a peek inside the fishbowl

11 Jun, 2011

Reno post #009 – thinking out loud about water conservation

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Home/reno

Our design is getting a little closer to being finalized. More on that later.

My last reno post was about energy conservation. Today I’m thinking about water.

On a scale of 1 – 10, how important do you think it is for residents of the water-plentiful parts of this planet to conserve water?

Water is pretty cheap. But does that mean that we should all use as much as we want? For me it’s not a necessarily a cost issue, it’s almost a moral or ethical issue.

I bought Mark a shower timer for Christmas as a joke. It’s a sand-dial with a suction cup on the back so it sticks to the wall. Turn it once and it gives you four minutes. Funny thing is, I’ve been using it, and I’ve realized that I really can have a shower in four minutes. (!)

Here in Ottawa, we’ve had our share of water-related issues recently.

#1 – The water ban. If you live in Ottawa you know what I’m talking about. Residents in Barrhaven and Manotick have been asked to stop using water that would normally go to watering their lawns, washing their cars, and filling up kiddy pools. Car washes were asked to shut down temporarily too. Anyone caught breaking the ban could be fined upwards of $500. This is all because of construction happening on a water main and the City’s priority was to maintain pressure and a safe supply of drinking water. As a result, rain barrels have been selling out all over the city.

#2 – Ongoing issues with sewage in the Ottawa River. This is a problem that really bothers me. It’s almost guaranteed to happen after a rainstorm because our sewage system can’t handle overflows. Over 15 million litres of contaminated water flowed into the Ottawa River in the first four days of May (source). The City’s strategy is to develop a series of storage tanks to hold the overflow. This is a $140 million plan. (source) Dear Ottawa, I don’t want poop in my river. Thank you.

I believe that small things add up to big things. Like with turning our lights out, or the city’s Green Bin program. If one person participates the margins are small, but if more join in the difference can be huge.

So how can one family (a) make positive changes in regards to water waste and how can we (b) help decrease the amount of runoff? What are those tiny steps we can take?

How about this toilet, for starters? The more I look at it, the more I love it. Not only is it a gorgeous design, but it’s a total spacesaver, perfect for a powder room. The sink and toilet attached, internally and externally. Wastewater from the sink is used to fill the toilet’s cistern (in that order) so you’re actually using your water twice. Isn’t that cool? (Question is, is this available in Ottawa, and how much is it? I’m willing to bet that the price is the reason we won’t be able to buy it. Boo.)

Or a greywater system?
Greywater is the slightly-used household wastewater generated by laundry, dishwashing, showering, and bathing. I would love to investigate some kind of greywater system, but I’m not sure it’s allowed in the city. I think it would be neat if my dishwater could exit the house and water the trees and lawn, but I have a feeling that our property is too small and that it wouldn’t work in the winter. There’s a whole bunch of information about this here.

What about a tankless hot water system for our low-flow shower?
Having a giant tank in the basement, full of water that is heated 24/7, ready for just in case we need it, defies logic. There is no big holding tank of water in a tankless hot water system (obviously). Water is superheated on demand, and runs though tiny coils before you get it out of the tap. It makes sense, right? There’s an interesting article about it here.

Now what about that rainwater runoff?

We already have a rainbarrel. It’s fantastic. It collects rainwater from one of our downspouts. It fills up after one good rain shower. If I had another one it would pretty much cover all of our gardening needs for the entire summer. We bought our rainbarrel at Arbour about 10 years ago. It’s a repurposed, commercial grade olive barrel. You can read more about the ones from Arbour here.

When the reno is done I’d like to look into xeriscaping, that is, creating a garden that doesn’t need extra watering. There’s a good article at CHMC about designing a water-wise garden that includes some good information about xeriscaping. You can check that out here.

I think of the biggest reasons we have so much runoff is because of the ever increasing ratio of pavement to garden and grass.  Roads, driveways, sidewalks and roofs act as giant rain catchers, sending millions of litres of perfectly good rainwater into the sewer system. Personally, I don’t think we can entertain a green roof (we’re realizing that our budget is much smaller than we thought – more on that later) but I would like to look into an eco-driveway.

Driveways are odd things, when you think about it. Driveways, like green lawns, are a fashion statement. There’s false prestige associated with a big driveway and a big expanse of perfectly manicured grass. For some reason society dictates that every house must have a smooth black driveway in front of it. And now that most families own two cars, the trend is to design a driveway that is twice the size so it can comfortably accommodate two cars side-by-side. Who says this should be the way it is?

When you think about it, driveways are bad for the environment in a bunch of different ways.

  1. 1) Materials. For example, what is driveway sealant? It’s a chemical that’s layered on top of your driveway to protect it from oil stains and keep it looking “good.” Okay. But what’s it made of? I always wonder about this in the summer when the “black tar” guys come knocking.
  2. 2) Driveways contribute to the runoff issue. As I mentioned, paved surfaces contribute a lot to runoff problem and the driveway catches as much water (if not more) than a typical roof. It’s not a stretch to imagine how much good rain water could have gone into our gardens … instead it goes into the municipal water system.

