Hardcore ways to survive a drought (or just save money on your water bill)

Guest post by Trystan L. Bass
Sharing showers, hack your plumbing, and learn these new habits to help save water. (Photo by: mfotinoCC BY 2.0)

Did you know that about 25% of the continental United States is in extreme drought conditions right now? Yikes. California, Texas, and other southwest states have it the worst, but in the past decade, drought conditions have meant water rationing in some states and higher food prices everywhere. That’s not all. The ’10s saw a long drought in Australia that led to deadly fires, and parts of central Europe are below normal rainfall levels right now. Climate change brings weather extremes, throwing once-regular rain patterns out of whack.

Even if your hometown is currently nice and wet, it might not be in the future. And besides, saving money on your water bill isn’t a bad thing. So try some of these hardcore hacks to save water…

If it’s yellow, let it mellow

Some will say “gross!” but, just put the lid down, and nobody will see or smell the pee (it’s the poop that smells). Toilet flushing uses the most water in all U.S. household activities at 26.7%, according to a recent study, so reduce the number of flushes and you’ll make a big impact. While newer houses have low-flow toilets or toilets with separate flushes for liquids and solids, that’s not as common in the U.S. as in other parts of the world. So go with this old hippie adage. And I don’t need to remind ya not to flush anything but pee, poop, and TP down the hole, right? It’s not a trashcan.

Smell-test your clothes instead of washing everything

Since clothes-washing uses 21.7% of household water, the fewer loads of laundry you do, the better. Re-wear your clothes instead of washing them — if they don’t smell or look dirty, they don’t need to go into the washer.

  • Use a chair-pile or other system for sorting your once-worn/not dirty garments.
  • Some clothes rarely need washing, like jackets, sweaters, even jeans, because the garment doesn’t come in direct contact with body oils.
  • Go ahead and wash undies and socks after one wearing, but think twice about anything else.
  • And when you do laundry, always wash a full load.

Shower with a friend

Saving water doesn’t have to be boring! Try a “Navy shower” with your partner (neither of you need to be in the Navy). Here’s how: get in the shower and get wet. Turn off the water. Lather each other up (…slowly). Turn the water back on and rinse (perhaps quickly, because, honestly, soap in your private parts isn’t nice). What you do next is up to your imagination. Since showers use 16.8% of household water, a short shower does a good deed while leading to a good time.

Turn off the tap

Any time you’re not directly filling a cup, bottle, pot, etc., turn off that faucet. Fourth in household water use, faucets drain 15.7% of your water, so use it needlessly.

  • Don’t let it run while you’re brushing your teeth or washing your face.
  • Don’t let it run while scrubbing dishes or wiping down the counters.
  • Turn it on precisely when you need it, and then turn it off exactly when you’re done.
  • Same goes for garden hoses. Speaking of which…

Get creative when watering plants

  • Try greywater from your bath, shower, or dishes.
  • Use a drip irrigation system.
  • Water in the mornings or evenings when the weather is cooler, and the water won’t evaporate as quickly.
  • Consider killing your lawn (yeah, our neighbors hated us at first, but who’s laughing now?).
  • Replace non-native grass with drought-resistant ground cover or rocks.

Fix leaks

Drippy faucet or showerhead? Toilet constantly running when you do flush it? Fix those babies! Leaks account for 13.7% of household water. If you rent, report the problem to your landlord, or fix it yourself (especially if you pay your own water bill). Offbeat Empire’s Kellbot shows how simple it is to fix a toilet, and check YouTube for tutorials on fixing leaks.

Install low-flow aerators and showerheads

These are inexpensive, and they’ll save a lot of water. Much like fixing leaks, these things aren’t that hard to install, and you’ll be gaining valuable life skills (so my mom always said). Aerators are only a couple bucks each, so not really worth asking your landlord if you can deduct it from the rent. You can take a new showerhead with you, if you want, and put the clunky old one back on before you leave a rental, but again, these don’t have to be pricey.

Don’t pre-rinse dishes

Make the dishwasher do the work — don’t double the water used. Pre-rinsing wastes 6,000 gallons of water per household each year, says Consumer Reports, and unless your dishwasher is 30+ years old, the action is unnecessary. Instead, scrape any food bits off dishes into the trash immediately after eating, then put dishes into the dishwasher.

Don’t fill the pasta pot

When boiling water for pasta or rice, you don’t need a huge pot full of water. There only needs to be enough water for the food stuff to move around a little bit — sometimes, you only need enough water to barely cover the food. Experiment with how little water you need. And when you do have extra water, let it cool off and then water plants with it.

Give one or two of these ideas a shot, and after those are established habits, try more. I learned a lot of these growing up as a hippie kid in the ’70s, so they’re suitable to families too.

