Simple Ways to Conserve Water When Design Hasn’t Done It

Managing water on a property is often at the forefront of permaculture design. Not only is there major focus on utilizing the landscape to make the most of weather and landscape supplied water, but also sustainable design dictates that we utilize gray water and minimize black “waste” water, which causes contamination, resource depletion, and health problems. In a perfect world, where all of our homes were designed thoughtfully with environment and efficiency in mind, this wouldn’t be such an issue. But, what exactly do we do when we are already in a situation where the optimum isn’t the reality?

The beauty of good permaculture design is that we (or someone) has gone through these eco thoughts beforehand. The system is efficient, reasonably convenient, and established within our spaces. We wash our hands in the bathroom sink with biodegradable soap, and the water used to do so, harvested perhaps from a rooftop catchment and gravity feed to the house, immediately takes its path to a viable secondary use, say watering the garden. We just wash our hands as normal, and by design, all the responsible things happen. That’s the ideal.

However, the majority of us don’t have the luxury of starting from the ground up, designing and constructing our living spaces. The majority of us don’t have a pocket full of permaculture and green building credentials to make it all make sense and easy to do. Still, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do. In fact, there are many simple ways to conserve water and make more, ecologically, of the situations we are in. Because this does matter to many of us, perhaps it’s time we take a look at some of our options for conserving water when design hasn’t done it for us.

The Toilet

Courtesy of dirtyboxface
Courtesy of dirtyboxface

The amount of water we waste via the commode is something that can send many an author into a 2-part tirade about the wonders and logical simplicity of composting toilets. On the other hand, the real world often dictates that immediately converting water protectors out there into humanure composters isn’t so readily attainable. We live in apartments. We deal with government restrictions. Our homes are already plumbed and partial to municipal sewage or a septic tank. Changing any of these things takes time, money, and serious effort. Luckily, changing how we use water in the toilet doesn’t require such devotion and expense.

• Let it mellow. It seems like a sitcom joke to many, but we don’t have to flush our bodily liquids every time we expel them. Each time we don’t flush we are saving at least of few liters of water. The average bladder requires four to six bathroom visits per day, which means we’d save enough water by not flushing to allow us cover a daily shower.

• Don’t use the toilet as a garbage can. It’s a habit for many. Pick up something with tissue and flush it away. Blow you nose with tissue and flush it away. Wipe the toilet seat (gentlemen) with tissue and flush it away. This wastes water. Plus, in most bathrooms, there is a wastebasket somewhere within arm’s reach of the toilet bowl.

• For those with old toilets with gargantuan tanks, it would probably be better to go ahead and upgrade that thing to an efficient flusher. Even so, that isn’t always doable for everywhere, so using tank banks helps to reduce the amount of water used for each flush. Older tanks can get into the 20-liter range, so halving that is a major victory for household water consumption.

The Lawn

Courtesy of Paul Frederickson
Courtesy of Paul Frederickson

Most practitioners of permaculture are not great fans of expansive lawns, namely not ones that grow grass instead of utilizing the space for food production. However, once again, certain codes can come down against us, and in “free” countries, we are not allowed to grow food within our own property boundaries. We are forced into dealing with dysfunctional ecosystems that are constantly cut down instead of growing stable through biodiversity, specifically nitrogen-fixers and dynamic accumulators (weeds) revitalizing the landscape naturally with nutrients. Watering the lawn accounts for about one-third of household water consumption.

• If watering the lawn has to happen, for goodness sake, don’t do it on a timer (it doesn’t account for rainy days) and don’t do it mid-day with a sprinkler, at which time much of the water never actually makes it to the grass. Do it early in the morning or late in the evening, when the water has a chance to soak in, and be sure not to water a driveway or patio rather than its intended target.

• For those who live in homes with guttering, an even better solution would be to spend a little money creating a rain barrel system to catch and store water that can then be used to irrigate the lawn. This untreated water is usually better for the plants than what comes from municipal sources. Plus, it’s free. Plus, it’s much better than guttering it all then mixing it with contaminated household water to overload treatment systems.

