According to EPA estimates, the average American family uses 100,000 gallons of water each year to bathe, cook, clean, and flush, and to water their lawns and gardens. Not counting irrigation, the agency says this could be cut by 11,000 gallons a year by the installation of water-efficient fixtures. Deeper reductions through climate-appropriate landscaping irrigated by properly installed distribution components and managed by “smart” weather-based controllers could be significant.

Credit: Ray Ng

Landscape irrigation in some areas of the country accounts for up to 50% of residential water consumption; in California it’s 57%. The importance of moving on all these measures couldn’t be more obvious; it’s time to take water efficiency as seriously as energy. Most people would probably point to Nevada, California, and a few other Southwestern states as the dry spots in our country—unless, of course, you ask Georgians who watched Atlanta come within three months of running dry a few years ago and enter a water-rights war with its neighbors. In fact, the government predicts that 36 states will be facing shortages within the next few years.

The drought in Atlanta seems to have tapered, but it’s important not to get too comfortable there or anywhere—the impact of population growth and land use will continue to make water a concern. We all need to focus and apply ourselves now—even when it’s raining.

We can look westward for guidance, to the states that have faced water shortages longer, and even farther to Australia for policies, strategies, and technologies that by necessity exceed our current view and practices.

I’m impressed with the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) Water Smart home certification program developed with the Southern Nevada HBA, which requires water-smart landscaping, limits lawn areas, sets standards for irrigation systems, and defines water consumption levels for plumbing fixtures. SNWA even pays a $1.50-per-square-foot-per-year rebate to homeowners for replacing grass. All told, SNWA estimates that a certified Water Smart home will save up to 75,000 gallons a year.

The California Green Building Standards Code that comes online in 2011 includes requirements that will reduce indoor water use by 21% at an estimated per-home cost of $350. Combined with the state’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, builders will play a big role in conserving water.

And I encourage you to refer to the EPA’s WaterSense label program for guidance in product selection and overall planning. WaterSense already lists 2,287 products that have gone through third-party certification, and the program launched its WaterSense New Homes program last year.

Everyone, including plumbing manufacturers, agrees that achieving critical levels of water efficiency will take more than simply installing low-flow fixtures. Behavioral changes are critical. But water is cheap, and until people have to pay the real cost of bringing it to their taps, they’re likely to continue thinking water comes from the faucet.

The analogy to energy efficiency couldn’t be more apt, and our response as an industry and as individuals must be just as focused and strong: It’s time to take the lead on water. Because right now building a home without water-efficient features inside and out—especially in drought-prone areas—would be like building a house in Alaska and neglecting to install the windows.

We’re proud to announce that EcoHome has been included with our sister publications ARCHITECT, residential architect, and Eco-Structure in an integrated media agreement between Hanley Wood and the American Institute of Architects that launches next January. Go to for more details.