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EarthTalk®

by the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: One source of water waste is running it to change from cold to hot. Any thoughts on how to deal with this? -- Joanne Leussing, via e-mail

Running the water to wait for it to get hot is a huge waste of water. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading non-profit green group, upwards of 10 percent of all the hot water drawn for showering in a typical single-family home is wasted waiting for hot water to arrive.

“With Americans taking over 200 million showers a day, that’s a lot of water and energy literally down the drain, of no benefit to anyone,” reports Ed Osann, NRDC’s Senior Policy Analyst and Water Efficiency Project Director. “Using EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] estimates of shower water use, that’s about 280 million gallons of hot water wasted each day—water that has been heated by a water heater, but then allowed to cool as it sits in long pipe runs that are not insulated.”

The energy used to heat this wasted hot shower water generates about the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 1.6 million cars plying our roadways. “And that’s not even counting the additional water that gets wasted while waiting for hot water to arrive at a lavatory faucet or the kitchen sink,” adds Osann.

Waiting for hot water isn’t just a problem in older homes. “As homes grew bigger during the housing bubble, floor plans expanded, piping was extended and wait times grew even longer,” explains Osann. “Additionally, although the flow rates for new faucets and showers have come down over the last 20 years in response to state and federal efficiency standards, designers often neglect to downsize the pipes serving these more efficient fixtures.” The result is large amounts of water sitting in pipes cooling between uses.

For its part, NRDC has been working to reduce this unnecessary waste—especially in new construction—by advocating for upgraded building and plumbing codes. In 2015, the group scored a double win by convincing both the International Code Council (ICC) and the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) to upgrade their respective efficiency requirements—which most states and the federal government automatically follow—for hot water piping.

But unfortunately, the ICC ignored subsequent calls by NRDC to mandate more compactly designed hot water pipe layouts in new buildings, although Osann thinks it’s only a matter of time before such changes are uniformly adopted by the standards bodies and most states.

As for what you can do now to reduce the waste of water while waiting for it to warm up, Osann recommends clustering tasks that require hot water close together to reduce the “cool-down” effect between uses, and capturing some portion of the initial draw in a container and using it to water the plants or fill up Fido’s dish. You can also insulate hot water pipes that are exposed in a basement, attic or crawl space to keep the hot water warm while it idles in the pipe awaiting your next shower.

Better yet, replace your hot water heater with a tankless water heater, which heats water directly on demand without the use of a storage tank. When hot water is turned on, cold water travels through a pipe into the unit, where either a gas or electric burner heats it instantaneously. As a result, tankless water heaters deliver a constant supply of hot water and there is no energy or water waste due to waiting or to water cooling—and then needing re-heating later—in your conventional water heater’s storage tank.

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org; ICC, www.iccsafe.org; IAPMO, www.iapmo.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What is so-called Regenerative Agriculture and why are environmentalists so bullish on it? -- Jess Mancuso, Montgomery, PA

Regenerative Agriculture (RA) describes farming and grazing practices that help reverse climate change by rebuilding the organic matter in soil and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.

“Specifically, Regenerative Agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density,” reports California State University’s Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (RAI). “Regenerative agriculture improves soil health, primarily through the practices that increase soil organic matter. This not only aids in increasing soil biota diversity and health, but increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths.” The net result is a drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the improvement of soil structure to reverse human-caused soil loss.

According to Terra Genesis International, which helps businesses integrate sustainable farming practices into their everyday operations, key principles guiding the implementation of RA include: progressively improving whole agroecosystems (soil, water and biodiversity); creating context-specific designs and making holistic decisions expressing the essence of each farm; ensuring and developing fair and reciprocal relationships among all stakeholders; and continually growing and evolving individuals, farms and communities to express their innate potential.

How these lofty goals are achieved also involves the implementation of many of the practices that are now commonplace in organic agriculture, including permaculture design (utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems), agroforestry (incorporating the cultivation and conservation of trees), keyline sub-soiling (to loosen compacted soils), no- or low-till farming (leaving it alone to do its thing), pasture cropping (growing annual crops in dormant perennial pastures), multi-species cover cropping and crop rotations (to introduce genetic diversity), the use of animal manure (to build up the resilience of the soil biota), encouragement of bees and other beneficial insects (for fertilization), the use of organic soil amendments such as biochar or terra preta (to enhance yield while sequestering carbon dioxide), ecological aquaculture (using water not land to grow food), perennial crops (they live on beyond one growing season) and silvopasture (integrating trees with forage and livestock production).