• Obviously, the better solution here would to change the lawn if that’s possible. Growing something productive would be great, and sometimes that’s doable if it’s designed in a way that appears more decorative than traditional garden rows. Otherwise, a drought-tolerant garden lawn is often permissible where food-producing lawn isn’t, and in this case, at least water isn’t being wasted on a Sisyphean task.

The Sink and Shower

Courtesy of Dean McCoy
Courtesy of Dean McCoy

Obviously, the majority of our sinks aren’t set up for that automatic graywater system that we all would ideally want. We use water to rinse our hands, brush our teeth, wash a dish, or drain some pasta, and it disappears to become someone’s (or some entity’s) burden rather than a productive piece of our own home-grown ecosystems. Without proper design, or significant retro-fitting, much of this can’t be avoided, but that doesn’t mean the whole situation has to be completely out of hand.

• Turn the tap off. It starts with brushing teeth but can expand into soaping up in the shower or washing dishes after dinner. There are many instances, daily, that we unconsciously leave the water running when it doesn’t serve any function. While it’s doubtful that we can thwart each one of these episodes, conscious action regarding it can add up throughout the day, week, month, year…

• Rudimentarily using graywater is an option that can happen with little effort and again add up over time. Put a pot or container next to the kitchen sink that can hold water drained from food or used to rinse a glass. Rather than pouring it all down the sink, if the water isn’t soured with chemical detergents, etc., use it in the garden or pot plants. The same sort of thing can be done while waiting for shower to heat up: Catch that water and use it for something.

• Change the tap or showerhead. This usually isn’t so expensive (a few dollars) nor difficult, and even renters have this option. Low-flow showerheads can reduce the amount of water we are using by 50% or more. This could save thousands of gallons a year. In addition, though it means being a little more on the ball than many of us are, fixing any leaks to taps also saves water.

The Choices

Courtesy of Mercy For Animals Canada
Courtesy of Mercy For Animals Canada

Much of our excess water consumption comes down to choices of convenience or, at times, outright laziness. While, in a modern life not entirely consumed with monitoring consumption, this isn’t always avoidable, sometimes it is only a matter of noticing the folly of poor choices to change them. If someone realizes something is wasteful and that wastefulness is preventable, then the raised awareness is much more likely to provide a change. Why not save more water if it’s plausibly stress-free?

• Factory-farmed fruits and vegetables are typically much more water-intensive than garden-grown, and factory-farmed meats dwarf the amount of water used to grow the plant-based foods or raise free-range animals. We don’t all have to become vegan, but some awareness about how what we eat affects our water supply is pertinent and might influence the choices of those wanting to protect water.

• Large household appliances, like washing machines and dishwashers, are things of convenience that have been increasingly abused. If possible, we should buy energy-efficient versions to help, and regardless, we should wait for full loads. Otherwise, it’s worth paying attention to things like leaky hot water heaters, and it’s worth second-thinking using things like high-pressure sprayers to wash a driveway.

• As with any small, grassroots or individual effort, it’s important that we do not discount the things we do as making no difference. We can’t control how other people use water, but we can change our own habits. And, caring about the planet is never a bad thing, whether it’s a new showerhead or an entire graywater irrigation system. We do what we can when we can, and it’s always worthwhile. Often, it’s infectious, creating a much larger impact than we are even aware of.

Header Image: Spider’s Laundry (Courtesy of Petras Gagilas)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. “For those with old toilets with gargantuan tanks, it would probably be better to go ahead and upgrade that thing to an efficient flusher.” Only if you can re-cycle the old one. Even then why consume, when a tank bank will reduce the tank’s volume to a much better size.

  2. Large expanses of Mulch save a lot of water. More is used for irrigation than for household use.
    The old style toilets were designed to use a lot of water to flush, Newer types have smaller orifice so they use less water for flushing. Test to see if your old one will still flush if the tank capacity is reduced by placing a bottle or two of water in the tank.

  3. 1. Why would especially gentlemen wipe the toilet seat? Does anyone leave the toilet seat down while peing standing up? :o

    2. I just saw that one can even buy tank banks for the toilet on Amazon. Please don’t do that! Follow Jack’s advice and use used water bottles or even rocks.

    3. The production of one kilogram of beef needs roughly the same amount of water than one would use at home within 100 days. Please consider eating less meat/vegetarian!

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