goes on to supply the water heater. Check with local authorities for code-compliance before purchasing or building, though.
Recirculating pump systems are a more advanced option for water (and sometimes energy) savings. These setups reduce the time it takes for hot water to reach fixtures, resulting in less water waste - just think about how long you let the shower run before getting in. You can choose a setup that will run throughout your home (with or without a timer), or go with an on-demand option that helps to save even more energy.
Quick Tip: In new construction, whatever type of water heater you choose, installing it in a central location or close to the kitchen and/or bath can reduce the waiting time for hot water at fixtures, and minimize heat loss.
Bathrooms get wet. And smelly. Neither of these things are good. A good ventilation fan takes care of both, but don't go thinking you need an industrial-strength unit to get the job done. Highly efficient, Energy Star certified bathroom fans can clear a room of moisture and noxious fumes quickly and quietly. Take a look at our buying guide to get an idea of what your bathroom might need.
Did you know that windows can be Energy Star certified? Utilizing a variety of designs and materials, manufacturers have been able to create windows that do an excellent job of keeping the outside out. If you rely upon windows for bathroom ventilation and are unable to install a fan, invest in quality and efficiency. Don't throw money out the window!
Messing with the lights in any room can be contentious, and the bathroom can be particularly troublesome. Between makeup application and mood-setting for relaxing baths, there's little room for error. Fortunately, many of the latest LED and CFL bulbs are indistinguishable from their incandescent forerunners, allowing even the most discerning to find the right glow.
Quick Tip: Bathrooms are often given more light than anyone really needs, making them unpleasantly bright. If you have a multi-bulb vanity or other kind of fixture, try taking a few of the bulbs out to see if you can get by without. If you even notice a difference, it could be for the better.
Even if you don't replace your bulbs right away, there are other ways to save lighting energy. Timers are a good idea in any bathroom, especially so with children and forgetful adults - hook one up to control lights and fans. Some even operate by touchless sensor, turning on when someone enters the room, and shutting off when activity is no longer detected. Dimmers can also help save a bit of energy when lights are regularly dimmed for baths, toilet visits, and other times when full brightness isn't a necessity.
Can't quite get the lighting right for makeup or shaving? Think about investing in a lighted mirror: these will provide a bright, dedicated light for exacting tasks. In addition to having many magnifying options, we also offer mirrors with multiple color temperatures for different settings.
Quick Tip: If you're in need of a ventilation fan as well a new light fixture, good news: you can kill two birds with one stone.
Sometimes, "efficient" or "green" translates to "expensive". Before you start shopping, take a look at the EPA's Rebate Finder and the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency to see if there's any assistance available to you.
Insulating hot water pipes is a small but easy step you can take to save a bit of energy. Heat from water is rapidly lost as it sits in pipes, waiting to be used. Wrapping the pipe with foam insulation will help the water retain that heat some time longer.
Another excellent way to save water is to recycle greywater - the used but relatively uncontaminated "waste" water that goes down sink, shower/tub and washing machine drains. Greywater can be used to water lawns and landscape plants, and even flush the toilet. From buckets in the shower to all-out irrigation systems, systems can be constructed for any situation. Be sure to check with local authorities before attempting any greywater recycling - there could be a number of restrictions in your area, if it's allowed at all.
The EPA estimates that if every household was using water-efficient fixtures and appliances, more than 3 trillion gallons of water would be saved every year. And it's not just water - the energy used to move it, treat it, and heat it would also be saved, resulting in a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. All that, just from replacing some stuff in your house. What better place to start than the bathroom?