Many places are not getting enough precipitation due to climate change. Abnormal dryness (drought) is a problem in much of the United States. For example, over 100 million Americans in 37 states are experiencing drought. Drought conditions increase wildfire risk and impact fish and wildlife. Drought affects our recreational activities. Drafted impacts our food supply and food prices. Currently, drought affects over 150 million acres of crops.
Inflation, the loss of purchasing power for everyday items and services, is at its highest level since 1981. Many households seek cost-cutting strategies to compensate.
Reducing home water use can decrease our water bill and reduce drought impacts. But wanting to save money doesn’t automatically translate into new water conservation behaviors because we often consume water almost automatically, without much conscious thought. However, psychological techniques can help us develop new water habits.
Wasteful Vs. Thrifty Water Habits
Much of our home water use occurs when we mindlessly perform everyday activities like washing dishes, brushing our teeth, doing laundry, and taking a shower. With simple adjustments to how we do these daily things, we can easily save as much as 100 gallons of water a day.
Here are three wasteful habits (see below) to target, but there are many others you could choose.
- Wasteful Habit: Leaving the water running while you brush your teeth, wash your face, or shave. Thrifty Habit: Turn off the water when brushing your teeth, washing your face, or shaving (saves 10 gallons of water a day per person).
- Wasteful Habit: Long showers with a standard shower head use 2.5 gallons a minute. (50 gallons for a 20-minute shower, 20 gallons for just an 8-minute shower). Thrifty Habit: Cut your shower time (ideally to five minutes) and get in as soon as the water heats up (this also reduces costs from heating water). For added savings, put a bucket in the shower to collect water while it heats up and water plants with it. Turn off the water while you wash your hair or shave your legs
- Wasteful Habit: Handwashing a full load of dishes with the water running uses up to 27 gallons of water versus the three gallons used by an energy-star rated dishwasher. Thrifty Habit: If you have a dishwasher, use it. Minimize prewashing, and run only full loads. This will save 5-15 gallons per load. Likewise, washing only full loads of clothes will save 15-45 gallons a load.
When handwashing dishes, don’t leave the water running. Fill a basin with hot water and a few squirts of soap. Scrape off leftover food and soak the dishes. Scrub clean, starting with the least dirty items. Fill another basin with clean water and dip scrubbed items to rinse, replacing the water as needed. Alternatively, scrub dishes, then rinse while capturing sudsy water in dirty pots/pans to loosen debris. Turn off the water when scrubbing pots/pans.
Using Psychology To Help Your Household Develop New Water Habits
Changing how you use water in your home requires breaking old water habits and instilling new ones. Fortunately, there are some fun and easy ways to use psychology to help your household form new water habits.
Here is a 5-step plan based on the psychology of pro-environmental behavior,
Step 1: Talk with the members of your household about the need to conserve water and specific ways to do it (environmental education, Frame the discussion to fit your “audience” (your housemates): who they are and what they care about (values framing, For example, “If we reduce our water bill, we will have enough to buy [treat],” or, “Your share of the utilities will be less,” or, “I know you care about the environment and are concerned about the drought…,” “If people don’t cut down on their water use, then we face water rationing,” etc.
Environmental education works best when you involve people. You might ask questions like, “Can you think of other ways we can reduce our water use? Can you think of ways to make this fun?”
Anticipate counter-arguments and be prepared to rebut them or to compromise (“Are you willing to cut five minutes from your daily shower?”). You might start off by asking for more than you want/expect, and then scale down as a compromise so they feel like they won (this is called the reject-then-retreat technique,
Step 2: Use public commitment techniques to get their “buy-in” and to increase the likelihood they’ll follow through. Get them to sign a pledge to perform the specific, desired behaviors. The pledge may be for the whole group (eg, “We, the undersigned, agree to [list of behaviors]” with each person’s name and a space to sign). Or have each member create their own pledge, depending on their unique water use habits (eg, I ___pledge to get out of the tub when the water gets cold instead of refilling it with hot water”). in your residence, such as on the refrigerator or in the bathroom.
Further increase commitment by involving household members in developing a plan and making materials (like prompts, see below), a 5-minute song playlist for timing showers, or choosing incentives (assign tasks that fit the individuals’ interests and skills). Consider involving younger children by making them “water monitors” that get to remind older members to save water.
Step 3, prompts are simple reminders placed where the behavior occurs, such as a note that reads, “Turn off water while brushing teeth…” placed in the bathroom. Prompts help develop new habits. Create prompts for the kitchen, bathrooms, and laundry area to help your household develop good water habits. Keep them simple and polite, but make them attention-grabbing.
Step 4: Post public commitments in a visible place, like on the refrigerator or in the bathroom. Put prompts in visible locations near where water use occurs. Add any elements to the setting that will enable water-saving behavior, such as a timer in the bathroom (for timing showers), or basins for dishwashing.
Step 5: Compare your monthly household water use and bills before and after your intervention. Inform your household of the results and adjust your plan if needed. Reward your household’s program participants for a job well done.
Water is a valuable resource that’s scarce (and expensive) in many places. Saving water is good for the environment, and good for people and their pocketbooks. And it’s easy (and fun) to use psychology to change “bad” water habits to “good” ones.
I’ve focused on everyday water use behaviors performed by household members, but I recognize that buying and installing water-saving technologies, like low-flow shower heads, aerators, and water-saving toilets; getting rid of water-hogging lawns; fixing leaky faucets, etc. are ways to reduce water use. Do these if you can. However, while these don’t require behavior change, implementing them requires money and/or skills that many lack. Also, renters may not want to invest in a landlord’s property.