How to Use Less Water

COVID-19 has changed our relationship with water. From vigorous handwashing and finding respite in long-hot showers to tracking COVID-19 through wastewater surveillance, water has saved us this past year in more ways than we expected. Yet one thing hasn’t changed — water is still a precious resource, and we must continue to consider ways to use less of it.   

Stream running through a wooded area

It seems like water is all around us — but did you know that only one percent of the water on our planet is available for drinking? About 97 percent of Earth’s water is saltwater, and another two percent is frozen in ice caps and glaciers. 

Our world’s population, along with our need for clean freshwater, is growing, but our water supply is not. According to the United Nations, about 2 billion people are currently living in areas facing serious water scarcity. By 2040, it is estimated that one in four of the world’s children under 18, or 600 million, will be living in areas of extremely high water stress. Our water enables us to run our businesses, protect our communities and keep ourselves alive, so it is critical that we work to reduce water usage in our everyday lives. 

Do you know how much water you use each day? Most people have no idea! People in the U.S. use approximately 100 gallons of fresh, drinkable water per day for bathing, drinking, flushing, cleaning and yard care. And this number only takes into account the amount of water we use directly every day. 

Everything we buy, the energy we use and the food we eat requires water to produce. In fact, Americans’ actual water “footprint” – the amount of water it takes to produce our food, energy, clothes and more – is about 2,000 gallons of water each day. We consume about 95 percent of the water we use without ever seeing it. Purchasing recycled goods, carpooling with friends and eating locally grown veggies all will help to reduce our water footprint. 

Ben Franklin bridge in Philadelphia illuminated by sunset

What else can we do to use less water? Are there actions we can take every time we use water to save a little? Read on for our tips on how you and your family, friends and housemates can use less water. 

Super Easy Changes 

You can make the following changes by adjusting your behavior just a little bit.  

Mom or grandma and young boy wash hands together at sink

Turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth or shave. You could save four to eight gallons of water every morning! The average faucet flows at a rate of two gallons per minute. 

Take showers instead of baths. While a bath can use up to 70 gallons of water, a 10-minute shower under the average low-flow showerhead will use only about 20 gallons of water.  

If you wash dishes by hand, plug the sink. Use a basin so you are not sending useful water down the drain.  

Person in neon green gloves washing large stainless steel pot in metal sink

If you have one, you don’t have to feel bad about using your dishwasher. A newer, Energy Star-rated dishwasher is your best option. Make sure your dishwasher is fully loaded. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an Energy Star certified dishwasher can use as little as three gallons of water per load. Dishwashers made since 2013 are required to use five gallons or less of water per load, while models made before 1994 can use more than 10 gallons of water per load.  

Before putting your dishes in the dishwasher, scrape — don’t rinse! Pre-rinsing can use more than 6,000 gallons of water per household every year.  

Avoid running the faucet until water is cool enough to drink. Instead, keep a pitcher of drinking water in the fridge.  

Be smart about laundry. Make sure you are washing only full loads of laundry, and save energy and money by using cold water.  

Empty laundromat with white tile floor, open laundry carts and silver machines, looking out toward the exit at nighttime

Recycle. Recycling a pound of paper, less than the weight of your average newspaper, saves about 3.5 gallons of water. Buying recycled paper products saves water too, as it takes about 6 gallons of water to produce a dollar worth of paper. You can save up to 12 gallons of water per day by recycling all of your plastic. 

Keep your electronics longer. The water required to create your laptop could wash nearly 70 loads of laundry in a standard machine.  

Mindset Changes 

These changes require you to think a little differently about your everyday choices.  

Two people splashing in muddy puddle. One wears shorts and teal sneakers, the other wears black leggings, white socks and white sneakers

Consider your “virtual” water use when food shopping. While we may only drink about half a gallon of water every day, we consume over 1,000 gallons of “virtual” water that went into producing our food. About 70-95% of human water consumption goes to food production. What we put on our plates has a major impact on our water use. For example, meat, nuts and dairy require much more water to produce overall, and intensively or “factory” raised livestock requires several times more water than pasture raised. 

Increase the amount of your diet that is plant-based. The average hamburger requires 660 gallons of water (30 showers!), while a salad requires 60 gallons. A pint of milk requires about 113 gallons. Another way to reduce your footprint is to choose grass-fed, rather than grain-fed, since it can take a lot of water to grow corn and other feed crops. 

Buy local. The transportation costs of your food and clothing can be very high, so try to buy from local businesses. 

Reduce the amount of new clothing you buy. Jeans and a t-shirt require over 2,500 gallons of water to make. 

Robin's egg blue old fashioned bicycle with black seat and white kickstand leans against a brick building

Reduce your transportation footprint. A gallon of gasoline takes nearly 13 gallons of water to produce. Combine your errands, bike, carpool to work or take public transportation to reduce both your energy and water use. 

Elbow-Grease Changes 

These straightforward, doable changes may require a little bit more time, but they will make a big difference.  

Cat drinking from faucet

Make your faucets low-flow. Low-flow faucets save hundreds of gallons of water each year. For less than $10, you can add an attachment called an aerator to your faucet at home. You’ll save about 700 gallons of water each year. 

Install a low-flow showerhead. Compared to an average showerhead, a low-flow showerhead, which is easy to install and available at any home improvement store, can save up to 10 gallons of water during a 10-minute shower. By replacing a single showerhead with a WaterSense labeled model, the EPA estimates the average family can save 2,900 gallons of water and more than $70 in energy and water costs every year. And yes — it can still feel like a great shower!  

Use less water when you flush. Depending on the age of your toilet, you might be using nearly 20 gallons of water a day — about 7,300 gallons a year — just by flushing. If your household has a standard toilet, fill a plastic bottle with sand or rocks and put it into your tank. The bottle will take up space and trick your toilet into filling up with less water. 

Save water and money by repairing household leaks. Toilet leaks can use up to 200 gallons of water per day! 

Compost rather than using your garbage disposal. You will save water and make a useful product for your garden. 

Boy toddler with excited look in navy blue sleeveless shirt with hose shooting water

If you have a lawn or landscape and you must water it, learn the best times to water and find out how much water your plants need. Consider using a rain barrel on non-edible plantings to save water. Watering first thing in the morning can prevent too much water from evaporating. If you have an irrigation system, make sure your controller is labeled WaterSense. 

Use a bucket of water to wash your car. If you must wash your car, re-use the water or find a car wash that recycles water. 

Sign up to use alternative energy sources, or even better, install renewable energy technology at your house. The water footprint of your per-day electricity use is based on state averages. If you use alternative energies such as wind and solar, your footprint could be less. 

Travel a little less on airplanes. Even though travel has many benefits, it takes a toll on the environment. Flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco, for example, is about 700 miles round-trip and could cost you more than 9,000 gallons of water, or enough for almost 2,000 average dishwasher loads. A cross-country airplane trip (about 6,000 miles) could be worth more than 1,700 standard toilet flushes. 

Post by Mary Alice Hartsock, with contributions by Stef Kroll and Marie Kurz 


  1. A lot of the elbow-grease changes assume ownership of wherever you live; any additional suggestions for people who rent an apartment and are more restricted on what changes they’re allowed to make?

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