Materials: H20

Before I get to my post on the history of plumbing, lets have a little reminder of the precious resource it tends to waste.

Does anyone else in their late twenties (or with kids that age) remember the old Sesame Street song about “Clean, clear water”?  I still find myself singing “Don’t… waste… water. Water water water!” when I turn on the faucet.


The typical US household uses 293 gallons of water per day.  For comparison’s sake, the typical African home uses just five.  I’m not suggesting we should all limit ourselves to 5 gallons per day (per household) but surely there is a middle ground.

Water is a precious commodity that we tend to take for granted.  Although 70 percent of our planet is covered in blue on a satellite image, most of that water is salty.  Of the one percent of that water that isn’t in the oceans or locked in (rapidly melting) polar ice caps, half of that is polluted.  We might want to start thinking about water as a valuable resource rather than a something we thoughtlessly let run down the drains.


Although we aren’t in a drought prone area like California or baking away in the great southwester desert the Midwest does need to pay more attention to water use issues.  Groundwater depletion is a real problem in this area.  When more water is pulled up out of the ground than is naturally draining down into it the water table begins to drop making it harder for people to get water from the ground.  The most shallowly drilled wells dry up.  Less water runs into streams and lakes.  And the overall quality of the ground water is reduced.

via Peralta Colleges, Physical Geography web page by Rita D. Haberlin

In Waukesha, WI (just as a for instance) demand for water is greatly exceeding the available ground water.  The water table has been dropping rapidly since the 1980s and is now 600 feet lower than its original level.  City officials are now considering sourcing their water from Lake Michigan but the transition will not be easy or cheap.


This is a problem that designers and builders can address (and so can enthusiastic DIY home owners) in many ways:

  • Flush toilets consume 40 percent of water in the average house (toilets installed before 1980 can use up to 6 gallons per flush).  (Just one more reason a toilet can be disgusting, folks).  Modern standard toilets still use 3.5 gallons so a low flow toilet (using 1.6) is a big improvement.  Dual flush toilets use less water for some flushes than others – I’ll let you figure out why.
  • Low Flow shower heads and faucets are in expensive and easy to install (pick one up at the local Menards or Home Depot and DIY your way to better water usage and maybe even a fancy multi-option spray head.  Low flow shower heads don’t reduce the water pressure so you likely won’t even feel the difference. While you save as much as 2.5 gallons a minute on your shower routine.
  • Tankless or On Demand water heaters are a great answer to long runs of un-insulated piping, waiting while the hot water works its way up to the second floor (and wasting good clean cold water while you do) and letting water you’ve paid to heat sit around dissipating warmth into your basement all day.  Basically just a small box mounted to the wall somewhere in your bathroom, it switches on only when you need it.

Here are some Even More Simple ways to save water:

  • Turn off the water while you brush your teeth
  • Don’t run the water just to get it hot
  • Keep your shower time short (if you take a 20 minute shower, aim for 10.  If 10 is your style try to speed it up to 5 minutes.)
  • Turn your toilet into a low flow by putting a full 2 liter bottle in the tank

This post was originally written (by me) for Digging in the Driftless and was shamelessly borrowed back because I was running late this morning and didn’t have time to finish my plumbing post … sorry.

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