Archive for the ‘water use’ Category

My Water-Use Achilles Heel? Fruit Trees   Leave a comment

A couple weeks ago I finally finished the tallying of my summer 2013 water audit. Unlike my trash and energy audits where I have a good baseline from doing these audits since 2001, I have no baseline and no good methodology for a water audit. Until we moved into this house in 2010 I had never lived (as an adult) in a place where I got a water bill, and from 2010 through late 2012 those bills were bimonthly. It’s nearly impossible to use a bimonthly bill to get any sense of your water usage since you end up with summer watering mixed in with cooler months. In the past for my water audits I’ve timed how long showers last, how long it takes to wash my hands, etc. in an attempt to measure my water use. This time I decided to measure my outdoor water use since it’s all through hoses, and then just do the math for indoor use based on my bill. So I got little flow meters for both hoses, and started recording. Unfortunately I did not do a calibration check on either meter and one of them conked out before the end of the month. When I tallied up the amount I had supposedly used in my outdoor watering during the month, it was more than the total water usage in my bill.

Without having a way to calculate indoor vs. outdoor water usage, I’m still having to do this audit based on a lot of estimated numbers and various assumptions. The final tally gave my top 5 water uses as 1-watering trees, 2-showers, 3-toilets, 4-watering lawn, 5-watering potted plants. Assuming that I can use proportioning between the two water meters that were on the hoses, I was using SEVEN times more water on the trees than the lawn.

Now, I’m stingy when it comes to lawns. I don’t water during the winter (rainy season here in Sacramento), and I only water once per week in the summer. Plus we have a small front lawn and don’t water the little backyard patch-o-grass at all. But we have a couple trees in the front yard that are still young and getting established, and a quasi-orchard in the backyard (established nectarine, new apple, new pomegranate, established persimmon, established pear, established orange, established pumelo). But I was “deep watering” the trees by watering monthly and letting the hose water run slowly at the base of each tree for a while. And sometimes would forget to move the hose in a timely manner. They all started producing fruit only after I started watering them, so it is important to me to water them well, but since trees are on an annual cycle there’s no easy way to be sure that if I reduce water by x amount they will still fruit nicely.

I tried looking for suggestions of how much water to apply to fruit trees online, and didn’t get much help. Most of what I found I’m assuming is for commercial growers since it was talking about daily watering. When I did the math those suggestions weren’t far off from what I was applying monthly. I take that to mean I’m overwatering since you have to account for how much the soil can store so I may be applying as much water as the tree needs in a month but since I was doing it all at once much of that water would have been lost as excess.

For the end of last summer I switched to weekly watering for around 5-15 minutes depending on the size of the tree instead of monthly for 1 hr each. But this year with the drought and push to conserve water I’m wondering how to proceed appropriately with these fruit trees, and don’t yet have a plan that I can really feel comfortable with.

Posted May 18, 2014 by mayakey in gardening, water use

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Drinking Water Quality Confirmation   1 comment

One of the tasks recommended in The Complete Organic Pregnancy to do before getting pregnant is to have your water tested. For city dwellers served by a community water system the primary concern, unless you have taste and odor problems, is lead. I, however, had made the decision that I didn’t think it was worthwhile. I read the annual Consumer Confidence Reports produced by my water agency, and so I know that there aren’t any major concerns with the tap water that I receive relative to drinking water regulations. The concern for lead in water is due to leaching from pipes. Since we live in a house that was built in 1979, I’m not worried about old lead pipes anywhere in my tap water distribution system. Hence, feeling that there just wasn’t enough reason to pay for a tap water test. Then I actually got pregnant, and had a very strong fear about being wrong in my assumption. Considering how much unfiltered tap water I drink (that’s all I drink at home), it could add up to a not-insignificant exposure of my unborn baby to lead. So we had our water tested.

I feel lucky that I’m an environmental engineer and so to some degree this is what I do for a living, because I found that there’s just no good detailed information available online for typical laypeople. There’s a circular string of links talking about testing your tap water for lead without ever describing HOW to do so. Everybody just links to the EPA drinking water pages, which could certainly be more complete. The lab where we got our bottles did provide a one sheet printout describing what to do, and confirming that the sampling method I planned to use was correct. I’m not even sure how an average homeowner would find a lab; I used a local lab that I have used for work, and that is certified under the state laboratory certification program. For lead we wanted a first flush sample: the water that first comes out of the pipes after sitting for several hours. So first thing in the morning I turned on the kitchen cold water tap, let the water run for a few seconds and then filled my bottles. I put them in a box with ice and delivered them to the lab on the way to work. We sampled the kitchen tap because we really don’t ingest much water from the bathroom taps, and we only sampled cold water because we only use cold water for drinking and cooking (to avoid increased risk of contamination in hot water from pipe leaching or crud in the water heater). First flush samples are a worst case scenario for lead and copper because there is more time for leaching from the pipes. To be thorough we could have tested all three sinks, collected samples after the water had been running for a while in addition to first flush, and collected both cold and hot water; but that would have really been overkill.

