Water is cheap and, if you judge by our faucets, it seems plentiful. Problem is, drought, explosive population growth, and a range of other factors are pushing supplies—here and around the world—to their limits, and experts have dire concerns about the future of available drinking water.

In the U.S., the challenge comes mainly from population, which is predicted to soar to more than 420 million by 2050 (up from about 309 million now), said Shane Keaney of Bord na Mona Environmental Products during the 2010 NAHB National Green Building Conference. The problem isn’t limited to traditionally dry areas: Thirty-six states are facing water shortages by 2015.

“This is really becoming a fight over what’s available, and we’re really going to have to prioritize what it’s used for,” Atlanta architect Ryan Taylor, AIA told attendees during another session at the conference.

Problem is, many Americans don’t think about it until there are droughts and/or water-use restrictions. Taylor described attitudes using the “Hydro Illogical Cycle,” an illustration from the National Drought Mitigation Center:

Rain – apathy – drought – awareness – concern – panic --- Rain – apathy…and so on

We can’t continue this cycle anymore with the population pressure we’re facing, Taylor said. “It’s something we have to address whether we like it or not.”

In addition to wasting water through irrigation and inefficient fixtures, the mind-set of “use water once and dispose of it” also is flawed. Solutions for conserving water include not only reduction, but rethinking how water is allocated for each task and how it can be reused. (See previous conference coverage for information on decentralized water reuse.)

Here is an overview of some steps home builders can implement to help homes operate more efficiently:

Plumbing:

  • Passive tools: Reduce lengths of pipes and sewer lines and better placement of water heaters; pre-plan for installation of graywater and other reuse (now or future) 

  • Low-flow faucets and showerheads: Consider offering as a bonus or with free installation; remember that low-flow means it takes more time for hot water to reach the faucet, so consider installing an on-demand pump.

  • High-efficiency toilets
    Also consider lesser-known technologies:
    * Composting Toilets: Use little to no water; cost up to $1,000, depending on the type of unit. NSF has standards for these units. Must overcome perceptions.
    * Waterless urinals: The technology is improving; cartridge-free designs require much less maintenance. To make them more palatable, hide them, such as behind a louvered door, Taylor said.

Appliances:

  • Clothes washers: New high-efficiency models use 5 gallons less per load; horizontal-axis machines require less than traditional agitator models. 

  • Dishwashers: Understand the functions and make sure your clients do too. For example, what  is “normal” mode versus “efficiency” mode?

Rainwater Catchment:

  • Collected water can be used for irrigation and toilets. It’s free, is close to the source, has zero hardness, and reduces runoff, among other benefits. 

  • According to Keaney, 1,000 square feet of roof will net 600 gallons of water for every 1 inch of rain. 

  • Make sure clients know how to maintain it.

Greywater Reuse:

  • Water from laundry, bathing, and dishwashing. With basic treatment, water can be reused for irrigation; with advanced treatment, it can be used for irrigation and toilets. 

  • Installation costs of treatment and storage: $1,000 to $10,000. 

  • Requires dual plumbing. Tucson, Ariz., requires this setup, Keaney said. 

  • Codes and jurisdictions pose a challenge, still, as do perceptions. 

  • Plumbing and filters need to be maintained.

Blackwater Reuse:

  • All wastewater. Can be reused for toilets and maybe irrigation; depends heavily on state regulations. 

  • Advantages: Can replace lawn fertilizer, saves money, could allow development where it’s restricted due to at-capacity infrastructure, among others. 

  • Plumbing and pump need to be maintained.

Yellow Water Reuse:

  • Keaney reported this is starting to gain ground in drought-plagued Australia; could make its way to the U.S. in the future.


Finally, it’s important to remember that water conservation and energy conservation go hand in hand. Generating electricity takes tremendous amounts of water. In Georgia, for instance, it takes 72 gallons of water per person per day to produce electricity, Taylor said; multiply that by 9.3 million residents and Georgia’s consuming 669,600,000 gallons per day alone.

And it goes the other way, too: Producing, pumping, and heating water requires significant energy. California expends 19% of its energy for these purposes.

The good news is that many of these steps are simple to implement, and others become easier after a few applications and will continue to gain acceptance as jurisdictions and consumers become more aware. Educating the homeowner—and yourself—is the first step to smart water use.

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor of EcoHome.