Faced with hosepipe bans, the prospect of spiralling charges and compulsory metering, householders are having to think much more seriously about water use.
Climate change could mean drought is the “new norm”, according to Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who has urged water companies to devise long-term plans for saving the precious resource, and consumers to be less wasteful of it.
Industry experts such as David Symons, director of consultancy WSP Environment and Energy, warn of a far tougher and more expensive regime: “The reality is that householders will have to get much more involved in saving water, above and beyond the odd hosepipe ban. In future, water will almost certainly cost more, metering will be universal, and tariffs will vary between seasons.”
With homes and gardens accounting for more than half of water use in the UK, the industry is adopting a stick-and-carrot approach to cut consumption. Though all new homes have compulsory water meters, housebuilders have been slow to incorporate water conservation into the design of properties, but they are beginning to do so, in the knowledge that a water-efficient home, like a low-energy one, will find favour with cost-conscious and eco-friendly homebuyers.
Regulation has been and remains lightweight in the UK compared to, say, Germany and Japan, where one in three homes has a rainwater harvesting system, or in Belgium and France, where rainwater is channelled into huge communal underground tanks and pumped back for use in gardens.
While all new-builds are covered by the Government’s code for sustainable homes, in a green design standard that works on a points system and grades properties on a scale of one (those conforming to minimum building regulations) to six (the top zero-carbon standard), water-saving features are low status.
On average, people currently use 150 litres of water per day. A change to building regulations in 2010 introduced a mandatory requirement for new homes to meet a water-efficiency standard of 120 litres per person per day, and there is a longer-term goal of reducing the average consumption to just 80 litres per day.
Water metering has the effect of cutting consumption by about 10 per cent, simply because householders know they have to pay more if they use more, and would think twice about putting on a garden sprinkler that consumes as much water in an hour as a family of four uses in a day.
Environmentalists argue that water “awareness” campaigns could significantly cut consumption, with simple changes (full loads in washing machines and the often-repeated turning off the cold water tap while brushing teeth) that have small or no impact on lifestyles or personal comfort.
Water-efficient devices and appliances that feature in new homes include low-flow (aerated) taps, low-flush toilets and shallower baths. Increasingly, at new apartment schemes where singles and couples buy, showers are replacing baths.
Developers are also installing external water butts, rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling systems, but claim there are maintenance and possible health and hygiene issues.
Flush with benefits
Greywater recycling takes “mildly polluted” waste water from showers, baths and washing machines and re-uses it for purposes other than human consumption, such as toilet flushing and gardens. Savings of 45 litres per day per person can result, according to developer Mount Anvil, which is installing such a system at its Highbury Park development of townhouses and apartments, coming soon. Call estate agent Thomson Currie on 020 7226 0000.
Homes at Kidbrooke Village, a Berkeley Group scheme in south-east London, are designed to use 30 per cent less water, or 105 litres per person per day. Prices from £220,000. Call 020 8150 5151.
While the main conservation focus is on reducing demand, much can be done to boost supply. Water companies fail to repair leaks, which in the Thames Water region account for 894 million litres per day. “About 30 per cent of water never reaches homes in London because it leaks away,” says Fred Pearce, author of When Rivers Run Dry.
Many suburban gardens are hard paved or boarded over, meaning rain runs straight into drains rather than into ground soil and increases the risk of flash flooding. In Berlin, streets have “porous pavements” allowing water to filter through to the earth.
Page Mews, a new scheme of houses in Battersea, has garden lawns made of permeable artificial turf, which does not require watering. Prices from £950,000. Call Vision Homes (0845 230 4480).
The Royal Horticultural Society has issued guidelines for domestic gardeners, encouraging them to mulch soil by digging in large amounts of compost and to spike and feed a lawn during spring to help it hold up in dry weather.
news: sea to tap
Britain’s first large-scale desalination plant to turn seawater into drinking water for homes has opened at Beckton in east London. Thames Water has spent £250 million building the plant and says the equipment will be turned on at times of drought, when it can supply up to a million people.
Water experts have speculated that the aim is to connect the plant directly to a next-door sewage works to produce recycled water, which is a cheaper process than desalination but has such an unsavoury ring about it that it has proved too unpopular to be accepted by homes anywhere in the world.