The #5GallonDay Challenge: To Flush? Or Not to Flush?

By Kitty Holt
March 15, 2016

I grew up in a family of eight, in a small home with one bathroom, so one had to be quick and strategic in order to get any time in the bathroom and get to school on time. Perhaps that is where my competitive spirit was born: I love a challenge.  When I heard about the#5GallonDay Challenge in which participants live on just five gallons of water during a 24-hour period, my competitive spirit stirred.  

The challenge brings awareness to water usage. Although Americans use an average of 80-100 gallons of water daily, people in sub-Saharan Africa live on just five gallons a day on average.

Before embarking on the #5GallonDay challenge, I did some research to determine how much water I was using each day, and then I developed my strategy.  I wanted to “win” the challenge, but I also wanted to do it without cheating.  Since my home was built in the 1980s, my biggest concern was the water usage of the toilet, which was estimated at 3.5 gallons per flush. Yikes, one flush uses nearly as much water as a person in Africa uses in an entire day! How am I going to do this challenge? When I presented the idea to my family at dinner that night and asked who wanted to join me, the resounding silence made it clear…I was on my own, and I set out to take the challenge on a Saturday when I was home from work.


Day Before:

My concern about the older toilets in our home and the amount of water they use still weighed on my mind, when I remembered that my husband had installed a new toilet in the kids’ bathroom a few years back. I did some quick research online, pulled the cover off the back of the toilet, and saw the numbers that might help me complete this challenge: 1.6. Yes, “just” 1.6 gallons per flush compared to 3.5 for the other toilets in the house.  Maybe I can do this after all!

I meant to take a shower before bed as I knew I could not take one the next day (the average American takes a shower that is eight minutes long and uses over 17 gallons of water!). While I have gotten better at taking shorter showers, it was simply not going to be possible to reach my goal if I took one. But, with 15 minutes to go until Challenge Day, I still hadn’t gotten into the shower and now was just too tired. 

Finally, I pondered how I would wash up in the morning: would I use water to wash my face, or some other means?  I remembered the kids’ bathroom had some cleaning cloths, so I snagged those. 


Challenge Day:

I awoke sometime around 5  a.m. to use the bathroom.  As the rest of the family was sleeping, I tiptoed to the kids’ bathroom. One of the sayings I had come across in my research on saving water was the saying “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” (meaning, if you urinate, just let it sit; don’t flush it). So…I did. I soaped up my hands well, then put a tiny amount of water on to rinse the soap. Estimated use: 3 tablespoons. I usually use far more water to wash my hands, so I did not feel clean.

A couple of hours later, I needed to use the bathroom, and this time I needed to flush. 1.6 gallons of water down, plus another third of a cup of water or so washing my hands.

I usually have a cup of tea with my breakfast but knew that not be advantageous today, so I drank a bottled Mocha Frappuccino coffee along with my breakfast. 

I used multiple cleaning cloths to wash my face and body, and, although I was having a really bad hair day, I didn’t want to use any water on my hair – just hoped no one I knew would see me at any point. I wet my toothbrush for literally a second, brushed my teeth with the faucet off, and used only enough water to rinse the toothbrush off for another second.

Today’s plans included driving to a store an hour away and picking up a dress to wear to a wedding, and then coming home and doing chores and paperwork. 

I drove an hour to the store, and, unfortunately, needed to use the restroom when I got there, thanks to the coffee drink I consumed. The toilet automatically flushed, and I scanned it, trying to determine how many gallons it used. After doing some research later at home, I decided to go with the 1.6 gallons the toilet in my kids’ bathroom used. Yikes, barely 9:15 a.m. and I had already used over three gallons! When I went to wash my hands at the store, the water came out of the faucet in a very heavy stream. Horrified, I slammed the water off and then turned it on again very slowly.  I am sure a good cup of water got wasted there. 

When I got home, it was time for my daily 20-30 minute walk, followed by 30 minutes of running. I typically do this on our treadmill with a full water bottle next to me, and usually drink abundantly. Not wanting to drink any water at all, I drank some cranberry juice before exercising, and then followed up the run with a can of diet ginger ale. With dinner, I drank another can of diet ginger ale. 

For the rest of the day, I used the bathroom several times but did not flush (sorry, kids!). Dinner dishes which could not go in the dishwasher were left out to be cleaned the next day. Tooth brushing used minimal amounts of water.

When I went to bed around 10 p.m., I set our dishwasher to automatically start up in four hours, meaning that the 5.5 gallons it used would take place on Sunday. 

I was happy to go to bed and could not wait to get up early in the morning and take a shower. 


Lessons Learned:

As I tried to add up my water usage for the day, I realized that while I technically “won” the #5GallonDay Challenge, I had to eliminate a number of items from my daily routine in order to do so… so I hadn’t really won.

When my alarm went off on Sunday morning, I bounded out of bed and took a wonderful shower but still tried to be mindful of time, and I was able to complete it in 11 minutes, which is much better for me. As I went through the day, I continued to be cognizant of and judicious with my water usage. 

Could I live on five gallons of water a day? Absolutely not. But this was a challenge worth taking, and I highly recommend it. And, if I can save a little more water each day, then maybe I did win after all.