The term “sustainability” is increasingly creeping into our vocabulary. It means different things to different people and can be defined in countless ways. We hear about it in the news, maybe have a “green team” at work, and see it in our community. Many of us may want to go beyond putting out our green “Shaker Recycles” bins every week, but where do we start?
As with many things in life, this depends on our goals, skills, and budget. In this new series we will explore practical opportunities to approach sustainability, often through conservation and efficiency. With spring approaching, we start with a focus on water.
Over the past few years, significant advances have been made in technologies that allow us to reduce water use. We can start with a few examples inside our homes and outside in the yard.
Perhaps the most simple and straightforward approach inside our homes is to use better-designed and more efficient plumbing fixtures. The EPA has a program called WaterSense that helps consumers choose fixtures that are at least twenty percent more efficient than comparable products but have the same performance (think EnergyStar for water). There are thousands of products that carry the WaterSense label to meet any style and budget.
You can easily and cheaply add aerators (to limit your bathroom faucets to 1.5 gallons per minute) in a few minutes. Very effective showerheads (at two gallons per minute or less) are available for $10 to $20. Or simply wait until it’s time to upgrade or replace a broken fixture and then look for the label, or specify to your contractor that you only want WaterSense fixtures. A WaterSense dual-flush toilet can be as little as $100 and uses 1.1 gallons or less for the small flush.
Prior to 1994 there were few requirements or regulations on water use. So a toilet that's original to your house could use as much as seven gallons per flush. Replacing that toilet with a 1.1 gallon per flush model could save 30 gallons a day of water (assuming five flushes per day). At current Cleveland Water rates that's about $75 per year in savings. However, if you have a newer 1.6 gallon per flush model, your savings are considerably less: about $6 per year.
Outside in the yard, if you have a sprinkler system that’s more than a few years old, consider upgrading your controller (the box that turns your sprinklers on and off) to realize potential savings of 30 percent or more. Fortunately most controllers work with most sprinkler systems, so you don’t need to match a Rain Bird or Hunter controller with that brand of sprinkler heads. Focus on controllers that are “weather-based” with either sensors that adjust for rain or evapotranspiration or get weather data for Shaker Heights through an Internet connection.
Great examples of these controllers include most of the Hunter line and startups like Rachio and Skydrop. If you like the Nest thermostat then Rachio and Skydrop are for you: easy to install and smartphone enabled. If you like more control or want more precision, the Hunter controllers with the Solar Sync® and Soil Clik® sensors are worth investigating.
Bring in the Pros
If you are planning a renovation or are bringing a contractor on board, there are substantial upgrades that won’t break the bank but significantly increase your performance and sustainability.
One of the easiest to add that will have a significant impact is drip irrigation to your flowers, shrubs, and garden. It is extraordinarily more efficient than hand watering or relying on your sprinklers. If you are super ambitious and understand the plumbing code (or your plumber relative / friend / neighbor will help you) the book Drip Irrigation for Every Landscape and All Climates is a fantastic resource.
If you are gutting a bathroom, kitchen, or the whole house, ask about adding a recirculation loop (the “demand” type ideally). While there is added cost for a return line and the pump, this not only saves water and energy but gives you the convenience of opening a faucet and instantly having warm water. If you are not planning to gut anything any time soon (or at least hope not to) but would still like the convenience of near-instant hot water - or if you have a wintertime issue with freezing pipes - there is still a solution. Several manufacturers make small pumps with temperature sensors that can push a small amount of water from the hot water pipes to the cold water pipes. If the goal is instant hot water then you can use a timer or occupancy sensor to limit the pump time. But if freezing pipes is your issue then no timer is necessary. One of the more thoughtfully engineered systems for this is called RedyTemp and while a plumber can install it, if you're even just a little handy you can do it yourself.
If you really want to take advantage of advances in technology, you could also consider a heat pump hot water tank the next time you need to replace yours. If your tank is more than ten years old you should have it checked periodically and start budgeting for its replacement. If you currently have an electric water heater that is larger than 55 gallons, your only option will be a heat pump water heater. In April of 2015 the new National Appliance Energy Conservation Act went into affect (see a summary) with more stringent efficiency standards for appliances such as water heaters. New models of both gas and electric hot water tanks are far more efficient but also may be larger in size. Discuss your options with your plumbing contractor, but given that there are many new models and options, including tankless heaters, you may want to do research beforehand.
For any work that involves a mechanical system (plumbing, heating and air conditioning, electric), consider including a sustainability building professional as part of your team. This could be an architect, engineer, or consultant who is accredited by an organization that focuses on sustainability such as the US Green Building Council (professionals are known as LEED APs), RESNET (HERS Rater), or Passive House Institute US (CPHCs).
Small Steps and Big Plans
There are small steps everyone can take today to reduce water and energy use, and some can have a major impact. Over time, as we upgrade our homes, selecting the right systems, understanding the building science, and choosing the right partners will magnify this impact and your savings.