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Saving water, one flush at a time

Nobody at my house is very handy, so when there are plumbing issues, we go for the workarounds: like plunging, and putting buckets under leaky faucets to catch the drips and using the buckets to flush the toilets. 

But with the drought, I thought we should try to take care of some those leaks and flush out our water-wasting habits. So I invited Sue Tensfeldt, Senior Water Services Inspector for the San Francisco Public Utility Commission, to come to my house for a Water-Wise Evaluation. When it comes to water, Tensfeldt means business!

“We’re goint to start at your water meter,” Tensfeldt says when she shows up at my door. “There's a little leak detection dial on there. We like to show customers how to read their meters to detect even just slight leaks in the home.”

We head out to the sidewalk.

Tensfeldt says, “If you have any slight leaks or dripping faucets or leaking toilets, and water's passing through the meter, we're going to see that dial moving very slowly in one direction.”

A glance at the dial reveals that it’s actually moving rather quickly – and that’s with no water being used in the house – no clothes washers or faucets turned on. So Tensfeldt knows she needs to hunt for a leak inside.

We go inside to the upstairs bathroom, where my low-flow toilets aren’t in the best working order ­– the moment of truth.

Tensfeldt sees the bucket in the shower, dutifully catching drips from the leaking faucet.

“That's a great way to save your gray water, the wait water while you're waiting for your water to heat up. You can pour your gray water in the toilet and it will flush. It’s a great trick for saving water in the home.”

A great trick, yes, but it’s getting a little old. Somehow, the work, and inevitable splashes, of flushing with buckets is starting to cancel out the good feelings of being a virtuous water-saver in the face of drought.

Tensfeldt checks the vintage on the toilets. The verdict: they’re ultra low-flush toilets, first edition, which means they’re pretty much antiques: not quite ready for modern-day flushing. With advances in design, and new federal conservation standards, she says, you can get much better ones now. Tensfeldt shares the trick to an efficient toilet – just one of the many tips and tricks she imparts during the visit.

“You should be able to get a great flush just by pressing the handle down and letting go. You should never have to hold the handle down, jiggle it, or do anything funky with your toilet to get it to flush properly,” Tensfeldt advises.

Tensfeldt first tests the flusher handle – is it working properly so that when you flush the tank, it empties its water and then refills?

Sadly, no –the chain in the tank is loose, allowing at best, a flaccid flush. According to Tensfeldt, the flush mechanism has failed. She also checks the flapper valve – the plug in the tank that’s supposed to open and close for a good, full flush.

Tensfeldt puts blue dye into the tank.

“If we see any blue come into your bowl,” she says, “we'll know that you have a leaking flapper valve.”

Sure enough, the little bit of water that flows into the tank when it refills turns blue. But there’s so little water in the bowl, Tensfeldt recommends completely replacing the toilet.

The PUC can help replace water-guzzling with water-saving fixtures. They provide rebates for some fixtures, as well as free stuff, like new faucet aerators to cut down on water flow, and gadgets for the yard, like a moisture sensor that tells you when you need to water and sprayer handles for the hose.

As the evaluation continues, Tensfeldt checks the kitchen, the downstairs bathroom, the washer, and the backyard. She finds a few more leaks.

Finally, it’s time for my water-wise report card. There’s actually pretty good news. Tensfeldt says the household’s doing okay. 

“If you are using about 130 gallons per day and you have three people living here, that’s pretty conservative water use,” she says.

Tensfeldt leaves me with a bag of free gadgets and a practical plumber’s handbook, and says if I fix what needs fixing, we could save half our monthly water bill, like $25 a month – not bad!

If you want to check out your own water use, both San Francisco renters and homeowners can request a free evaluation – the PUC will come in and teach you water-saving tips and tricks, and let you know what resources are available if you want to do even more – things like installing gray-water systems or rainwater harvesting.

Find information about conservation and rebates in the East Bay here.