And the results are (drumroll, please): good! Lead was not detected at the laboratory reporting limit (the lowest level at which the instruments can reliably detect and measure the concentration). Copper was detected at 88 parts per billion, relative to the EPA’s level for no adverse health effects of 1,300 parts per billion.

I also had our water tested for disinfection by-products, compounds like chloroform and dichloroacetic acid that are created in the process of drinking water disinfection (usually by chlorine), for my own curiosity. Again, our results were good with no compounds detected above the laboratory reporting limits. I did not test for chlorine itself because I know that there is a residual concentration in tap water. Water agencies are required to maintain a chlorine residual in order to ensure that the water stays disinfected all the way to the tap. I already have a chlorine-removing filter on our showerhead so that we’re not breathing massive amounts of chlorine while showering, and I’m not so concerned about chlorine right now that I want to deal with the hassle of filtering our water. Maybe some day I’ll collect a couple samples to confirm that the chlorine filter in the shower really works, but today I choose to stick my head in the sand at the possibility of exaggerated marketing.

Posted August 30, 2012 by mayakey in environment, home, pregnancy, water use

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Do Environmentalists Wash Their Cars At Home?   Leave a comment

According to most of the propaganda: no. And yet, weekend before last I was outside washing my car at home. In fact, I wash my car at home as often as I can. Eco-sin? No, I don’t think so.

Water conservation and pollution is the major reason that commercial car washes are touted as the more environmentally friendly option. Commercial car washes can filter and reuse water so that they use less water per wash than if you’re using potable water from you hose. A car does not need to be washed with potable (drinkable) water, and not doing so reduces the energy required to treat water to drinking water standards. Additionally, car wash waste water is discharged to the sewer where it goes to a wastewater treatment plant for treatment before discharge to whatever water body. The wastewater from a typical home car wash runs into the street into a storm drain where it discharges directly into whatever water body, without any treatment to remove oils, metals, or particulate matter. So from a water perspective the commercial car wash wins out compared to a typical home car wash.

But what if you don’t discharge into the storm drain at home? When I wash my car I pull it onto the lawn first. This way the lawn soaks up the waste water, preventing non-storm water discharge to the storm drain. The oils, soap, and any other organic compounds will biodegrade in the ground. Any heavy metals will not degrade, but I figure that the trace amount of heavy metals in the waste water is probably comparable to what deposits from the air (from exhaust and dust raised by cars in the street).

And what if  you really restrict water use? Some people use a bucket method: one bucket for soapy water, one for clean water, and that’s it. You could use rainwater or gray water to avoid the energy cost of potable water. Since I don’t have my rain barrels hooked up yet, in the winter I use the hose with a spray nozzle so that the water is off when I don’t specifically need it. In the summer I let the hose run, but I don’t run the sprinklers that weekend and consider the car wash to also be watering the lawn (a two-birds-one-stone approach).

In my mind there are other environmental benefits to a home car wash. I use a mild vegetable soap, while I assume that most car washes use a petroleum based soap. Inside the car I either wipe down with just a damp rag, or a damp rag with the same mild vegetable soap. For the windows I use the same vinegar/water/castile soap glass cleaner that I use everywhere else in the house, as opposed to a commercial ammonia-based cleaner with synthetic fragrances and additives. Personally, I could care less about shiny tires so I don’t clean the tires with anything at all.

As far as electricity use goes, I have no idea which method wins out, although I’d guess it’s a bit of a wash. The car wash may get a per-car reduction in electricity when multiple cars are going through the tunnel together, and they may spend less time with the vacuum on then I do. But the car wash also has to keep the lights on in the attached building, run the register and the inevitable popcorn maker, and run the blower to start drying the cars. I use a chamois cloth to absorb most of the water instead of a blower or lots of towels, and I don’t think that my regular home electricity use counts in this calculation.

On a completely different level I really like washing my car at home because of the increased awareness it grants me about my car. When you are washing your own car you really notice new dings, scratches, paint transfers, etc on the outside, and you can focus your cleaning inside on the things that you care about. And for those of us who personify our cars, talk to them, and generally have a relationship with them, bathing them personally feels like a thank you treat for the friend who so reliably transports me wherever I want to go.

