Chasing Gallons

May 6, 2014
Water-efficient fixtures help homes find significant water savings

About the author: Barbara C. Higgens is CEO/executive director of Plumbing Manufacturers Intl. Higgens can be reached at [email protected] or 847.481.5500.


Nationwide, the U.S. loses 1.7 trillion gal of water each year, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimates is equivalent to 16% of treated water never reaching the tap. This is the direct result of the aging and rapidly deteriorating system of pipe and plants that comprise U.S. water infrastructure.

While there is an urgent need to address rampant water loss resulting from aging infrastructure, immediate steps to alleviate the loss can be taken by replacing old, water-intensive plumbing fixtures and installing water-efficient ones — a step that could result in billions of gallons of water saved daily.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 3 billion gal per day in water savings would be achieved (about 7% of all publicly supplied water) by retrofitting pre-1992 toilets, showerheads, faucets and urinals in residences and other buildings with products meeting the current law, as well as WaterSense-labeled products. 

WaterSense-labeled plumbing products save even more water; they are 20% more water-efficient than products meeting the current federal law, and also have been independently tested and certified to meet efficiency and performance standards. In order to bear the WaterSense label, fixtures must meet both the strict water flow standards and a minimum performance standard that is higher than the one for older models. This combination of low flow rates and high performance standards is often referred to as high-efficiency. 

We live in a world of constrained water supplies, with more than 18 states across the country facing drought conditions ranging from “moderate” to “exceptional” based on the U.S. Drought Monitor March 2014 report. The issue of water efficiency is timely and urgent. With more than half of all indoor residential water use taking place in bathrooms and kitchens, Plumbing Manufacturers Intl. (PMI) members are doing their part to save water by producing thousands of different kinds of water-saving plumbing products. 


Consider the 140,000 times you are likely to flush a toilet over a lifetime, and it is easy to see why toilets account for nearly 30% of a home’s water use. Replacing older, inefficient toilets can save the average family of four at least 16,000 gal and more than $100 per year in water bills, according to EPA. WaterSense models would save an additional 650 gal per year.  

By law, all toilets made since 1995 must use no more than 1.6 gal per flush (gpf). Toilets that meet WaterSense requirements use just 1.28 gpf or less, on average, and can make a big difference, particularly at the local level, in water conservation efforts. The facts below show how much water a typical family of four can save in a year, based on the type of toilet in the household, if that toilet is replaced with a WaterSense high-efficiency model. 

  • Replacing a pre-1980 model using 7 gpf saves almost 42,000 gal per year.
  • Replacing a pre-1980 model using 5 gpf saves almost 30,000 gal per year.
  • Replacing a post-1980 model using 3.5 gpf saves more than 16,000 gal per year.
  • Replacing a post-1990 model using 1.6 gpf saves more than 2,000 gal per year.

After the performance troubles of first-generation low-flow toilets of the late 1990s, plumbing manufacturers have made design advances that have enabled WaterSense-labeled toilets to save water with no trade-off in flushing power. The WaterSense program has set high performance standards to cast aside these concerns. In fact, many new toilets outperform standard models in consumer testing. 

Since the introduction of low-flow 1.28- and 1.6-gpf toilets, questions have been raised about whether water-saving toilets flush with a sufficient volume of water to move solid wastes through building drain lines and municipal sewer systems. Industry research through the Plumbing Efficiency Research Coalition presents no evidence that waste transport problems are due to low-flow toilets. 

Water-efficient plumbing products are helping consumers and communities reduce the strain on our aging infrastructure. Two other WaterSense products that can be utilized in homes and businesses include kitchen and bathroom faucets and showerheads.


According to EPA, faucets account for more than 15% of indoor household water use — more than 1 trillion gal of water each year. Current law requires that new faucets not exceed 2.2 gal per minute (gpm); older faucets can flow anywhere from 3 to 7 gpm. Consumers can replace inefficient models with high-efficiency faucets and aerators that have flow rates of no more than 1.5 gpm, the current WaterSense standard.


Because showering accounts for nearly 17% of home indoor water use, high-efficiency showerheads can contribute significantly to water savings as well. WaterSense-labeled showerheads — ones that use no more than 2 gpm — reduce water use by up to 30% and allow consistently refreshing showers. 

As is the case with all showerheads, regardless of flow rate, PMI encourages homeowners to take a precautionary step in assessing the capabilities of the shower valve behind the wall when installing replacement fixtures. It is important to match the showerhead flow rate with the capacity of the valve to ensure effective and safe temperature control. 

EPA estimates that if every household had WaterSense products, the U.S. would save 3 trillion gal of water and more than $17 billion annually. A number of states, cities and counties that have faced water shortages over the past few years have adopted WaterSense standards for plumbing products, including Georgia, Texas and California; several others, such as Colorado, are currently considering or working to pass such legislation.

Water-efficient plumbing products help consumers and communities reduce the strain on our aging infrastructure, save water and lower utility costs. There is a wide variety of water-efficient plumbing products available in the U.S. Additionally, numerous rebates and conservation programs across the country are available to help offset the cost of retrofitting older fixtures with WaterSense-labeled products.

Retrofits offer the U.S. a smart and simple way to save trillions of gallons of water and billions of dollars each year. 

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