It's been said so many times, it has become a bit of a cliche: Water is our most precious resource. The world's population tripled during the 20th century — and water use increased at twice that rate. The general trend toward urbanization has stressed groundwater supplies to the breaking point.

Closer to home, municipalities from the Southeastern United States to East Africa to Australia are dealing with unprecedented drought conditions. Whether you chalk it up to global warming or a run of bad luck, water shortages are becoming a vexing and increasingly familiar fact of life.

There is some good news. Most of us are so wasteful with our everyday water use that basic conservation methods can really make a difference. And they needn't mean replacing your appliances or undergoing expensive home renovations.

We've rounded up five free (or very inexpensive) ways to save water. Each should save at least a thousand gallons of water per year. That's a little bit more change in your pocket — and water in the tap.

1) Reduce your current shower time by one minute. The average non-conserving shower head has a flow rate of five to eight gallons per minute, and a water-saving unit uses about 2.5 gallons. For several days, use a cooking timer and log how long it currently takes you to shower. Average these times — then subtract a minute. If you shower every day, you'll easily save 1,000 gallons a year by cutting the time you run the water by just 60 seconds. You can probably make up this time simply by making sure everything you need is close at hand before you turn the water on.

2) Locate and repair silent toilet leaks. Worn hardware can easily — and quietly — leak several gallons per day. Drip by drip, it all adds up. Put some dark food coloring in your tank. If you notice color in the bowl within 15 minutes, you've got a leak worth fixing. Head to your local home building supply store and pick up a repair kit.

3) Water lawns on demand, not on schedule. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 30 percent of all household water consumption is used outdoors. Of this, up to 50 percent is simply wasted due to wind, evaporation, broken irrigation systems and overwatering. The last one is something over which you have full control. Check your lawn on a schedule instead of automatically watering. Here's a quick test: step on a patch of grass. If it springs back, it doesn't need watering. And consider hardy native plants and low-water garden design the next time you landscape.

4) Turn off the tap while you brush your teeth. It's one of those hard-to-break habits, but it's surprisingly wasteful. Running the tap while you scrub sends five to eight gallons of fresh water straight down the drain. Double that for morning and bedtime scrubbing, and we're talking several thousand gallons a year. All you really need is a few ounces to wet and clean the brush.

5) Be smart about dishwashing. If you're doing dishes by hand, don't rinse under an open faucet. Buy an in-sink rack, load your soapy dishes, and rinse by pouring hot water over the top or using a handheld spray nozzle. Have a dishwasher? Use the short cycle for all but the dirtiest dishes. EnergyStar suggests skipping a pre-rinse before loading your dishwasher: It can use up to 20 extra gallons per load. Just scrape and go.

What's next?

new dryer with clean towels Replace older, inefficient appliances with EnergyStar-rated models in order to save energy and water. (Photo: Werayuth Tes/Shutterstock)

It should probably go without saying that obvious plumbing problems should be fixed immediately. At a drop a second, a worn tap or outdoor faucet is losing about 20 gallons a day — more than 7,000 gallons per year. If you're going to be away from home all day, shut down anything which would use water and make note of your utility meter. This is a great way to spot sneaky leaks.

Beyond this cheap, low-hanging fruit is the pricier process of replacing inefficient appliances with EnergyStar-rated models. The washing machine is probably your best bet, followed by the dishwasher. Both will save energy and water when compared to models more than a few years old.

In the realm of home improvement, water-saving shower and faucet attachments are clearly the first priority. A trigger-operated spray nozzle on kitchen sinks is a real saver, particularly if your home isn't equipped with a dishwasher. Next up is making sure pipes are insulated properly, a move which will reduce waste caused by waiting for the water to get to the right temperature. Water-saving toilets are within the budget reach of most homeowners, particularly as older units wear out. If rainwater collection is legal where you live, consider setting up a modest system to handle your gardening needs.

Do you have a favorite water-saving tip? Please share in our comments section.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2008

5 cheap ways to save 1,000 gallons of water
Water is humanity's most valuable resource. Want to green your usage? These ideas cost next to nothing and can each save 1,000 gallons a year.