Cutting back on your shower time? Shitting in the woods? What are the ways YOU cut down on your water usage?

Comments on Hardcore ways to survive a drought (or just save money on your water bill)

  1. Great advice! Things I’m trying to work on, even though I live in the mid-Atlantic, so we haven’t had a drought problem lately (rather, the opposite, I would say).

    I confess, I’m guilty of rinsing dishes that are headed for the dishwasher, but when you only run it once every four or more days, that stuff gets really, really yucky (and can get stuck on, as I keep explaining to my husband). Wherever possible, I try to do our hand-wash dishes overtop of the ones I would be rinsing so I’m not using AS much water purely for the pre-dishwasher rinsing. (I hand-wash anything plastic, sharp knives, pots & pans, collanders…probably I go through more water this way than I would if I ran them through the dishwasher, but I have my reasons…)

  2. Great info!

    So, I figure this is audience for this question…is human urine actually good for compost?

    And how do you go about collecting grey water or used kitchen water? I haven’t come up with a good system (that the dog won’t dry to drink out) of yet.

    • Yes, human urine is good for compost. All that lovely ammonia in pee is rich in nitrogen, which helps with the decomposition process. My mum used to regularly go and pee on the compost heap (I’m fairly sure that she still does). Thankfully it was out of sight of the house!

      • The pee in compost thing? Also good for discouraging vermin. Seriously. We’ve got a tall yard fence, so I strongly encourage DH to go out and pee in the bin when the weather is cooperative.


    • There’s some good greywater links above (Offbeat Homies love their greywater!). Shower greywater is prob. easiest to do w/out your dog getting into it — put a bucket in the corner of the shower, collect water (like while the shower is warming up), when you’re done showering, take the bucket & use it to water the plants or whatever. If you can use the greywater asap, the dog can’t drink it.

    • Yes, it’s good. But you shouldn’t use that compost in your vegetable garden or on fruit trees. This has to do with illness preventention. In short, your human waste (and bacteria/germs) should not be in direct contact with your food.

      For flowers it is absolutely fine.

      • What’s the reasoning behind this? I don’t know much about composting, but I do know that urine (unless you have a urine infection) is sterile. Shouldn’t spread germs or anything. Is there another reason not to use it in food compost?

  3. If you have an older toilet, you can also put a brick into the tank to reduce the amount of water used for each flush. My mom did this probably 10 years ago or so in our house and we never had any problems.

    Of course if you have a newer toilet, this isn’t necessary (and there’s probably not a lot of extra volume in the tank).

    • Be careful reducing the tank flush volume of your toilet, especially in older homes! Low flow toilets are a great idea, but only if you’re sure your house can accommodate them. My husband’s pet peeve as a plumber is that many, many old houses are not plumbed with enough fall in the sewer lines to get the “effluent” out from under the house to the sewer mains in one flush of a new low-flow toilet. It can collect at any imperfection in the line and solidify, building up over time. Then suddenly you have raw sewage backing up in the tub when someone flushes upstairs or runs the washer! Then it’s time for the yard clean-out to pour sewage into the back yard – or worse, the toilet to come up – and big “rooter” snake run down the line. Not fun, especially in 70’s slab constructions or the old clay tile sewer lines without yard clean-out access. The old Full-flush models had enough water flow to get the job done and the s#@$t out of the pipe. Just be aware.

      • Just curious, does digestive bacteria used in houses with septic tanks help keep this from happening in older homes? So does adding bacteria help keep the pipe buildup down?

  4. I still rinse my dishes in the sink but never use the pre-rinse cycle on my dishwasher (I think that’s what you were talking about in your post?). They’re still definitely dirty when they go into the dishwasher, though.

    I keep meaning to try the method of covering pasta with cold water and then heating it up to boiling.

    At night we let it mellow but some mornings it definitely smells like pee – not enough to wake us up or anything, but noticeable when you approach the toilet. It usually has to get flushed in the morning anyway, though, so it’s not really a big deal.

    Oh and not that this will be practical for people reading this, but I remember hearing about the Gates Foundation offering a prize for people to reinvent the toilet and come up with a waterless solution. People/countries who already have sanitation issues probably can’t waste a gallon (or multiple gallons!) of clean water on flushing their waste away. It makes me wonder what toilets will be like fifty or a hundred years from now.

    • The solution exists–humanure. I believe Ariel employed this method at her wedding. As the song goes, “Let’s all poop in a bucket, yeah and we’ll save the world!”

      • I think the problem with human feces is that it can contain bacteria such as e. coli and salmonella, that if used in oft-trafficked areas around the home could make people sick. So I think Ariel’s mom has it right that it should go out in the woods for nature, not on the veggie garden.

