Rob Zimmerman, senior staff engineer, water conservation initiatives, at Kohler-WI based Kohler Co., answers some important questions about water conservation, providing information on new technology and upcoming regulations that all facility managers should know.
Q: What are the recent trends in water regulation and conservation?
A: The trends are pretty easy to identify. On the one hand, we're anticipating more regulation of water consumption in more areas of the United States and of the world; on the other, there is a continued emphasis on technology-based solutions.
Water shortages tend to be regional, sometimes with acute local or municipal shortfalls. The fastest-growing regions are affected first. In the United States, that's the west and the Sunbelt, especially California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Florida - plus New England and New York City, primarily because of aging infrastructure. Globally, the countries with the greatest issues are Australia, because they've been in an extended drought, and China, because of its tremendous economic growth.
Most of these regions tend to be, for lack of a better term, water poor. Whether it's surface water or ground water, these regions have fixed water supplies that are being stretched to serve more and more people. Naturally then, water use regulations are more aggressive in water-poor regions. In the United States, water-use regulations are most stringent in California and the southwest. Globally, it's Australia that's most aggressive, but we're closely watching how China will balance rapid growth against fixed water resources.
A substantial majority of water is consumed by agriculture and industry, but what we call "indoor water use" - water that is used in commercial buildings or homes - is also important and, of course, it's in this area that certain water-conserving products can help.
Q: How can new technology make a difference?
A: In most buildings , toilets consume the most water - usually between 25 percent and 33 percent. That's the reason toilets were mandated to go from 3 or more gallons per flush to 1.6 gallons per flush in the Energy Policy Act of 1992.
Recent research and developments in flushing technology have impacted the design of all contemporary toilets. Reducing water consumption by 20 percent reduces the potential flushing and cleaning energy by 20 percent. Each time you reduce water consumption of a toilet, you have to re-engineer how the product works to maintain performance. Some companies use sophisticated computational fluid dynamics software modeling to study flow, rethink tolerances, and redesign trapways, allowing engineers and designers to adapt to new regulations and further reduce allowable water consumption.
Q: Are more water use regulations for toilets on the horizon?
A: More stringent water consumption regulations are on the horizon; in the United States, they're likely a few years off at least. There's a bill pending in California, for example, to phase in a 1.3 gallon-per-flush (gpf) standard for toilets starting in 2009. And, the Environmental Protection Agency has announced a program called WaterSense that will help consumers identify high-performance, water-efficient toilets that use 1.3 gpf or less. These toilets are referred to as high-efficiency toilets (HETs).
Q: What is LEED and how does water conservation fit in?
A: When it comes to water conservation, especially in commercial settings, you hear it all the time. What is it? The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System® is a voluntary, consensus-based standard for developing high-performance, sustainable, "green" buildings. LEED was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. USGBC members represent every sector of the building industry and work to develop and continue to refine LEED.
LEED has become the standard for commercial green building in the United States and Canada. Ten (10) percent of all new commercial buildings are projected to be LEED certified by 2010, and LEED has now evolved to include standards for existing buildings and many types of commercial and residential buildings.
Water conservation is just one of five categories where building designers can earn the needed 26 LEED points to get a building certified. For example, a 20-percent savings of water earns 1 point and a 30-percent savings earns 2. Arguably, some of the "easiest" points available are for water conservation, as earning them doesn't add cost or require major modifications. There are a range of water-conserving flushing technologies at a variety of price points and in many styles. All a designer or engineer has to do is specify plumbing products that save water without compromising performance.
When you look at water use commercially, the first issue is scale. There may be two or three toilets in a residence, but there may be 10 or 20, or even 200 or 300 toilets in an office complex or at an airport. Naturally, the potential for water savings is tremendously magnified. In commercial settings there are also urinals. The standard urinal uses 1 gpf. Today, there are many models of urinals and flush valves that use 0.5 gpf, and some waterless urinals use (as the name implies) no water at all: 0 gpf. The potential water savings per fixture per year is about 40,000 gallons!
Q: How do waterless urinals work?
A: Some waterless urinals utilize a cartridge that requires periodic replacements. Other models feature a cartridge-free integral trapway filled with sealing liquid. This low-density sealant floats in the trapway to provide an odor-blocking barrier, but allows liquid waste to pass through it. The urinal should be shaped to eliminate splashing and drain virtually all liquid wastes, and it should be easy to clean.
Q: What about commercial faucets?
A: In commercial settings, the trend is to go with more hands-free faucets and low-flow aerators to save water and improve hygiene. The infrared technology used in first-generation hands-free faucets was easily confused by variations in background lighting, reflections from surfaces, even clothing colors. Sometimes, the sensor tripped too easily; sometimes, it was it difficult to trip at all.
But, new products use technology very similar to that of an auto-focus digital camera to measure distance rather than reflectance to provide highly accurate, dependable performance with very few unintended activations. When your hands "ask" for water, it's delivered. When you don't ask, it isn't. While hands-free technology is generally used commercially, the reliability of the emerging technology is behind a growing trend in the use of touchless faucets at food prep or clean-up sinks in the restaurant, hotel, or residential kitchens for both water-saving benefits and sanitary advantages.
Rob Zimmerman is senior staff engineer, water conservation initiatives, at Kohler-WI based Kohler Co. Founded in 1873, Kohler is a global leader in the manufacture of kitchen and bath products, engines and power generation systems, cabinetry, tile, and home interiors.