I’d like you to take a moment to consider water in the context of a normal day at your house. Just mentally walk through your day and note all the times you use water. Washing your face, flushing the toilet, pouring your morning cup of coffee, wiping down the counter, washing breakfast dishes and so on throughout the day. Even if you don’t bathe or shower every day and it’s not laundry day (41 gallons on average per load), the amount of water you and your family uses on a daily basis adds up.
Now imagine if each and every drop of that water had to be hauled by hand in order for you to use it. This is the case for people in many developing nations where up to 750 million people lack access to clean water. In these areas women and children spend many hours everyday collecting water for drinking, cleaning and cooking.
So as a social science experiment, in order to see just how much time and energy it would take to procure water by hand, and to see how many innovative ways I could develop to conserve the hard won water, we have spent the past month (or more) without any running water in our house.
We filled up gallon jugs at my relative’s house (where we showered once a week) almost daily, and bought bottled water (in 5 gallon containers) for drinking and cooking. We perfected the water conservation method of dish washing – first heat a gallon of water on the stove, pour about 1/3 of the water into a large bowl, wash everything starting with the cleanest dishes and ending with pots and pans, setting aside the soapy clean dishes for a mass rinse. Once dishes are rinsed the rinse water goes into a bucket for use in flushing a toilet later on. When you have to haul water you try not to waste any.
As you might have guessed this wasn’t really a social science experiment to learn how people in third world countries cope. This was just life in our somewhat off grid setting where we capture rainwater from the roof of our barn and funnel it first into a 280 gallon tote and then into a 1,000 gallon cistern. Sometimes we don’t have enough rain. So we cope.
Coping became more difficult as the weeks turned into a month and winter took its toll. The severe cold cracked our water pump and froze the output in our sewer pipe so that any water that was poured down the drain eventually came back up – flooding the bathtub with disgusting brown water. That meant resorting to a do-it-yourself composting toilet and making sure that all the water that we used for cooking or cleaning went out the door, not down the drain.
I’m happy to say our experiment came to an end today – we had some nice snow melt followed by rain and have at least a couple hundred gallons of water in the cistern (and more rain in the forecast for Friday). The pump was repaired and the frozen clog in the sewer pipe has melted with the warming weather. We have water, glorious water!
By the way, the USGS has a survey you can complete to get an idea just how much water you use in total gallons per day if you are curious about your water use. Since it was down this afternoon when I was writing this post I will share that according to the EPA a typical U.S. household uses 260 gallons of water a day. We (family of five with pets) found we could make it on about 12-15 gallons on week days (so away from home most of the day) without bathing or doing laundry and by being less than finicky about how often the toilet had to be flushed!