        • Once it’s properly composted I think the bad bugs generally shove off, but yeah, having buckets/piles of ecoli hanging around in the meantime is enough to make me not even vaguely interested in doing that.

          I have heard of people saving water from their showers in buckets that they then use to flush the toilets, though. Nice & convenient. Someone should invent (if they haven’t already) a toilet tank that fills itself from the shower’s drain… might necessitate the toilet being on a lower floor though, haha.

          • I know there are grey water systems in some new Australian homes, Golf courses and universities.

        • That’s generally the recommendation for pet waste in compost — use it on lawns & trees but not veggies. At least poo from meat-eating pets; herbivore poo compost is fine for veggies (think of cow manure; perfectly fine for farming our food).

        • I have to chime in, why don’t you wee on that poo? Okay sounds gross, but I was reading about fermenting urine for gardening. Literally all you have to do is collect pee in a bucket and let itsit for a month. The natural fermation process will kill off all harmful bacteria, and experiments fou d that when fecal matter was intentially placed in the urine, the harmful bacteria was killed off.

          My boss is a certified Master Gardener in the US and said he tried out this method. He saved a few dying plants this was. He also said it works even better if you take vitamins, the flushed out excess will now transfer to your plants. This technique has also been taught in dry African households to help preserve water and fertalize gardens. Win win, right?

          I am not sure how much water will be saved because I feel like I could fill up a bucket in a day. Lol

  5. Also – with the shower thing: it’s also a good idea to turn off the water (or turn it down to a minimum) while you’re lathering up hair, shaving legs, etc. even if you’re alone in the shower. A small hot water tank is the best motivation, ha ha.

  6. We have a great system at my work where the sink is on top of the cistern so when you flush the tap comes on. It is great because the water is getting used twice, rather than using water for flushing and the water for handwashing.

  7. If you’re boiling something on the stove that doesn’t particularly change the quality of the water, it’s great for watering indoor plants. Whenever I boil eggs, I use the egg water to water my plants that like calcium. Only a small portion of calcium leeches into the water, so it’s a very nice fertilizer.

  8. 1. Mellow yellow: When the toilet is filled with dark yellow dehydrated and/or vitamin-ated pee from other people, I cannot STAND the thought of using the toilet (and potentailly getting cold other-people’s-urine splashback) and I end up flushing it before using it anyway. (So, I disagree that that line that pee isn’t stinky, cuz it definitely can be……) I am less likely to flush it if it’s pale and watery. So lesson here: keep HYDRATED to save water and not make your toilet nasty and stinky 🙂
    2. Cooking water: Tamar Adler’s book “Everlasting Meal” is a great vegetable focused cooking book and she talks at length about creative ways to reuse water, including cooking a week’s veggies at once re-using the same water, and re-using the water for pototoes and/or pasta, and so on. (She’s from California.)

    3. Aerators: My favorite kitchen sink aerators are these ones that have flip on/off levers like so: http://www.energyearth.com/product/am-flip-on-off-aerator
    They allow you to turn off running water easily without reaching all the way to the faucet handle while you, say, scrub a plate or wipe a counter, and makes for quicker turning on and off.

    • I had to nix my husband’s suggestion of “letting it mellow” because our pipes are more likely to clog up if we’re flushing large volumes of TP, as would happen if I were to pee five times before flushing it. (But I also hate looking at/smelling/peeing on top of standing pee so I wasn’t exactly bummed about it. Sorry, Earth.)

      And no. No family cloths. I will happily try to save water in every other area of my life just so I can earn my flushes.

    • Some foods can cause stinky pee, no doubt. We’re all, I’m sure, sadly familiar with asparagus pee. Nobody needs to let *that* mellow! And illnesses, even dehydration, can cause pee to be strong. But most normal pee, just close up the pot.

      Pee splashback shouldn’t be happening unless maybe the toilet tank is too filling too high, so check that out. Could be the flapper — Kellbot’s tutorial (linked above) has a similar fix.

      Love those cooking tips & that aerator! Awesome stuff 🙂

  9. Most of this is useful advice, but I’ve always found that if I don’t pre-rinse dishes that I get dirty dishes out of the dishwasher and because of the heat of the dishwasher, the stuck on food is incredibly difficult to get off and I end up using even MORE water to get them truly clean. I know you can prevent some of this by running the dishwasher every day so the food isn’t stuck on, but with just my husband and I living in our house, it seems more wasteful to run a dishwasher that’s less than half full.

    As an alternative (that I should do more often than I do now): run a sink of water to pre-wash dishes instead of letting the water run the whole time you’re washing. It will solve the stuck-on problem and allow me to wait until I have a full dishwasher to run it, but also conserve several gallons that was just end up going down the drain while I walk all over the kitchen and retrieve the dirty dishes from the umpteen surfaces they end up on.

