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From an impromptu desk, Thomas Hare explains some water saving tech to Leslie and Greg Gossage
photo credit: Marc Albert/KRCB
There's a lot of big ideas for solving California's perpetual water shortages. Desalinate ocean water. Tow giant bags of water or use a pipeline to pull water out of the mouth of the Columbia River. But there are also less ambitious and perhaps more practical ways too. The city of Santa Rosa is looking to help, one drip at a time.
Thomas Hare and Holly Nadeau are water resource specialists from the Santa Rosa's water department, On a recent Wednesday, in the Oakmont district, they were welcomed to the home of Leslie and Greg Gossage...ready to get down to some detective work.
"So, what I'd love to do is just start off by looking inside and testing the toilets for leaks, and then we'll take a look at all the flow rates for the sinks and the showers and then we'll come outside and take a look at the irrigation system and see if we can see any leaks and breaks, see if anything looks wrong," "OK, sounds good."
The group crowds into one of the home's two restrooms.
"We're going to throw a dye tablet into the toilet, it's just a blue, vegetable dye"
According to Thomas, toilets can be a frequent culprit.
"Toilets are sneaky, they can use thousands of gallons...seeping, so we're going to test how that seal is....and the water level looks fine on this one, good, good water level (laughter), absolutely (toilet tank lid clinks)."
After losing a home to fire and staying in temporary housing, the Gossages moved to Oakmont in May. Typical of the neighborhood, the 35 year-old house is tidy and mostly original. The couple requested a free inspection and water audit, hoping to use less, and save a few bucks too.
From a bag of tricks, Hare pulls a plastic bag with measurement lines, and moves on to test the shower.
"(water running) oh, that's going really, really fast, about two and a half gallons a minute, we want these to flow at one gallon a minute, so we'll give you an aerator for this, 'I think that's original, from 1988' "it looks it, yeah."
The other shower, seldom used, clocks in at three and a half gallons per minute. The first gets a new aerator, the second, a new showerhead.
Sink faucets are much the same, here again too much flowing.
"Every time you're washing your hands, you're using about twice as much as you need to. If you change out that aerator, you'll never notice the difference, but you'll be saving fifty percent of the water every time you use the sink.
The house also has a typical, top loading washer. Although high efficiency front loaders can save twenty five gallons a load, dollar-wise, it's an expensive upgrade, that may not be worth it if the old washer's still viable---even with the $50 city rebate.
Hate washing dishes? Hare says an efficient dishwasher uses four gallons---as much water as one would use in less than three minutes washing by hand.
With a few minutes having elapsed, we're back to the toilet.
"Ahh, we got a leak, Leslie, we have a problem...In the bathroom in the main take a look and tell me what you see?" 'It's leaking blue,' "yeah."
Hare explains.
"This one, it has a couple of issues now, the fill valve--the float is a little too high, so the water is coming up too high on the standpipe, and then it also looks like you have a leak in that flapper. Because this is a one point six gallons per flush toilet which is older, one thing you could consider is replacing it, there are toilets that use zero point eight gallons per flush, and then you'd be having none of those issues and be saving fifty percent of the water each time."
Sometimes, debris or algae build up can prevent the flapper from sealing tight. A few wipes with the rough end of a sponge can fix that. Other adjustments can reset the float, but toilets, being cheaper than and used more frequently than washers, can be a candidate for replacement.
As this case of the missing water proceeds, there have been a few clues, but no smoking gun...That is, until we enter the garage.
"so where is your irrigation controller?" "Well, I thought it was out here, there's two of them and they're very old, I don't know when this was set up." "Oh OH! Oh-OH! Those are REALY old." "So, I have them both off, for rain, but we see this one in front going on."
Finally, pay dirt.
"It said that it was going to go on twice a week, but it was every day, so that's another mysterious,' "what can happen with these old timers as well is that if you have any kind of power cut, they come back on, they come back on with their default, which is ten minutes a day every day" (gasp)."
Hare said the Gossages should qualify for a $300 rebate for new controllers.
"There's something funky happening with those, they're resetting themselves."
Those micro outages, according to Hare, are fairly common. New controllers, with memory, won't wipe their programs in a blackout.
Hare and Nadeau say outside irrigation, especially if not maintained, can also grow problematic. In the backyard, remnants of an old system are all around, along with a drip system with leaky connections, missing emitters and other issues. 
"It looks like when they moved away from the sprinklers, they didn't even cut and cap those valves. Just abandoned and start over..."
The prescription: cut and cap the values, rip out the old drip system and replace it---until then, water by hand.
While the water savings at the Gossage home is mere drops compared to big, headline grabbing engineering marvels--like turning saltwater fresh, the cumulative impact can add up. Plus, the savings are immediate---no need for decades of studies, raising funds and lawsuits.

In part two of this series, we'll dig deeper into outdoor water use and the new technology allowing water customers to view their usage in nearly real time, and how that information provides clues to do your own water detective work.
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