Pleasure boats running aground in a dried-up Thames; a family in unwashed clothes scooping refreshment from a rainwater hopper; and factories at a standstill due to lack of water to cool and wash machinery with. They sound like scenes from The Shape of Things To Come or some Fifties future-dread B-movie. Far-fetched it all may seem. But we could be looking at a very dry future.
There is a real need to save water. It’s a topic that is rarely out of the news and water companies are under pressure to conserve their commodity and offer value for money. First and foremost, leaks have to be plugged. It seems incredible, but Thames Water alone loses enough clean, treated water from its pipes every day to fill nearly 500 Olympic-size swimming pools. That said, there also needs to be change at both ends of the pipe. At the supply end, water companies have to invest in reservoirs and water transfer schemes. And, at the demand end, consumers have to be offered the incentives and equipment that will make water-saving easy, clean and affordable.
This is where design and innovation can make an invaluable contribution. The Government’s “10-Point Plan for a Better Water Industry” aims to promote innovation, demanding that water companies “carry out with vigour, imagination and enthusiasm their duty to promote the efficient use of water by their customers”. This opens the door to creative minds to propose new products, systems and services, as well as encourage a change in our attitude towards a valuable commodity. Much of the innovation happening now is based on Nineties technology, but there is also a chance to re-learn from low-tech water-saving methods applied in developing countries for years.
No-one is claiming we need to return to the typical post-war household regime of one bath a week each. But we do need to use less. Friends of the Earth claims that households could cut their water consumption by 40 per cent without feeling any impact on their standard of living. The average Briton uses 147 litres of water every day. Only 3 per cent of it is actually drunk or cooked with, although it is perfectly good drinking-quality water that gets flushed down the loo (33 per cent of residential consumption), put through washing machines (21 per cent) and let out of the kitchen sink (16 per cent) and bath (13 per cent). Since it is the first two that consume more than half of household water between them, they present the most pressing case for conservation-led innovation.
Every flush of a British loo requires nine litres of water, but it can manage with less. Cistern “dams” which reduce the volume of water drawn into the cistern with each flush are catching on. The best known is the “Hippo” water-saver, which Thames Water has been offering its customers. But new toilets have been developed that require less water or no water at all. Waterless urinals are finding their way into office developments, where they are reducing total water use by 20 per cent. The public conveniences at Glastonbury – modelled on pit latrines used in arid areas of Africa – may have shocked a few middle-class sensibilities but they show how waterless toilets work. Waste passes into a tank where it is broken down aerobically into compost. At Glastonbury, in three years, the compost will be spread about the farm.
Perhaps more palatable for the non-horticultural householder are domestic recycling systems, which filter water from showers, baths and washbasins – or “greywater” – and re-route clean water to the lavatory, washing machines and for jobs like watering the garden. Such systems are now available but at prices upwards of 1000: arguably too much, except for a large-ish, committed household. The latest is Aquasaver, developed by Mike Burton, an electrical engineer working in the house-building business. Two 12V DC pumps work with an electronic logic unit and a patented valve system to control the flow of water from the bathroom, through a filter, to a tank stored in the roofspace. From there it is drawn off by WCs, or through additional filters or an anti-bacteria UV lamp to the washing machine and dishwasher. Burton says the system can be tailored to suit a household’s individual needs, to the point where it becomes a mini-treatment plant.
Water companies are starting to show interest, says Burton. “They now recognise there is a changing climate, a limited amount of water, and it costs them a fortune to clean it all. And they are starting to become more oriented to ways of being more efficient with water in the domestic market. There’s no question they are becoming more interested in innovation.”
Visitors to the Royal College of Art Industrial Design Engineering show in 1996 might recall Sabine Frank’s greywater revival system, which went a step further than Aquasaver and rendered the recycling process more transparent. It placed the storage tank in the bathroom, in place of the toilet cistern, and included a drop-shape translucent window through which shadows of the water cast by the UV lamp are visible. Bubbles from an aerating pump would be seen and heard, adding to the relaxing bathtime atmosphere. “You can see that after a bath the tank is quite full, and when you have a party and there’s a queue for the toilet, it gets quite empty. The window was a way to communicate that and to encourage people to think of the volume they use.”
Machine-washing is another opaque domestic process that, despite the window in the washing machine door, conceals the fact that the average wash consumes 80-90 litres of water. Manufacturers such as Hoover, Hotpoint and AEG are leading the way with models that use 30-50 per cent less. Hoover’s Eco Wash System Plus achieved this by adopting a scoop-and-spray system and by reducing the gap between the rotating drum and the outer wash tub. By being first to gain the EU ecolabel, the company trebled its market share in Germany and doubled its share of the premium market in the UK.
But even greater economies could be made by switching from washing products to washing services. Laundrettes are ideal sites for recycling systems. If they built in a bar and some good seating – as has happened at the Brainwash CafÃ© in San Francisco – my laundrette might actually become beautiful.
Robert van den Hoed, a researcher at the Technical University of Delft has developed scenarios demonstrating the long-term feasibility of a district wash service – a large-scale, community-style operation, run by what are currently industrial laundry businesses – and a neighbourhood service – a small, professional, more personal laundry. As more efficient water recycling systems are developed, laundries could move towards operating with “closed” water systems. Industrial washers would have to refine their processes to deal with fine fabrics but van den Hoed has projected that wash services could clean clothes using a mere 2.5 litres per kilogram, as against the 25 litres that conventional domestic machines use today. The large-scale service, where the emphasis is more on volumes and less on the service aspects of high-quality drying, finishing, works out as the kindest to the environment. What’s more, a third of the Dutch consumers interviewed by TU Delft were “very enthusiastic” about the concept. If it was marketed with skill, and if it met customers’ expectations, such a service could bring about a return to the days of the Thirties and Forties when laundries dominated the washing market.
Lesser-developed countries are also rich stores of low-tech ideas for water conservation. The UK development charity WaterAid has promoted basic low-cost technologies such as pit latrines, but also makeshift water-dosing devices that are a great deal simpler and easier to maintain than infra-red or push-top tap controls. Rainwater “harvesting” equipment is also helping arid regions to survive. In countries like Britain, we only use rainwater in the garden, yet it falls in a form that is easily treatable to make it completely safe for consumption; it may become part of the domestic water supply of the future.
Finally, the humble bucket. Oxfam, together with Atlantic Design and a London moulding company, Core Plastics, have developed a special bucket for emergency zones, to replace the leaky, unsanitary jerry can. The vessel is white, to encourage hygiene. A snap-fitting, one-way seal keeps germs out, and water is poured through a spout, fitted with its own cap. There is a strap handle to make 14 litres of water less of a strain to carry across distances, and a recess in the base so that the bucket can be carried on the head. It is nothing more – or less – than a very good bucket.
But it encourages its owners to treat water as the vital commodity it is. With the UN predicting that a third of the population will suffer chronic water shortage by 2025, that is something we all need to learn.