Down the Drain

How to Conserve Resources by Spending Some Quality Time in the Bathroom

The modern bathroom may be convenient, but it’s no friend to the environment. In fact, the toilets, showers, sinks, lights and just about every other fixture found in the typical powder room are little more than drains for untold amounts of water, energy and money. Consider this: In one month a single leaky toilet can waste as much as 750 gallons of water. A bad faucet might squander an additional 300 gallons. Conventional showers account for more than a fifth of all household water use.

What can be done? “If you’re designing a bathroom,” suggests Janet Merinelli, author of Your Natural Home, “make water conservation a priority.” Merinelli says low-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators should be standard in any environmentally friendly bathroom.

For starters, take a look at your toilet. Federal regulations require modern toilets to function on 1.6 gallons per flush or less. If yours uses more, it’s time for an upgrade. But don’t go out and buy the first low-flush toilet you find. “To go down to 1.6 requires engineering,” says Peter Yost, senior editor at Environmental Building News. “Some manufacturers have done the engineering, but others have not. Some work, some don’t.” You’ll have to do the homework, because a bad performer will leave you holding your nose.

Alternatively, consider installing a waterless composting toilet requiring no sewer hookup, no septic system and no plumbing. A good unit, such as the M3 offered by Clivus Multrum, will reduce your organic “waste” to an odorless nutrient-rich fertilizer suitable for your garden. On paper it looks expensive (up to $6,000), but long-term savings are significant.

The shower’s next on the list. First, keep the water where it belongs with an organically grown hemp shower curtain. Available from Real Goods, the curtain is not dyed or bleached and is naturally mold- and mildew-resistant. The only hitch is the price—$99.95. A tightly woven unbleached cotton curtain, still a significant ecological step above vinyl, can be purchased from fellow retailer Planet Natural for only $31.95.

Showerheads once spouted anywhere from six to eight gallons of water every minute—but today there are many models that work fine on much less. Energy Technology Laboratories’ Universal Spa ($24.95), for example, contains a device that intensifies water delivery at pressures as low as three pounds per square inch. The result? An excellent shower requiring as little as 1.4 gallons of water per minute.

An even quicker fix for both shower and sink can be accomplished by installing inexpensive faucet aerators, available at local hardware stores. Aerators add air to the water to provide the same pressure with less flow, and often include a switch that adjusts flow from full-power to a mere trickle while maintaining the already established hot-cold mix.

Of course, as the water pours, it’s a good idea to keep tabs on what’s in it. A person takes in more chlorine during a 15-minutes shower than by drinking eight glasses of water a day. Remove over 90 percent of the chemical with a filter from Real Goods ($49.95); the low-flow showerhead and on-off switch will save enough energy to pay for itself in six months.

For the sink, try a faucet filtration system like the one available from Planet Natural ($111.95), guaranteed to remove lead, pesticides and other contaminants. To soften water, the chemical- and salt-free Aqua-Tron sold by Energy Efficient Environments ($299) uses an induction field, which also removes mineral build-up and extends appliance life.

And what about lighting? Environmental Lighting Concepts’ 17-watt TrueColor bulbs ($99 for three) reproduce the full color spectrum of natural daylight indoors, are glare-free, as bright as standard 75-watt incandescents and last 10,000 hours or more. “People were made to be outside,” says company spokesperson Sue Baker. “This is the light we’re supposed to have.”

Finally, consider the floor, walls and cabinets. Look to durable, eco-friendly materials like recycled-content ceramic tiles, natural paints and cabinets made from sustainably harvested or recycled woods (Portland, Oregon’s Neil Kelly designs some of the best). The bathroom, after all, deserves nothing less.

Chris Hayhurst is a Colorado-based freelance writer.

The bathroom is often a center of energy waste, but it can be greened.