In the commercial building industry, plumbing isn’t exactly considered sexy—it’s by far the oldest utility and compared to other smart building systems, advancements haven’t been all that exciting. But with several regions across North America facing unprecedented drought, and the U.S. and Canada using the most water per capita compared to all other G8 countries, scientists now warn of critical water shortages within the next 50 years due to climate change and increasing demand.
While the year 2070 may seem like a long way off, 96 of the 204 North America fresh water basins are already in trouble and water utility costs are on the rise. A recent analysis shows that combined water and wastewater bills have risen 43% over the last decade, faster than rates for other utilities like electricity and natural gas. As building owners and operators are starting to feel the impact, it is perhaps time to start giving emerging smart plumbing the attention it deserves.
More than just bathroom fixtures
When we think of plumbing in a commercial building, fixtures (e.g., sinks, toilets, and showers) are typically what first come to mind because they are seen and used by building occupants. While the hands-free trend has been growing for several years, the Covid-19 pandemic and increased hygiene awareness sparked significant demand for touchless and self-cleaning fixtures that had companies like Kohler see sales of touchless faucets jump by 100% during 2020. With 91% of Americans believing all public restrooms should include touchless fixtures to guard against cross-contamination on high touch surfaces, these solutions have become the standard for commercial real estate.
In addition to cleanliness, fixture features like cycle timing, motion detection, low-flow, and dual flush options are also helping to reduce water usage. However, many of these commercial fixtures are not technically smart—they are often unconnected with a standalone battery-powered sensor that connects to the fixture’s solenoid flow valve or flushometer. Truly smart plumbing fixtures are connected to collect and share real-time information—everything from usage patterns to establish efficient cleaning schedules, to valve health for predictive maintenance.
In a commercial building, however, plumbing systems encompass much more than just bathrooms—it’s a complex network of pipes, taps, valves, pumps, tanks, vents, and other apparatus for distributing water and gas and handling waste for a range of systems—everything from HVAC, sprinkler, irrigation, sewage, and stormwater systems, to specialty systems for laboratories, medical facilities, and industrial environments. Ensuring water quality, treatment, and conservation also often fall within the realm of plumbing. Across all the systems supported by plumbing, smart building technology has the potential to deliver huge savings while helping to remedy the water shortage crisis—especially among big users like universities, healthcare facilities, and hospitality venues.
Slow to start but gaining ground
“Plumbing hasn’t evolved that much from a smart monitoring and control perspective—we are just starting to scratch the surface,” says Avishai Moscovich, P.Eng., LEED AP, at reed water (www.reedwater.io) that provides a cloud-connected platform for integrating plumbing valves, meters, and sensors for mid-market commercial and multi-family buildings. “Water is very analogous to electricity, but a lot more has been done with electricity on the smart building side. I believe much of that has to do with the savings per kilowatt historically being significantly more than the savings per gallon.”
According to the EPA, the toilet is one of the biggest culprits attributing to the trillions of gallons of water wasted every year. While newer low-flow and tankless toilets can cut water usage by 20%, Moscovich points out that if a toilet is continuously running and flowing water directly to the drain and nobody knows about it, it can waste hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. “I worked with one customer where the meter never went to zero, even when no one was using the building. We calculated that they were wasting $50 an hour, making the ROI on a $60K smart plumbing solution less than two months,” he says. “You can have the best pipes in your building, but if the water isn’t flowing under the right pressure and temperature conditions, the system will eventually fail.”
While slower to start than other smart building technologies, innovation is happening. Leaders like Johnson Controls, Honeywell, and Siemens now offer commercial real estate and utility customers high-end integrated software solutions for water metering, leak detection, wastewater control, and pressure monitoring. Sensor manufacturers are teaming up with fixture vendors and others to track and report on usage and monitor fixture health. These solutions typically use wireless sensors that communicate via WiFi, cellular, or short- and long-range wireless technologies like Bluetooth, Zigbee, LoRa, or NB-IoT. Long-range wireless is even enabling this technology to make its way into landscaping and agriculture where sensor data on soil conditions combined with weather forecasting reduces unnecessary watering in irrigation systems.
Despite the progress, plumbing systems still often comprise a wide range of components from several different manufacturers, which makes integration a challenge—especially in retrofit situations. “Manufacturers of fixtures, valves, pumps, and other components don’t have a lot of experience with software and technology. They need to work with a third party that can connect these components, collect the data, and deliver it to a building operating system,” says Moscovich. “As with any smart building technology, the key is to educate the market and demonstrate the savings like we did with electricity and solutions like LED lighting. Water is the next big opportunity—but it’s going to take more incentive and regulation to see widespread adoption.”