A study recently published by researchers at the University of Indiana points out that Americans seem to have a “slippery grasp” of the amount of water consumed for and by different activities. In addition, they are often confused as to ways to conserve water and how water conservation affects energy use.
For example, participants with strong pro-environmental attitudes tended to have more accurate perceptions about energy use and consumption but not about water use. Conversely, older people and men tended to have more accurate perceptions of water use and consumption but not energy use.
And even more revealing, the study also highlights one of the concerns that complicates all water-reduction issues in the United States: the confusion between what it means to conserve water and what it means to use it more efficiently.
For instance, the study reports that 43 percent of the 1,020 people surveyed cited “taking shorter showers” as one of the key ways they can or do try to save water. While taking shorter showers can save water—we use about seven gallons of water per minute when showering—the amount saved per shower varies, and, over time, some people may think they are still taking shorter showers when in reality they are not.
Taking shorter showers is a form of water conservation – not water efficiency – with only marginal effectiveness. While the “heat is on,” so to speak, and there are concerns about water consumption and people are being encouraged to use less water, they try to remember to shower faster to consume less. But as soon as the pressure is off, shower durations increase. We see this pattern over and over again whenever there is a drought, and then after a major rainfall event or two, water restrictions are lifted.
A more effective strategy would be to use water-reducing technologies that reduce the amount of water released in a shower. Instead of seven gallons per minute, these technologies can reduce consumption by half or more, so even if that “shorter” shower is longer than we realize, we are still reducing consumption considerably and doing so for the long term, an example of using water more efficiently.
“People may be [more] focused on curtailment or cutting back than efficiency because of the upfront costs involved,” says Shahzeen Attari, Assistant Professor at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. This comment points out another key issue when it comes to water efficiency in the United States.
Many Americans in both residential and commercial settings are unaware of the cost savings that can result from using water more efficiently. These savings are passed on to the consumer not only in the form of lower water/sewer bills but also in the reduced energy it takes to deliver and remove the water. Reducing the amount of water traveling through pipelines can reduce energy costs and increase savings, which can be passed on to all consumers in one form or another.
Other items the survey points out include the following:
- Participants underestimated water use by a factor of two on average, with the largest underestimates for high-water-use activities (car washes, washing machines).
- Participants with strong pro-environmental attitudes tended to have more accurate perceptions about energy use and consumption but not about water use.
- Conversely, older people and men tended to have more accurate perceptions of water use and consumption but not energy use.
- Overall, perceptions about water use tended to be more accurate than perceptions about energy consumption.
- Virtually none of the participants knew how many gallons of water were needed to produce four particular foods consumed all over the world: rice, coffee, sugar, and cheese.
- Few participants cited replacing toilets (assuming older toilets) as a way to reduce water consumption.
This is unfortunate because the researchers cite toilets as the fixture using the largest volume of water daily in most residential and commercial facilities. Right behind toilets is usually water-using urinals.
The researchers conclude that the results of the study indicate there is considerable confusion as to how much water we use and how we might reduce consumption. However, I believe the real takeaway is much bigger than this. It points out once again that for many if not most Americans, even in states such as California that are dealing with severe water shortages right now, readily available water is still taken for granted, costs for water will remain low, and should there be a drought, the next big rainfall event will eliminate concerns. But those are beliefs that simply no longer hold water in the 21st century.
A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc, Vista, CA, makers of waterless urinals and other restroom products. He founded the company in 1991 with the goal to establish a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. He may be reached at Klaus@waterless.com