Indoor Water Use Efficiency Can Reduce Strain On Water Systems

By Sharon Skipton, UNL Extension Water Quality Educator

Wise water use can reduce the strain on private drinking water wells during drought conditions and beyond. The top three water users in the home are the toilet, washing machine, and shower/bath followed by faucets and dishwashers. Adopting water-use efficiency practices for these areas can provide significant benefits. Within the two categories of physical change and practice change, you can choose from many different water-use efficiency practices. Physical changes include modifications in plumbing or fixtures. Practice changes include behaviors that change water use habits. Consider your home structure, your family's lifestyle, cost-benefit analysis, and values to select the physical or practice changes you are committed to making.


The number one water user in the home remains the toilet. At 3.5 gallons per flush, toilets account for nearly 40 percent of indoor residential water use.

Physical changes for efficient water use include installing low-flush toilets. Older conventional toilets use 3.5 to 5 gallons or more of water per flush. Effective January 1, 1994, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 required that all new toilets produced for home use must operate on 1.6 gallons per flush or less. Dual-flush toilets available in some stores use a half-flush (0.8 to 1 gallon) and full-flush (1.6 gallons.) A half-flush is used for liquid waste only since liquids require less water to flush than solids.

Other physical changes associated with toilet use might include installing a water displacement device in the toilet tank. A plastic container such as a milk jug can be filled with water or pebbles and placed in a toilet tank to reduce the amount of water available per flush. Containers must be placed to avoid interfering with the flushing mechanisms or the flow of water. Containers can typically result in a savings of up to 1 gallon of water per flush. A toilet dam, which holds back a reservoir of water when the toilet is flushed, can be used instead of a plastic container. Toilet dams typically result in a savings of 1 to 2 gallons of water per flush. About 3 gallons of water per flush should be maintained for adequate flushing in older toilets. Do not use bricks or other objects that can release particles of soil, stone, or corrosive materials into the tank.

In addition, it is estimated that about 20 percent of toilets leak. A leaky toilet can waste an average of about 22 gallons of water every day. To tell if a toilet is leaking, place a drop of food coloring in the tank; if the color shows in the bowl after a few minutes without flushing, there is a leak. Fix leaks, usually by changing the flapper valve.

Practice changes associated with toilets include using toilets only to carry away sanitary waste. Dispose of facial tissues, dead insects, and other waste in a trash can rather than a toilet.

Washing Machine

Clothes washers are typically the second biggest water user in the home. Efficient models use 35 to 50 percent less water and require less energy per load.

Physical changes associated with washing machines involve installing a high-efficiency washer. Older washing machines average 40 gallons of water per load. High-efficiency washing machines use 18 to 25 gallons of water per load or less. Some washers sense the load size and soil of water and fabric and adjust the water level accordingly.

Water-saving practice changes involve washing only full loads of laundry. Washing fewer full loads will use less water than washing several small loads. When small loads must be washed, adjust the water level or use the appropriate load size selection on the washing machine.


Showers account for about 20 percent of total indoor water use. A quick shower usually uses less water than a bath.

Physical changes to consider include installing low-flow showerheads. Older showerheads can use 6 to 8 gallons per minute. Showerheads made since 1994 use no more than 2.5 gallons per minute. Properly designed low-flow showerheads can provide a flow rate acceptable to most people.

A simple practice change is to take shorter showers. Additional water can be saved by shutting off the flow of water while soaping, shampooing, or shaving. Some showerheads have a quick shut-off switch that allows the water to be turned off and on again without adjusting the temperature.

If using a bath, close the drain stopper immediately when filling the tub and collect the cold water. Then, adjust the water temperature as the tub fills to achieve the desired bath-water temperature. Use as little water as possible to achieve desired bathing results.


Physical changes to consider include replacing old faucets. Many faucets use 3 to 5 gallons per minute. More efficient kitchen and bathroom faucets that use only 2 gallons of water per minute are available. Aerators can be installed on existing faucets to break the flowing water into fine droplets and entrain air. They can reduce the faucet water use by as much as 60 percent while maintaining wetting effectiveness.

A slow drip or leak can waste more than 100 gallons of water a week. Check for drips and leaks and repair or replace components as needed.

Practice changes include shutting off the water flow while brushing teeth, shaving, or completing other similar tasks. In addition, keep a pitcher of water in the refrigerator for a refreshing cold drink instead of running tap water to get it cold. Consider that using a garbage disposal can use about 11.5 gallons of water per day. Try composting organic waste instead.


Physical changes that might be made involve replacing an older dishwasher with a water-efficient one. Older dishwashers use about 14 gallons of water per load. Newer, water-efficient models average 6 to 7 gallons per load. When replacing a dishwasher, look for features to control wash cycle selections for light washes that use less water.

Change practices by washing only full loads of dishes. If small loads must be run, adjust the control setting for the level of soil. Dishwashers should be able to clean dishes without pre-rinsing items. Try scraping off excess food, but do not rinse before loading dishes.

Information adapted from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln Extension publication "Make Every Drop Count In The Home: Community Program Participant Manual."