Posted February 27, 2012 by mayakey in cleaning, energy use, environment, frugal living, water use

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The Rediscovery of The Spray Feature   Leave a comment

As I’ve now mentioned here a couple of times, we just had to replace our kitchen faucet in order to fix a leak in the supply line. It was one of the few easy purchases in life because (1) no real research was required and (2) the plumber supplied the new faucet. I take that back about the research since I’m doing it retroactively as I write this post. Before the purchase I assumed that there are no faucets made in the US, and that the lead content in the faucets wouldn’t vary much. We perused the aisles at Home Depot and Lowe’s to get a feel for the cost of replacing our faucet with something similar, and that was the extent of my research. I wanted to talk to the plumber about the choices for water efficiency. It turns out it is a very good thing that we got the faucet through the plumber, because otherwise we probably would have made what I would later consider “a bad decision.”

The first thing that came up was that some manufacturers responded to California’s reduction of allowed lead in faucets/piping/etc from 8% to 0.25% by switching from metal to plastic faucets. If we had bought the faucet on our own we probably would have bought a plastic faucet without even realizing it, since those would be the slightly cheaper ones. But there is a much higher risk of contaminants leaching out of plastic compared to metal, just based on the molecular structures. And metal is recyclable in perpetuity, whereas plastic is usually not recyclable and can usually only be recycled once if at all. It is important to consider the entire lifecycle of a product, and that includes disposal.

After the faucet had been installed I rediscovered the spray feature, which we would not have gotten if we had bought the faucet ourselves. It has been so many years since I had a kitchen faucet with the spray/stream selection that I had completely forgotten it. When we perused the hardware store aisle we looked at the buttons on the sprayers for some of the faucets and decided that we just wanted something simple: no buttons that will break. The faucet that the plumber supplied had the buttons, though he insisted that they won’t break. After he left I played around with the new faucet and I tried the buttons. It was a head-slapping moment. One is the pause button, and the other is the spray/stream toggle. We can now save water in the kitchen! Yay!

Using the spray feature is great for washing-type tasks because it reduces the water use. By the rules of physics, forcing the water through the smaller spray holes means higher velocity of water. So for the same velocity of water coming out of the faucet, less total flow (volume) is required for spray vs. stream. Since high water velocity is what you need when washing/rinsing things, using spray requires less total water flow than stream. With the toggle switch it is easy to switch to stream for tasks that require water volume, like filling a glass or a pot.

Now we just have to get used to not having to pull the handle out quite as far.

Posted January 20, 2011 by mayakey in conscious living, home, water use

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Chloroform-Free Showers   1 comment

I got a nice surprise this weekend when we went to the hardware store to get grass seed. While we were there I figured we could swing by the showerheads and find out if they have any filters for chlorine. Filtering the shower for chlorine is something that has been on my pre-pregnancy list that I’ve been dreading because I hate shopping. I figured that we would end up going through several showerheads in an attempt to find one that would satisfy both my husbands desire for good spray and my desire for low flow and chlorine filtration. In order to rule out “easy” I wanted to check Lowe’s to verify that there are no “easy” chlorine filtering showerheads available. Guess what? I was wrong! Yay!

Backing up a bit, you might be wondering why I want to filter chlorine out of the shower water. You might be wondering what chlorine is doing in the water in the first place. Well, the chlorine is there because it has to be. Water agencies/companies are required to maintain a certain concentration of free chlorine in the water all the way to your tap. The purpose: health. Chlorine is a disinfectant. Even now that many water agencies are switching to other less toxic/dangerous primary disinfection methods, they still need to add chlorine so that the water remains clean all the way to the tap. That’s all well and good, but when we heat the water up for a warm/hot shower, that chlorine volatilizes. I remember that in the human exposures class I took in grad school we did the calculation for how much chloroform we are exposed to during a hot shower, and I remember being astounded by the answer. On top of the inhalation of chlorine vapors, our skin absorbs a lot of chlorine when immersed in water as well. Looking back over my course notes, I found a peer reviewed article about chloroform that mentions a study that calculated 40 micrograms of chloroform inhaled and another 40 micrograms absorbed through the skin during a 10 minute shower.

