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News headlines this week are all about the latest record heat wave, with temperatures in 15 states expected to exceed 105 degrees. ‘Excessive’ heat warnings have been issued in Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Indiana, where the heat index, or how hot the body feels due to the combined effects of heat and humidity, is expected to reach between 110 and 115 degrees.

And of the 15 states currently under the heat advisory, 14 are experiencing drought-like conditions. Severe water restrictions are in place in locations stretching from Florida to Arizona. In Texas, all 254 counties have been designated natural disaster areas due to severe drought.

During a heat wave we need to stay hydrated. Spending time on the water, or in the water, is ideal. Because we need more water in hot, dry weather, our wise use of limited water resources is especially important.

Here are some measures we can take to reduce water use during a heat wave, while still enjoying the standards and comforts we’re used to.

1. Install a low-flow showerhead, get a shower timer, and take shorter showers.

We take more showers in the summertime since the weather is hot and we’re more active, but at the same time we need to conserve water. An extra five minutes in the shower could mean another 20 – 40 gallons down the drain.

The first and simplest step in saving water at home is to replace any non-conserving shower head with a low-flow shower head. Older model showerheads may have flow rates of 5 – 8 gallons per minute, while newer water-saving showerheads use about 1.5 – 2.5 gallons per minute.

To find out the flow rate of your showerhead:

  • look for a small number followed by “gpm” stamped on the showerhead.
  • if number is not visible, place a 1 gallon bucket beneath the showerhead and turn the water on to your usual pressure. Count how many seconds it takes to fill the bucket. If it takes less than 20 seconds to fill, then your flow rate is over 3.0 gpm, and you can benefit from a low-flow showerhead.
  • if your showerhead was manufactured prior to 1992, it is likely not water conserving.

In our home, we use 1.5 gpm low-flow showerheads. No one complains that the water seems reduced, yet the water savings is huge. To install, simply unscrew your old showerhead and screw in the new one – no tools are required. The low-flow showerhead we use cost only $15.

For only $4 you can by a simple “shower coach” timer that sticks to the wall of your shower and shows how long you’ve been running the water. This simple device makes it easy to change shower habits, and is especially useful for children who may be just learning the importance of conserving water.

2. Water your lawn wisely, let it go dormant during summer, or paint it green!

The EPA estimates that 50 percent of all household water consumption is used outdoors. Much of this water is lost to evaporation and over-watering.

Automatic sprinkler systems often waste water by adhering to a watering schedule rather than the fluctuating needs of a lawn. During a heat wave, only water a lawn when it fails to spring back after walking on it. If you can see your footprints several minutes after walking on the lawn, then the grass is in need of water. And try to water your lawn as early in the morning as possible, this will reduce evaporative loss.

The best way to save water outdoors in summer is to let your go dormant during the hottest months. The lawn will turn brown during this time. Most healthy turf grasses can be left dormant for 3 – 4 weeks without the grass dying. If drought conditions last longer than 4 weeks, water should be applied to re-hydrate the grass slightly to keep it alive. Water enough to wet the soil down to 5 inches. This small amount of watering will not green up the grass but will keep it alive.

While some homeowners are proud of their brown dormant lawns, others are aghast at the prospect of losing their verdant green lawn. And some homeowner associations forbid the practice of letting lawns go dormant. In these situations, a new water-saving solution has emerged – painting your lawn green! You can spray a non-toxic dye on your lawn which will give your lawn a rich green color while the grass can remain in a dormant state. The application is simple, using a hand sprayer, but be sure to apply the spray when there is no wind. And be sure to let it dry (usually takes less than an hour) before letting the dog out.

A spray-painted lawn will keep its color until the next time the grass is mowed. So be sure to cut the grass before spraying.

If you’re re-seeding bare spots or seeding a new lawn, be sure to use a drought-resistant grass seed. New varieties of grass seed, such as Eco-Lawn, have been developed to thrive in drought conditions. Eco-Lawn is also low-maintenance and does not require fertilizers or frequent mowing.

3. Learn about Xeriscaping, plant native species, and mulch shrub beds.

For most of North America, over 50% of residential water used is applied to landscape and lawns. Xeriscaping can reduce landscape water use by 50 – 75%.

Xeriscaping refers to a set of landscaping techniques in which the fundamental element is water conservation. Xeriscape methods have evolved over hundreds of years of gardening in drought-stricken areas, and are also low-maintenance for the homeowner. To learn more about this drought-resistant method of landscaping, read our page: Xeriscaping.

In residential yard landscaping, native plant species may not be as interesting to look at as exotics, but they are adapted to survive in your climate. Plant native species for the bulk of your landscaping, and add a few exotics here and there for interest.

During heat waves even the native plants are stressed. A good strategy is to keep all shrubs well mulched, using straw, leaves, bark mulch or similar organic material. Mulch helps retain ground moisture by reducing evaporative loss, while also letting any available rainwater soak through more slowly, which reduces water lost to runoff. The mulch needs to be appropriate to your setting, e.g. in windy areas the heavier bark mulch will stay in place.

4. Keep outdoor pools covered when not in use.

Swimming pool covers should be kept in place as often as possible to reduce water lost to evaporation, especially in dry or windy locations where evaporation rates are high. This practice also saves energy since it is heated water that’s being saved.

In warm, humid conditions the evaporation rate decreases. In this case, it may be more beneficial to leave the cover off during the daytime, since the pool cover reduces solar heat gain, which in turn saves energy.

5. Be water-wise when dish washing.

When using the dishwasher, set it to run on short cycle for all but the dirtiest dishes. And with modern dishwashers, there is no need to pre-rinse your dishes before loading the dishwasher: it can use up to 20 extra gallons per load.

When washing dishes by hand, don’t rinse under an open faucet. Buy an in-sink rack, load your soapy dishes, and rinse by spraying down on them all at once. It’s faster this way too.

The trend to hotter and drier conditions in many parts of the country is not temporary. While we suffer through the present heat wave with any means at hand, we need plan ahead to adapt in the long term. Drought-resistant landscaping, minimal watering lawn care, and water-conserving indoor plumbing fixtures are the best ways to get started building a water-wise home.