EPA's WaterSense helps homeowners go green
Within the next three years, 36 states say they're not going to have enough water to meet consumer demand, according to a recent government survey.
"Public water usage has tripled in the past 60 years," says Stephanie Thornton, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency. "The bathroom is by far the biggest user of water inside the home — about 60 percent."
In an effort to combat impending water shortages, promote water-efficient products and educate homeowners on water-saving techniques, the EPA established the WaterSense program in 2006. Since then, it has worked with local utility companies to offer rebates and, as of last December, offer WaterSense certification for newly constructed single-family homes.
Requiring third-party verification, WaterSense homes save an average of 10,000 gallons of water each year. Although no one had earned certification by press time, the EPA says builders nationwide are constructing WaterSense homes.
Less expensive than you think
"In my old house, the water bills were ridiculous," says Iain Fergusson of Wilmington, N.C., who is building what will be the state's first certified home. "As soon as my builder mentioned it, I didn't hesitate."
That builder is Bill Christopher of highly rated ILM Design and Build, Inc. in Wilmington.
"WaterSense is a no-brainer," he says. "You put these features in, save money and do good by the environment."
Christopher says the program's biggest hurdle is lack of consumer recognition. "I think people have a perception that it's going to be difficult or expensive, but that's just not the case."
Christopher anticipates a 0.6 percent increase in the overall cost, including the certification process, for homeowners building to WaterSense specifications.
Every little bit helps, and while building an entire WaterSense home may not be feasible, homeowners can save water by installing any of the thousands of WaterSense-labeled fixtures sold at home improvement stores. The EPA estimates the program has saved consumers $343 million in water and sewer bills and more than 46 billion gallons of water.
"The WaterSense label means a product has been certified for water savings and performance," Thorton says.
In fact, compared to older models, WaterSense toilets could save a family of four more than $90 each year on its water bill.
Many homeowners are able to cash in on local rebates offered by their municipalities for purchasing WaterSense products. Cobb County Water System in Georgia was one of the first WaterSense partners to offer such rebates. Its toilet rebate program launched in 2007 during a statewide drought and offers homeowners a $100 credit for WaterSense toilets (less than 1.28 gallons per flush). To date, the county has issued more than 3,000 credits and says they save an estimated 31.4 million gallons of water each year.
"Our toilet rebate program has been hugely successful," says Kathy Nguyen, senior project manager for Cobb County Water. "The Metro Atlanta area faces many water challenges and partnering with WaterSense gives us confidence when recommending a water-saving fixture to our citizens."
To find out if your city offers WaterSense rebates, visit epa.gov/WaterSense and click on "Find Rebates Near You."
Low-flow still has high performance
For many homeowners, cost is a key factor when considering green building or remodeling.
"When clients suggest it's too expensive, I ask them what they're comparing it to?" says Michael Strong, president of GreenHaus Builders in Houston. "Nothing better exemplifies affordability than WaterSense products," he says, noting a consumer can buy a WaterSense toilet for as little as $99.
Strong says one of his greatest challenges is convincing homeowners that performance isn't affected by using low-flow products.
"When people remodel their bathrooms, it always uses more water," he says. "So we need to make it the most water-efficient bathroom possible."
The EPA has no immediate plans for issuing official specifications for residential remodels.
Experts say people should consider the impact water usage has on the environment. Stephen Aiguier, president of highly rated Green Hammer Design & Build in Portland, Ore., says the majority of Americans are naïve regarding our water resources. "We work well by learning from our mistakes," Aiguier says. "Unfortunately, I think for us to change, something huge has to happen — like Las Vegas running out of water."
Fergusson admits that before he started building his WaterSense house, he never gave much thought to saving water.
"You just get in a habit," he says. "But you become aware of how much you're wasting and you adjust. For me, it starts with my kids reminding me to turn off the water while I brush my teeth. I try to make an effort now."
Get flush with money and water savings
• Install a WaterSense-labeled toilet, which uses 20 percent less water than a standard model, and a WaterSense faucet to increase efficiency by 30 percent.
• Check for toilet leaks by adding food coloring to the tank. If the toilet is leaking, color will appear in the bowl within 15 minutes. Flush as soon as you're done so you don't stain the tank.
• Repair dripping faucets and showerheads. One drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons a year.
• Get in and get out. A five-minute shower uses only 10 to 25 gallons of water. A full bathtub can require up to 70 gallons.
• Turning off the tap while you brush your teeth can save 8 gallons per day.