Friday, July 29, 2011

How to fix leaking toilets before your household savings go down the drain

Never go on vacation without checking your toilets, first! We did, and boy, do we regret it! Did you know that the average American goes through 80-100 gallons of water per day, and our greatest use comes from flushing the toilet? And, a leaking toilet can waste up to 200 gallons of water a day, according to the U.S. EPA . In our four-person household, we have three toilets, and two of them sprang leaks while we were gone!

We returned from a three-week vacation to gurgling toilets and a call from the Board of Water Supply–-they’d just read our meter and the dial was moving, which indicated a leak. Plus, our water consumption had spiked six times higher than normal.

I got that sinking feeling. Up until we left, our two toilets had shown an occasional tendency to keep trickling, post-flush, until we’d lifted the tank lid and adjusted the rubber flapper valve to stop water flowing out. Just before leaving, we checked to make sure the toilets weren’t running.

But things can happen while you’re gone. Plumbing is unpredictable and spontaneous flushes. Well-meaning family members who stopped by to check on things in our absence didn’t check the toilets after flushing. Leaks get worse, fast.

“Exactly how much higher was our water use?” I asked.

There was a pause as she checked, followed by a half-strangled cry: “Your average water use in each two-month billing cycle is 27,000 gallons, but this time, you used 176,00 gallons!”

If you have ever fallen flat from the top of the jungle gym and knocked out all your air, you will know how I felt. Twenty-seven thousand gallons was bad enough–-we’d been trying to conserve by taking shorter showers (second highest indoor water use), but we should have tackled the toilets first! Our plumbing had been leaking four gallons a minute, the water rep said.

I did the math. Indeed, four gallons a minute added up to over 170,000 gallons in just 30 days, and ours was a 60 day bill. “Er, does that mean my water bill will be seven times higher?” I asked.

The answer was yes. Hello to the $1,350 water bill! Goodbye, in one fell blow, to our painstakingly accumulated household savings! Worse, all that precious clean drinking water had gone down the toilet!

“You’re not alone, this happens all the time,” the water rep said. “We had an old toilet out back we never used. Turned out it was leaking for three weeks, and our water bill tripled!”

Misery doesn’t love company in this case. Americans use 410 billion gallons of water a day, according to The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century. In his compelling new book, Alex Prud’homme reports on water science and politics, with stories of people and neighborhoods faced with clean water shortages due to pollution, privatization, droughts and waste.

While industry and agriculture are the biggest culprits by far, an estimated trillion gallons of water are lost in U.S. home leaks every day. This, at a time when global clean drinking water supplies are shrinking due to industry, agriculture, urbanization, and drought and sea level rise linked to climate change, as Prud’homme reports in harrowing detail. “Borrowing from the notion of peak oil–a point at which the supply of oil is outstripped by human consumption--academics worry that the earth could be reaching a point of ‘peak water,” he warns.

I’m worried, too! But at least, now that we’ve fixed our leaks, I don’t have to worry about being such a huge part of the problem.

What You Can Do

*Be on the alert for trickles and drips.

If your toilet keeps flowing for longer than a minute after a flush, it means the flapper valve is not closing, so the tank never fills.

*Fix leaks right away. Here's how:

Step 1. Both our toilets had worn-out rubber flappers (see round red cap in photos, above) which no longer sealed the drain, so the tank kept filling...

Note the model number on inside wall of tank, go to hardware store and buy new flapper.

Step 2. One toilet also had a worn-out gasket inside the float. The result: The float didn’t rise with the water level, so the flapper, at the other end of the lever, never fully closed.

*Reduce tank capacity.

In our 1.6 gpf toilet, we moved the lever on the float down so that the tank only fills half full.

In the old 3.5 gpf tank, I set two filled glass quart bottles (a total half-gallon), which will save 4,000 gallons a year until we replace that toilet.
*Consider buying an efficient toilet.

If your toilet is older than 1992, it’s likely using 3.5 gallons per flush (gpf). Since 1995, the federal standard is 1.6 gpf.
An EPA-approved Water Sense toilet uses an average 1.24 gpf.

*When you go on vacation, shut the water off.
The exception: If you've got a garden that needs watering. And note, if you turn off your household water valve but if you leave the electricity on, remember to turn off the hot water heater!

For more information:

*“Fix Flow” tips from

*Calculate how much water your dripping faucet wastes.

*Simple water-saving tips:

For more on our water footprints and other green living and product tips, please see my book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.

Visit my home page at for seasonal info and to subscribe to my free monthly e-newsletter! Pass it on. Thanks!

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to chill with efficient a.c. in heat wave

Horrible heat! Across the country, 132 million Americans are suffering heat advisory conditions. What to do to beat the heat? First, give yourself a break! Take it easy; it's important not to exert yourself, as our cat, aptly named Penguin, demonstrates on a cool tile floor. Second, don't make your air conditioner overexert. For efficiency's (and your budget's) sake, turn it off when you leave for more than a couple hours, and, if you leave the a.c. running, turn it up to at least 80 degrees until you come back. Pull shades and curtains, too, to keep out solar heat. When it's a record-breaking hundred-plus, 80 indoors is sweet relief, and you can always turn down the thermostat when you return.

But don't turn it down too far! The more power we burn, the more greenhouse gases we contribute to global warming, not to mention brown-outs and no a.c. for anyone. Plus, cooling is responsible for 17-22 percent of the average residential electricity bill . Every degree you go above 72 increases your savings by one to three percent, says the California Energy Commission. And, with every degree you lower it, cooling costs increase by about 7 percent. As Mayor Bloomberg, ever the cool head, advised New Yorkers this morning, keep your a.c. at about 79 degrees, the most efficient setting that still feels cool.

If you've got a programmable thermostat, set it to turn the a.c. on half an hour before you get home.

For more a.c. info, see my "Econundrums" column in the August issue of Whole Living Magazine, and this helpful summer energy slide show at

Please visit my home page at for tips on green, nontoxic sunscreens and cosmetics, updates on the toxic plastic chemical BPA in drink bottle linings, and info on my book, Do One Green Thing. Sign up for my free monthly e-newsletter, and don't forget to ask me questions or comment on this blog!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How to D.I.Y. clean green shampoo

DJR in Detroit asks: "Do you know of a make-it-yourself shampoo base?"

Answer: Good question. While there are many good green commercial shampoos on the market, made without synthetic fragrances that can harbor hormone-disrupting phthalates, nothing is purer and simpler than one you make yourself. As a short cut, I recommend starting with a pure, unscented liquid soap, such as Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild Liquid Soap, made with certified organic, fair trade botanical ingredients and no synthetic surfactants (foaming agents). That way, you can add the plant-based fragrance of your choice, or none at all (fragrances can be irritating, so do a patch test first).

Exception: If you want a rose, lavender or orange essential oil scent, Dr. Bronner's makes liquid soaps with these ingredients, so buy these for an even shorter short cut!

Caution: Although the essential oils will help preserve your shampoo, it won't last as long as off-the-shelf remedies, so use it up within a couple months. Should be easy to do!

Shampoo Recipe

One ounce Liquid soap
1/4 tsp vegetable oil (olive, coconut) to moisturize and deep cleanse
Three drops essential oil to give the fragrance you want.

Mix this base with eight ounces water & shake to make shampoo. Keep out of eyes.

For readymade shampoos, see my list.

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