Water-Saving Strategies

12/01/2015 | By Janelle Penny

Don't let your dollars go down the drain

Looking for a way to start a water conservation program? Need to fulfill the requirements for a green building certification? WaterSense, a voluntary partnership program by the EPA, is ready to help.

Backed by third-party verification, WaterSense certifies that any fixture or appliance bearing its logo will perform as well or better than conventional models while reducing the flow rate or flush volume by at least 20%.

More than 16,000 products are available, a number that encompasses tank-type toilets, flushing urinals, private-use lavatory faucets and faucet accessories, and showerheads, as well as commercial pre-rinse spray valves and irrigation controllers (the latter can save roughly 15%, as they impact water use but doesn’t use water themselves). An upcoming specification for flushometer-valve toilets will provide even more certified options for water-conscious FMs, according to the EPA.

Pairing WaterSense-labeled products with smart water saving strategies can help you conserve considerable gallons and dollars. Get started with these tips.

Where to Begin
Not surprisingly, the biggest waste is found in older buildings with aging fixtures. Facilities that were built before the Energy Policy Act of 1992 was passed are likely to have older plumbing equipment that uses significantly more water than even today’s non-WaterSense models.

“Toilets installed before the implementation of EPAct standards can flush as high as 3.5 to 7 gallons per flush,” the EPA explains. “Similarly, urinals installed prior to 1994 can flush as high as 1.5 to 3.5 gpf. Models that flush at 1.28 gpf or less for flushometer valve toilets, per EPA’s draft specification, and 0.5 gpf or less for WaterSense-labeled urinals could save significant volumes.”

An office building with 200 occupants could save 230,000 gallons of water and more than $2,000 every year just by replacing old flushometer-valve toilets with models that flush at 1.28 gallons, the EPA notes. Installing urinals that have been WaterSense-certified could save another 52,000 gallons.

Flush Out Water Savings
Chart the first step to savings by conducting a facility assessment. This walkthrough is vital to understanding how your facility uses water and where you can boost efficiency to save money. “An assessment involves creating an inventory of existing fixtures, equipment and systems to understand where and how much water is being used,” the EPA explains. “A facility water assessment is also helpful for identifying leaks or other operational inefficiencies, which should be addressed immediately as a no-cost or low-cost water savings project.”

Use the data you collect during the assessment to create a water balance, a next step that estimates the water use of every area and piece of hardware you noted on your inventory. “Facilities can estimate water, energy and cost savings that could be achieved by making changes to operating procedures, fixtures or other equipment,” the EPA advises. “Prioritize projects within certain water use areas based on the amount of potential savings or other performance goals.”

Calculators and other tools can make this task easier. Brendle Group developed an Excel-based water assessment spreadsheet for Boulder, CO water customers, says Becky Fedak, Water Practice Leader for the Brendle Group, a sustainability engineering and planning firm. “FMs can use it to take an inventory of water-using devices at their facility and run scenarios of what the savings might be if they replaced any of their equipment,” Fedak explains.

The tool can easily accommodate users who aren’t in Boulder – just use some recent bills to fill out the utility information worksheet so that the water, wastewater, electricity and natural gas projections reflect your local costs. (See “Water Conservation Resources” at right to add this tool to your own water management practices.)

Your utility or a local conservation nonprofit may have similar offerings, adds Morgan Shimabuku, Senior Manager of Sustainability Programs at the Center for ReSource Conservation, a community environmental nonprofit emphasizing water efficiency. The organization conducts free assessments for customers of certain water providers – trained technicians will visit your building to test your fixtures and appliances for flow rate efficiency, recommend possible improvements and calculate the ROI of efficiency projects to help you decide where to invest retrofit and replacement dollars first.

Retrofit vs. Replacement
After auditing your facility’s water usage, it’s time to determine where to prioritize improvements. Fix any leaks you found during your walkthrough first, then start targeting fixtures in heavily trafficked areas, Shimabuku recommends.

“When you’re looking at return on investment, target places that are used the most,” Shimabuku says. “They’re usually more worn down than infrequently used fixtures, so they’re more likely to be leaking or worn out and not at the efficiency levels they used to have. Fixtures that are old or broken in general need to be replaced if they aren’t working well.”