Doing some post-purchase research into the chlorine-filtering showerhead that we bought, it does not work like a carbon filter that adsorbs the chlorine, but it works through a chemical reaction (a redox reaction) to convert the free and combined chlorine into chloride, which does not vaporize and apparently doesn’t get readily absorbed by the skin (I’m not positive about that, though). I’m assuming that most showerhead chlorine filters will use something like this rather than the bulky slow carbon filters that you would put on a sink faucet. According to their website, the filter media can be disposed of easily by dumping it on the dirt in your yard or garden, and then the filter cartridge is recyclable. That’s pretty cool. It’s a 2.5 gallons per minute showerhead, so it doesn’t really qualify as low-flow, though. I still need to actually measure the flow rate to verify. In any case, the showerhead that it is replacing is one of those rain style showerheads that use a lot of water. Oh, and it was cheap, only $26.

All in all, this was an awesome surprise. Pros: chlorine filtration, no long difficult shopping process, cheap, disposal by compost and recycling, and my husband is happy with the spray. Cons: not really low-flow, and packaged in a plastic clamshell. When we get around to dealing with the other bathroom, I might get a separate chlorine filter so that we can also have a low flow shower head. We’ll see.

Posted October 13, 2010 by mayakey in home, personal care, pre-pregnancy, water use

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Bye Bye Weed Patch   Leave a comment

The big project this weekend was (re)seeding the lawn, and boy am I feeling it. In an odd way this project was/is both horrifing and exciting to me. I’ll start with the good.

When we moved into this house it had been vacant for about two years. That means two summers in Sacramento with no watering. We were told by the neighborhood kids that at some point the weeds got overwhelming and someone mowed it all down, but other than that there was no maintenance done. As a result most of the area was just a dirt patch with a few patches of grass, and there were a large number of woody-stemmed weeds that only got worse when we moved in and started watering. Since we closed on the house in July, there was nothing to be done at the time but trim the weeds. Surprisingly, despite my desire for beauty the aesthetic hasn’t bothered me that much, probably since we have all the pretty rose bushes near the house. But I still know that a completely unmaintained yard has got to be really bad feng shui, and is especially undesirable right now since we would like to foster good luck and bring good things (specifically, a healthy baby) into this house. Plus, I figure that our neighbors would prefer we not have a dirt and weed patch, and I want good relations with our neighbors. So it is exciting to try to turn the blank dirt canvas into a something living. (Oh, yeah, and my dad bred a sick love of yard work into my soul.)

So why am I horrified? In general I hate lawns. Some lawns have purpose, and I have no problems with them; but most lawns just sit there looking boring and bland, consuming excessive water and synthetic fertilizers, and not supporting local ecosystems. It horrifies me that I am ON PURPOSE actually planting one of those monstrosities. A big huge expanse of boring grass that sucks up water. Not only that, but since we’re planting from seed I am actually having to water DAILY, instead of my usual weekly watering. The mantra in the back of my head that I am using to get myself through this is “it’s just yard gesso”. It’s not a permanent lawn, it’s the first step in figuring out the landscaping. Part of it will likely stay lawn so that I have somewhere to hand wash my car, and because I’m afraid that no lawn would hurt our resale value in this water-guzzling part of the world. But we will put in a shade tree, and hopefully some low-water use native plants, maybe edible plants, some flowers maybe… The purpose of the grass is basically to give us a living canvas on which to work. The dead canvas is rather uninspirational.

Hence Saturday was devoted to dethatching (thank you for helping and making me go inside, sitting down, and getting water before I passed out honey!), scarifying, scattering, covering, and watering. And now I’m hoping that the seeds sprout and live so that I don’t have to do those latter actions again.

Posted October 10, 2010 by mayakey in gardening, home, water use

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How Often Does It Really Need To Be Washed?   6 comments

When I read the Energy Star website while shopping for a clothes washer, I had to do a double take on the overview page. It said that the average American does almost eight loads of laundry a week (400 per year). **8** loads of laundry??!! My first thought was, “How on earth can even a family of four come up with eight loads of laundry every week?” My second thought was, “No wonder people seem to complain about laundry being a massive never ending chore.” And my third thought was, “How on earth can the average family create eight loads of laundry in an average week? My husband and I do two loads most weeks, and occasionally three loads. Growing up in a family of four I remember doing three loads of laundry most weeks. So how do you reach eight loads?”

After thinking about a bit I realized that there are lots of things that get washed more frequently than they really need. The two big things that I can think of are towels and sheets, but if I had to guess I’d say the average American washes a lot of essentially clean clothing, too. Please permit me to rant a bit here.

Towels: When I learned in college that people use a bath towel once and then toss it in the hamper, I was floored. When you get out of the shower aren’t you clean? Why on earth can you not use the same towel for a few days or a week? Considering that towels are made to be absorbent, they are one of the biggest energy hogs in the laundry pile.

