Reducing Environmental Impact in the Plumbing Industry

Sustainability. Waste reduction. Eco-friendly. Though the terms have different meanings, they’re often used interchangeably, and they all point to the same thing: efficiency and savings. And regardless of whether the saving has to do with the planet, the community, the homestead, energy, or money in the pocket, the general idea of saving has a universal appeal.

So does that coin’s flipside: reducing waste and cost. Studies and reports periodically produce alarming statistics on how much water and energy is being wasted.

According to the Water Footprint Network, the United States as a whole uses 820,000 million cubic meters of water per year. And it’s not just water consumption that’s at stake, but the ecosystem in its entirety. Case in point: California alone uses 20 percent of household energy just to manage water.

Translated into a more personal number, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates an eyebrow-raising number – more than 300 gallons of water – used in the average American family home every day for cooking, cleaning, washing, drinking, and feeding plants.

Consider a drill-down of specific water usages in older plumbing fixtures around the house:

  • Kitchen sink (food prep and dishwashing): 20 gallons per use
  • Bathroom sink (handwashing, brushing teeth, shaving): 15 gallons per use
  • Shower: 20-40 gallons per use
  • Toilet: 5 gallons per flush
  • Washer: 25 gallons (average) per load

Given those numbers, one can see that it’s not hard to reach 300 gallons in a short period of time.

Being in the industry most closely connected to water use, plumbers are on the frontline when it comes to seeking ways and means to conserve water and energy.

Some examples of how the plumbing industry can assist with conservation include the following:

Water heaters

An efficient water heater can save both water and energy, and the right unit can do much to reduce waste and cost in homes and businesses. In addition, water heater manufacturers continue to improve their products for maximum efficiency, which means a new replacement could be well worth the money. The energy-saving water heater types currently on the market include:

Gas Tankless Water Heater: Designed to heat water only as needed, this type of unit uses less gas than traditional gas water heaters and little electricity.

Electric tankless water heaters: Uses less electricity than conventional electric water heaters.

Solar water heater: This unit comes in a variety of designs, though all include a collector and a storage tank, and all use the sun’s thermal energy to heat the water.

Heat pump water heater: As the name implies, this unit operates similar to a heat pump that produces both hot and cold air. This type of water heater uses electricity to move heat from one place to another (rather than generating heat directly), which makes it more efficient than a traditional water heater. It can be a stand-alone water heating system or used as a combination water heating/space conditioning system.

Low-flow fixtures

Many homeowners are replacing older fixtures with newer efficient models that use less water during operation. Converting to energy-efficient models may not happen in one fell swoop: often homeowners replace one unit, then replace others as they see how much savings can be gained with the first. The fixtures most often replaced in the name of efficiency include:

Low-flow toilets: Traditional toilets (those manufactured prior to the early nineties) use about 5-7 gallons of water per flush compared with about 1.28 gallons in a low-flush unit. This amounts to a savings of about 13,000 gallons per year for an average family. In addition, if on a well, these models use 20 to 60 percent less energy compared to older models, which will save money on the electric bill as well. The more recent models also retain the functionality of the older models but with reduced water consumption.

Eco-friendly faucets: The newer models are able to maintain good water pressure but have less water going down the drain. Many older faucets can be converted using lower flow aerators.

Flow-optimizing/water-saving showerheads: Compared to standard showerheads, which produce a stream of water at 2.5 gallons per minute or more, the newer models reduce water flow to 1.75 gallons per minute – a 30 percent reduction in water consumption per shower.

High-efficiency appliances

According to the Energy Star’s website, these energy efficient products “are independently certified to save energy without sacrificing features or functionality.” Below are the two most common appliances in which consumers are concerned about efficiency rating. Other Energy Star products that take energy savings into consideration include dehumidifiers, ice machines, and pool pumps.

High-efficiency washing machines: These appliances use 35 percent less energy and 50 percent less water, which can save 14 gallons or more per load – and a typical household can save even more by washing in cold water and using the correct load size.

High-efficiency dishwashers: These can save, on average, 3,870 gallons of water over the lifetime of the appliance.

Note: A worn out washer on the main shut-off valve can cause other valves to be noisy. Be sure to check there when diagnosing.

Other ways to reduce your environmental impact via plumbing products and services

Size the pipes correctly: Water pipes should be at the right size and made of the right materials. For example, PEX pipe is flexible rather than rigid, and it maintains heat well and is durable. If you choose to use plastic or copper (which are rigid), you can add insulators to reduce heat loss by 80 percent. If the pipes are insulated to keep the heat in, you’ll save on the energy that’s needed to heat the water.

Repair leaks NOW: It’s important to repair drips and leaks immediately. Household leaks can waste about 10,000 gallons of water per year. One leaky toilet can waste 200 gallons of water per day. (A quick tip for a toilet leak: Drop food coloring into the tank. If that color appears in the bowl after a few minutes, there’s a leak.)

Don’t forget the outdoors: Water systems for landscaping and lawns account for 30 percent of water usage in the United States. Consider installing an irrigation system that schedules the watering, so it efficiently nourishes the lawn or vegetation (usually in the morning or late afternoon). In some areas, irrigation drip systems work well, and timers can be outfitted onto the hose bib to control the timing of the watering. You can install rain barrels to catch water runoff from roof gutters and use the water in the garden.

Get the water moving: Getting hot water to the tap can consume a great deal of energy. Even energy-efficient tankless water heaters can require some time to get the hot water from the tank to the faucet, during which time the faucet is wasting cold water. A circulation pump can get the hot water out faster, thereby saving water and energy. The pump should have a timer to circulate the water only during peak times.

Stop the water when not in use: To save energy, turn off the water heater when on vacation for a week or more. Note: this applies only to tanked type water heaters. Tankless water heaters do not operate until a faucet is turned on, therefore it is already operating at peak efficiency.

Install a greywater system: This system can repurpose “gently used” water from the bathroom sink, showers, tubs, and washing machines to irrigate gardens, plants, and trees. Note that the water may contain traces of dirt, food, grease, hair, and certain household cleaning products, but it cannot use water that has come into contact with feces from the toilet or from washing diapers. There are a variety of systems, but the ones used for irrigation will not alter the household plumbing but will pipe the water directly outside. Greywater systems used inside (going into the toilet tank or through a treatment system for reuse) require specialized equipment and permitting.


The following links provide additional information about water savings and energy efficiency:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense Program

Water Footprint Network

Energy Star

Water Saver

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