Living the Green Living Guide: The 5-Minute Shower Challenge

“Living the Green Living Guide” is a series of articles that focus on the experiences of one student intern at the Sustainability Resource Center and her husband as they implement small changes to save water and energy at their off-campus apartment. The series will show how, even in a household of two busy students, making eco-friendly choices is both easy and fun. Many of the green living tips come from the Green Living Guide, a publication from the Sustainability Resource Center.

By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Sustainability Resource Center

There’s this old home video of me that nicely sums up my long-standing affinity for the shower. In the video, I’m three years old, a tiny little girl in a fluffy pale blue towel, my mess of strawberry blonde hair dripping wet. It’s Sunday morning and I’m looking up at the camera with large green eyes, making a calm and ardent argument to my mother as to why, though I’ve barely finished bathing, I need to take another shower.

"Shower Head Water Drops 7-26-09 1" by Stephen Depolo

“Shower Head Water Drops 7-26-09 1” by Stephen Depolo

As I’ve grown into an adult, the idea of two long, hot showers in a row hasn’t gotten any less appealing to me, especially on the cold, inversion-y days that we’ve been experiencing lately. But, sadly enough, this previously favorite pastime was destined not to make it through the process of greening my life.

When it comes to being eco-friendly, long, hot showers are a double whammy of resource use. Not only do showers waste water in a state that has none to spare— Utah is one of the top water-consuming states but receives the second-to-least amount of precipitation in the nation–but they also require large amounts of energy from fossil fuels for the treatment, transport, and heating of the water.

Graph of Water Use in the U.S. Courtesy of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Graph of Water Use in the U.S. Courtesy of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

So, in terms of choosing a first step to reduce my environmental impact within my home, cutting my showers to the widely-suggested limit of five minutes seemed like a simple change that would yield a big impact.

The first place to start with any shower-related water saving endeavor is to make sure that the amount of water coming out of the showerhead isn’t excessive. In homes built after 1992, high-efficiency showerheads are likely to come standard. But in my apartment, a dilapidated relic of the mid-1960s, it was necessary to replace the showerhead. After the Sustainability Resource Center Energy Ambassadors verified that the new showerhead puts out less than 2.5 gallons of water per minute when they visited for a home energy audit, it was time for my husband, Richie, and I to start examining our behavior.

Though I’m usually pretty successful at going it cold turkey when making behavioral changes, I figured I might need an extra fun push to get me motivated in the case of my beloved showers. Luckily, some of the habits in my home set the perfect stage for a friendly competition.

I prefer to bathe in the evenings, but Richie takes standard morning showers. Based on this, we devised a set of rules. I’d time Richie’s showers in the morning, then try to beat his time before bed. We’d keep track of whose shower was shorter and, after a couple of weeks, the loser in the game would earn the inauspicious responsibility of deep-cleaning the shower. The five-minute shower challenge was ON!

When Richie’s first timed shower ended up taking a whopping 10 minutes and 42 seconds, I was sure I had the competition in the bag. That night, I smugly reminded him over and over that I beat his time by four whole minutes.

But I guess Richie just really didn’t want to clean the shower because from then on he was a tough competitor. The next morning, he cut his shower to five minutes and 30 seconds. Over the next few days, he whittled his times down until he was consistently clocking in at about four minutes and 45 seconds.

Despite my deep desire to beat my husband in any game, especially one that could possibly earn me extra chores, the old comforting embrace of the steam lured me to stay longer than I should, night after night. “I’m probably only at three minutes,” I’d rationalize, standing in the hot stream of water, doing nothing useful.

Not surprisingly, the two weeks came and went, and I earned shower-cleaning duty.

But, it seems, the cosmos were determined that I get it together. Just two days after our challenge wrapped up, something happened—something just annoying enough to finally break my long-shower habit.

Remember how I said my apartment is old and a little run down? Well, that means that things often break. This time around, it was the drain in our tub. Apparently, a little trap door deep in the pipes got stuck and kept the water from escaping.

Suddenly, every ounce of water that flowed out of the showerhead didn’t just run ever so nicely down the drain. Suddenly, taking long showers meant I’d later have to spend 15 minutes emptying heavy bucket loads of backed-up water into the sink. And suddenly, I could see exactly how much water I was hogging.

Though I’d still suggest the five-minute shower challenge to anybody looking to green their life (it was so much fun!), it was watching the water level rise to swallow up my ankles and, in turn, half of my calves, that finally helped me make a change. Until I could actually see about 30 gallons of water just sitting there, wasted, it just didn’t quite click for me what an impact my shower habits were having.

For those who, like me, need a few different methods to change water use behaviors, there are plenty of options out there. Perhaps you could sing or listen to a song that is less than five minutes, and try to finish up by the time it is over. Or invest a few dollars in a shower timer. Waterproof digital timers can be a little pricy, but there are several types of inexpensive hourglass-type devices made specifically for limiting time in the shower.  Give the old “navy shower” a try, where you get wet, turn the water off while you lather up, and turn the water back on just long enough to rinse off. If you’re really brave, just use cool or cold water to bathe. Chances are it won’t be as tempting to stay too long when there’s no steam to luxuriate in.

An example of an hourglass shower timer. ("Shower Timer" by suhajab

An example of an hourglass shower timer. (“Shower Timer” by suhajab

Our drain has now been fixed. And though I can’t say I haven’t slipped up in the time since, I’m proud to report that my long, hot showers are now few and far between. I can live with that.

What I can’t live with is Richie’s continual gloating about winning our competition. Something tells me that the five-minute shower challenge, round two, might be in our future.

Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.

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