Sheets: When I learned that some people change sheets every week I thought to myself “who would want to do so much work?” (and then when I found out that some people iron their sheets I thought the same thing but in all caps.) Maybe because I shower at night I’ve never felt my sheets to be dirty after one week. Try pulling back the covers in the morning for a few minutes to air out the bed before you make it if you’re worried about a stuffy bed. Or make yourself a sheet spray using essential oils. Or wash your pillowcase each week but keep the sheets.

Overwashing is kind of a lose-lose situation: it wears out clothing (what do you think lint is?), uses a lot of water, uses a lot of electricity (to pump, treat, and pressurize the water, run the washer and dryer, and heat the water for the washer), and consumes precious time. In my conscious living journey it is very important to me to minimize my water and energy usage, reduce wear and tear so that I don’t have to shop for more stuff, and use my time efficiently. As a result, I try to keep my overwashing to a minimum (I’m pretty sure I wash a lot of clothes that could be worn a second time, though).

While I’m on a washing rant, I’d like to include the dishwasher, too: For as long as I’ve lived in a house with a dishwasher, I have only washed full loads (with a few special exceptions), and I thought everyone else did, too. Then we got new neighbors in our old duplex and I heard their dishwasher running every night. My husband and I cannot physically create enough dishes in one day to fill up the dishwasher, and I know they have the same model on the other side, so apparently some people run half empty dishwashers regularly. Are they so low on plates and dishes that they can’t go at least 2 days? The dishwasher is not water efficient if you wash partial loads (compared to hand washing).

Posted August 14, 2010 by mayakey in cleaning, conscious living, energy use, water use

Clothes Washer and Dryer: Check   Leave a comment

Yay, we now have a washer and dryer in our new house! I wasn’t sure that I would have time to do the research before we moved, but this is close enough. It helped that I did learn my lesson from the refrigerator search, and I did not do extensive research. As with the refrigerator search, I started by downloading the list of Energy Star qualified clothes washers. Later I realized that I could have saved time by downloading the list from the Consortium for Energy Efficiency since that subset of Energy Star qualified units is what my electric and water utility companies use to determine the rebate amount for buying an energy efficient/water efficient appliance. Then I narrowed the list down by brands that I could find at local stores and volume range, sorted by efficiency, and dragged my husband to the hardware store. (Actually he went off looking at other stuff after a while and let me wander the washer/dryer aisles alone until I had selected my favorites, he’s not nearly as picky as I am!)

We weren’t able to find any information about the capacity of the washing machine at our rental, so we were struggling to find a way to correlate the volume advertised for each model with real world applications. I ended up having to use the advertised descriptions. I ask you, how is “fits 16 pairs of jeans” or “fits 80 XL tee shirts” helpful? I have no idea what the volume of 80 XL tee shirts is. I’ve also never counted items as I put them in the washer so I can’t extrapolate that out to 80 similar pieces of laundry. What I liked was “fits a king size comforter” since I want a washer that will fit a king size comforter.

In a sense, shopping for a washing machine was easier than a refrigerator because we didn’t really care much about the features and they seemed to be less diverse. We just wanted an energy and water efficient front loading washing machine. (Front loaders use less water than top loaders.) In fact, it was a little disappointing to discover that pretty much every model now has a surplus of buttons and options, way too many wash cycles, and digital displays. Sure a count down display may be convenient, but I’m not convinced that it is worth the energy to display it. Granted, in the end it was features that helped us make our selection from my top three in the store, but they weren’t helpful getting to the top three.

In another sense, shopping for a washing machine was more complicated than shopping for a refrigerator because I had to look at both energy AND water efficiency. The Energy Star list made that really easy, though, by including the energy use number, water factor number (gallons of water per cubic feet of clothes), and modified energy factor number (combining energy and water efficiency in one number). I could tell that the Energy Star standard for washing machines needs to be updated, though since 5 of the 6 pages of my final list were tier 3 (supposedly the best of the best). Luckily the standard is scheduled to be updated next year. The top unit on my list was 155% better than the federal minimum and the bottom one was 44% better, so I’d say there’s plenty of room to raise the bar.

What about the dryer? I just the picked the matching dryer for convenience. After all the time spent picking a washer I didn’t have any desire to start comparing features on the dryers. There’s no Energy Star or anything similar for dryers, which surprised me at first since clothes dryers are such energy hogs. After I read the explanation on the Energy Star website, though it made sense. Apparently all dryers use pretty much the same amount of energy. Think about it, the job of a dryer is to create waste heat, so how can you make it more efficient (inefficient?)?

Posted August 11, 2010 by mayakey in energy use, home, shopping, water use

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