Harvest the low-hanging fruit first by retrofitting faucet aerators rather than replacing entire faucets, Shimabuku suggests. Upfront costs for many models are fairly low and typically allow the aerators to pay for themselves within a year. Just make sure your faucet is compatible with an aerator upgrade, the EPA notes – not all models are. After you’ve made back your investment, the money saved by the faucet improvements can be redirected into larger projects that have slightly longer paybacks but also save more water and money over time.

“Urinals and toilets are the next most common fixtures that can be upgraded,” says Shimabuku. “It can be more expensive to upgrade them, but they commonly don’t meet WaterSense standards. You can replace just the bowl or the valve separately if you want to, but you have to make sure the valve is appropriate for the bowl. You can also replace the diaphragms inside the valve of a flushometer toilet; many times, you can improve the valve part without changing the whole system to keep costs down.”

In some cases, replacing the original hardware entirely can be cheaper or significantly more effective than trying to retrofit. WaterSense-labeled showerheads, for example, typically boast a payback of about a year thanks to the water and energy savings from using less hot water, as do pre-rinse spray valves, the EPA notes. Small projects with short paybacks like this can build evidence for a larger water management program that will help you secure even more savings. If you can’t afford to retrofit or replace all of your outdated faucets or toilets at once, Shimabuku suggests taking on a small number – say, one toilet in every bathroom, every fixture in one bathroom, or 10% of one fixture type – and using those to demonstrate the potential savings of additional improvements.

“Make sure they’re performing to the standard you want them to and then replace the rest of the fixtures,” Shimabuku says. “You can do the same thing in the kitchen with pre-rinse spray valves and other appliances. There’s a lot of hesitation for business owners to try something new – they usually want to keep the old devices they’ve been using because they know they work. Just start by putting a few in and see how it goes.”

Keep the Savings Flowing
As you gradually phase out your old, inefficient fixtures in favor of WaterSense-labeled versions, don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal – maintaining the highest performance possible so you can gain maximum water and cost savings. Consider these four tips to really get your money’s worth out of your new fixtures.

1) Pair the installation with behavior change. Make staff (and customers, if applicable) aware of the changes you’re making. “Talk about it. Tell people ‘Not only am I upgrading to these new toilets because we need new ones, I’m also choosing one that uses less water,’” Shimabuku says. “Creating that culture and awareness will support people using water more wisely in general. It can make people feel like you’re being a good community member.”

2) Go beyond WaterSense. Some fixtures don’t have WaterSense specifications yet, like the public-use lavatory faucets for restrooms that are open to more than one person. These can use more than 2.2 gallons per minute, the EPA notes. However, several models are available with a flow rate of 0.5 gpm, saving more than 75% of the water of conventional models while doing just as good a job of hand washing. Public-use versions can also save energy when less hot water is used, like their WaterSense-labeled private-use counterparts.

3) Pay attention. Keep an eye on your water bills and compare them to the inventory of fixtures you took before installing water-saving technologies, Fedak says. Forecast how much water your old equipment should have consumed according to each piece’s flow rate and frequency of use, then compare it to recent water bills.

“See if there’s a mismatch. If you’re using more water than you inventoried, that could mean there’s a leak you have to try and track down in the system,” says Fedak. “Also forecast reductions you might expect in your water use after replacing things. If you’re not seeing those reductions you were expecting, do some additional investigation to make sure things were installed properly and other issues aren’t occurring.”

4) Stay on top of maintenance. Check for leaks regularly and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on how often to replace flappers in tank-type toilets, cartridges and diaphragms in flushometer toilets, and other internal workings that can throw off performance if they’re not properly maintained.

“Showers and aerators can get messed up easily, especially at schools because kids can be less conscientious or even abusive,” notes Shimabuku. “Any public place where people are less careful because the facilities are free to them, you need to have more diligent, consistent watching. If there are drips or leaks, change out parts right away or make adjustments.”

Janelle Penny janelle.penny@buildings.com is Senior Editor of BUILDINGS.

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