One small driveway won’t make much of a difference, I realize that, but it’s a start, right? That’s why I want to look into some kind of permeable driveway, and find a greener solution that will keep some of the rainwater from running off into the system. (There’s an article about it here.) Maybe it’s just a matter of putting in some pavers? I don’t know.

There’s so much to think about during the reno process that it can feel overwhelming at times. I’m torn on the water issue. I’d love to do something about water waste, but am keenly aware of our budget, which greatly affects our ability to do something big. What do you think?

10 Responses to "Reno post #009 – thinking out loud about water conservation"

1 | Tiana

June 11th, 2011 at 10:17 am


I don’t have a link handy but there is a king of interlock you can use for your driveway that allows plant growth in the middle of and between the bricks. You can seed it with grass and mow it or even just populate it with a low groundcover but it’s still strong enough to keep from the erosion you would have if you just parked on lawn or gravel.

2 | kathleen

June 12th, 2011 at 8:40 am


My daughter, who is 7, randomly asked me at breakfast the other day if we could drink toilet water. It took a few minutes to figure out where she was going with the question but what she really wanted to know was why we are using purified drinking water in our toilets instead of grey water. She thought it was a ridiculous waste. I think the more you can do to reuse water in your home the better.

3 | Sasha

June 12th, 2011 at 12:31 pm


When we looked into tankless, there were concerns about temperature stability, which can be a safety issue with young kids. Something I’ve wondered about, though, is having smaller tanks throughout the house – like one co-located with the shower. At the very least, then you wouldn’t be pumping all kinds of water throughout the pipes waiting for the hot to arrive.

We don’t have the time or budget for any of this at the moment. In the meantime, we just try to avoid using hot water. The clothes get washed cold, and I try not to use it in the kitchen. And we just don’t water outside, the only exception was the veggie garden, back when we had time for one ;).

And full disclosure, because I fear this is starting to sound a little sanctimonious: we are *not* aqua-saints here. I use too much water rinsing the recycling, the tap doesn’t always go off while little teeth are being brushed… I could go on. But my thumbs hurt :p

4 | Sara

June 12th, 2011 at 9:07 pm


I grew up in Australia where water restrictions are a common way of life and the only time you ever see your calm and relaxed father get angry and bitter is when the neighbour consistently defied the water restrictions :)

Water use is incredibly cultural. My favourite prof in undergrad wrote extensively on the topic.

I grew up having drought showers. As in my mum would knock on the door after abt 3 minutes. Too bad that it was my contemplative time growing up. And yes, we had timers for the shower too. More so when water restrictions were stronger. When I do return home, I know I’m home because my mother is commenting my lack of a ‘drought’ shower.

Dual flush toilets also seem to be rare in Canada. Then again, plumbing is a whole another issue here – I never owned a plunger or knew how to use one (ha) until I lived here :)

5 | neeroc

June 12th, 2011 at 10:36 pm


I like the idea of a permeable driveway, we’ve never been ones to keep up on sealing or the condition of ours, and if there was something low maintenance, low mess ie – non-gravel I would love to look into it (keeping in mind that a smooth driveway also facilitates snow shovelling…which is again another good reason to have a small driveway *g*

Coincidental to this post we were visited by enbridge tonight and they dropped off a low flow shower head, a sink sprayer (1.5gal) and an aerator (1gal). I checked the eco aerators in the hardware stores and they are 1.7gal, so this is an extra bonus. We’re also retrofitting the tanks in our toilets with the dual flush mechanisms…we get the function without having to throw out perfectly working toilets.

As for the green lawn, quite a bit of ours is clover, which seems to be a bit more drought resistant *g*

6 | Peter Miller

June 13th, 2011 at 10:06 am


Hi Andrea,

I replaced my furnace, water heater and AC unit a year ago. I went with a tankless water heater. It wasn’t cheap ($2990), but I do like the fact that it only runs when we turn on the hot water tap.


7 | Sara

June 13th, 2011 at 11:31 pm


I also wonder about the current trend towards two sinks in a kitchen that also has a dishwasher. I think it may encourage excess water use.

8 | Ginger

June 15th, 2011 at 9:54 am


Water consumption is pretty big in Texas, especially in our hot summers. We are already on stage one water restrictions and that is sure to be increased as the already hot days go by.

It drives me batty when people don’t follow the water restrictions. I would love to have a tank-less water heater for water and energy conservation. But I cannot justify the expense when we have a perfectly functioning traditional one. But one day it will go out and at that point I am going to insist on one!

9 | andrea

June 15th, 2011 at 10:21 am


Thank you for comments everyone!
I think there’s definitely going to be a water-saving component in our renovation plan. I’m just not sure what it’s going to look like. Just another thing to worry about eh? :)

10 | neeroc

August 11th, 2011 at 2:19 pm


I know this was only a small part of your post, but it had piqued my interest. Have you seen this? http://thisbigcity.net/philadelphia-revolutionary-approach-stormwater/

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