“Over the centuries, agriculture has caused the loss and degradation of fertile soil, leading to the downfall of civilizations worldwide,” points out John Roulac, founder and CEO of the organic superfoods brand, Nutiva, and an outspoken advocate for RA. “Modern industrial agriculture is doing it even faster.”

More and more farmers are starting to realize that their survival may well depend on whether they can pivot toward RA as the world warms. “Regenerative agriculture is an approach to food and farming systems that works with nature’s rhythms and technology to feed our growing population, regenerate topsoil and enhance biodiversity now and long into the future,” concludes RAI, cautioning that it’s critical to change synthetic nutrient dependent monocultures, low-biodiversity and soil degrading practices. Indeed, our very existence may depend on it.

CONTACTS: RAI, www.csuchico.edu/sustainablefuture/aginitiative/; Terra Genesis International, www.terra-genesis.com; Nutiva, www.nutiva.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that the chemicals we use to unclog backed-up drains are harmful to our health and the environment. Can you suggest safer alternative products or methods?

– Amy Smith, Rome, NY

Chemical drain clog removers do contain some pretty harmful stuff. The three main types available to consumers—caustic, oxidizing and acid—work by using harsh chemicals that heat up clogs to melt the congealed grease impeding the outflow. All three are acutely toxic to humans and animals if swallowed, and coming into contact with them can burn your eyes, skin and mucous membranes. Even the fumes can cause respiratory distress. These chemicals can also explode inside your home’s pipes—especially if inadvertently mixed with other chemicals or cleaners.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to look hard to find drain clog removal formulations that don’t come with big risks. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Guide to Healthy Cleaning gives drain clog removers from the likes of Amway, Clorox, CVS, Drano, Liquid Plumr and Safeway an “F” grade, given their toxicity to humans and animals and harshness to the environment. And don’t be fooled by a product’s branding, as an eco-friendly name can sometimes belie toxic ingredients. To wit, EWG also gave an “F” to Up and Up Drain Pipe Opener and Earthworm Family-Safe Drain Cleaner for their environmental and health dangers.

EWG found that a few products—Biokleen Bac-Out Drain Care Gel, Drainbo The Natural Solution Natural Drain Cleaner and Earth Friendly Products’ Earth Enzymes Drain Opener—did a decent job unclogging drains without using especially toxic chemicals, but it’s always better to try to avoid the problem in the first place.

In the kitchen, refrain from putting eggshells, coffee grounds, pasta, potato peels, rice, flour, produce stickers, paint and cleaning products down your sink drain, even if you have a garbage disposal. As for keeping grease out of the drain, try to scrape or mop it up with a paper towel and throw it away. Also, keeping your garbage disposal clean—pour a little dish detergent down the drain and run the disposal under cold water for a minute or two each night after doing the dishes—will also prevent back-ups.

As for the bathroom sink, shower or tub, hair—whether from dad’s shaving or sister’s styling—is likely the chief suspect in clogs. A hair catcher like the TubShroom (or SinkShroom or ShowerShroom) could help. This ingenious little mushroom-shaped device pops into the drain and attracts and coils hairs around itself before problems start. Pop it out every couple of weeks, peel off and dispose of the collected hair in the garbage, and start the process all over again.

A little preventive maintenance goes a long way to keep drains clear. Health and wellness site Mercola.com suggests filling sinks with a mix of white vinegar and warm water, then releasing the drain so this all-natural dynamic cleaning duo can do its work degreasing your outflow pipes. If the drain still runs slowly, pour in several tablespoons of baking soda followed by a white vinegar chaser.

CONTACTS: HowStuffWorks’ “How Drain Cleaners Work,” home.howstuffworks.com/home-improvement/plumbing/drain-cleaner2.htm; TubShroom, tubshroom.com; Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, ewg.org/guides/cleaners; Mercola.com, mercola.com.

EarthTalk® is a weekly syndicated column produced by the non-profit EarthTalk. To find out more, submit a question, or make a donation, visit us at www.earthtalk.org



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