    • Solution: leave the dishes dirty in the sink one more day (it won’t kill you, seriously) and place them under the faucet so every time someone washes their hands, the excess soapy water falls onto plates and bowls. After a day of this, everything will be soaking in used water, making pre rinse completely moot.

      (Side note: I have literally never even heard of pre rinse and I can’t imagine how wasteful it must be!)

      • This isn’t advisable for certain metal utensils or pots and pans. Sitting in soapy water causes pitting and rusting which damages your dishes, and could cause harmful leeching of minerals due to the uneven/damaged surfaces.

    • In my dishwasher, you can turn off the heated dry stage, which means a) less electricity and b) for stuff that *does* stay stuck on, it’s easier to get off. It’s kind of a schmany new one, though, so I don’t know how common that is as a feature.

  10. Man, I wish I could send you some of the three feet of icy-snow that is currently melting all over our shit right now :-/ I’m worried our lawn is going to rot.

    I dream about having a lawn totally replaced with moss, but I think I’d need to live somewhere warmer, wetter, and with fewer dogs tearing it up… I like the idea of something non-grassy, though. Would probably help my allergies too.

  11. Californian here, and I’m proud to say I am currently doing every single one of these things! We only flush for #2 (which happens at least once a day so we don’t have to have pee sitting around too much), and even then we use the “pee” setting on the toilet, or supplement with the bucket of water from changing out the aquarium (dirty aquarium water goes straight to a bucket in the bathroom). When washing dishes or veggies, I rinse them in a basin, not under running water. I get a bowl of clean water, scrub veggies in it, and then once I have a stack of dirty dishes, that used water goes in them to soak the old food off. Excess goes to the plants.

    None of my friends seem to care and I’m the only one doing anything (they think my let it mellow rule is gross sadly). We’re supposed to get some rain next week and everyone is saying “now I don’t have to save water bc we’re getting rain!” Um, no. That’s not how droughts work.

    • “everyone is saying “now I don’t have to save water bc we’re getting rain!” ” — HAHAHAHHA, yeah as if. I hear that too. New / young Californians who don’t remember the last drought cycles. *sigh*

      Good on ya for doing what you can. We’re gonna be be hurting bad in a few months.

      • Yup, I very much remember the drought from my younger years. My whole family “let it mellow” and I was scared into turning off the tap while brushing my teeth. When the crisis status ended, that feeling of being decadent followed me every time I let the tap run while brushing. I’m trying to ween myself off that decadence now, and only let it mellow in the the non-guest bathroom. Because yeah, we’re fucked.

  12. Don’t forget to get to know your water bill and water meter. Is the amount of water your using make sense for how many people live in the house? If not there could be some kind of small leak. A drip or toilet flapper can be making a big difference! A good way to check yourself is to turn off all of your water and check your water meter, if its moving at all, theres a problem. Also keep an eye on any irrigation systems. Gophers can bite through drip systems causing water loss every time it’s turned off without you knowing. And during black outs timers can be reset. Ditto for any salt water softer system.
    From your local ex-water billing clerk!

      • Sad to say- while it is a good goal to save water for enviromental reason, for some people it makes no financial impact. My water-bill is $150 every two months. Of that $145 is fees and $5 is usage. The fees are set and not dependent on usage so even if I used 1/5 as much water it would save me $2/month :/

        • My water bill is structured in a similar fashion. It kind of pisses me off. You would think that the companies could prorate the fees relative to usage to make people feel it where it hurts.

  13. The lawn thing, yes! That I so don’t get. At Stanford in drought-stricken California, they have palm trees and patches of grass all over campus, and it’s really such a waste of water.

    I don’t understand the appeal of lawns in places where they don’t grow naturally. We have to have sprinklers come on every day at our house for the lawn, but I would so ditch it if it weren’t a rental. I mean, look at how cool that garden is in the “kill your lawn” article! Something to file away for when I have my own place.

    Please read the manual, and make CERTAIN that your dishwasher has a food grinder.
    This is the only way you’ll be able to make sure your dishes will (actually) get clean without the pre-rinse.

    If it does not, then use your dishwasher as a dish rack to dry your dishes, and use a sink-full of water to wash and half a sink- full of water to rinse.
    (If you have a “farmer’s sink”- this is what dish-tubs are for.)

    If you own your own house- MAKE SURE your dishwasher has a grinder, and purchase a new one if it does not.

  15. I heard that putting a brick in your toilet tank also helps because it helps your toilet use less water. I would test it especially on older toilets but it sounds like a pretty great idea.

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