Skip to main content

The Business of Saving Water

<p>Benjamin H. Grumbles writes that EPA's WaterSense program helps drive the water-efficiency market by identifying products that meet the program's high water-efficiency and performance criteria.</p>

Benjamin H. Grumbles writes that EPA's WaterSense program helps drive the water-efficiency market by identifying products that meet the program's high water-efficiency and performance criteria.

America's green wave is turning blue. The focus on efficiency and conservation of energy and other resources is now turning to water and picking up steam. Why water efficiency? Two compelling reasons - one environmental and one financial. Efficiency makes environmental sense because water is a precious, finite resource we must take great care and immediate action to protect. Efficiency also makes financial sense - even simple water-saving strategies can lead to cost-savings for families, businesses, and local and regional economies, as well as profits for developers of new water-efficient products and technologies.

The need to evaluate how we use our water supply in this nation is more critical than ever-from the backyard sprinkler to the office cafeteria to the local Laundromat. The Government Accountability Office has estimated that at least 36 states will suffer some sort of water shortage, even under non-drought conditions by 2013.

Using water efficiently can and should become as second nature as recycling soda cans or purchasing Energy Star appliances. Corporations and agencies should innovate and commit to using water-saving technologies, products and services. Adopting even a handful of water-efficient practices at home and in business has the potential to decrease our total water use by millions of gallons-up to 30 percent less each day.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the WaterSense program to help protect the future of our nation's water supply by promoting water efficiency. WaterSense features a label that will help consumers and businesses identify products that meet the program's water-efficiency and performance criteria. Manufacturers can receive third-party certification and permission to apply the label to their products, provided they meet or exceed the program's criteria. WaterSense-labeled products will increase performance, save money and encourage innovation in manufacturing.

WaterSense Makes Sense for Business

For building owners and businesses, water efficiency provides a good return on investment. Water-efficiency improvements often result from better maintenance and operation, so costs are low and savings can be high. Payback periods are usually less than five years and often as little as two or three years.

Commercial building owners are seeing continually rising water costs, including ancillary costs associated with water usage. Therefore, using less water also saves energy because each drop of water used must be pumped, treated, and in the case of warm water, heated.

Typically, the best water-savings come from better management of irrigation systems and the use of high performing fixtures. In the next few years, the WaterSense program will be researching water-efficient, high-performing commercial products such as restroom fixtures, sterilizers and irrigation controllers.

Water efficiency also offers intangible benefits, including conveying an image of stewardship to employees, customers and the general public. The bottom line for the environment is that the less water used for human purposes, the more water available for natural and aquatic habitats.

WaterSense Makes Sense for Communities

WaterSense emerged from the realization that managing water supplies is an increasingly important issue to communities across the country. Water supply infrastructure is a major cost for most markets. In 2002, an EPA report identified a $224 billion gap between planned infrastructure funding and necessary levels of investment. Demand-side management or water efficiency can be a solution. It is much more cost-effective to manage water supply issues than to develop new water sources such as dams and wastewater treatment facilities.

Additionally, decreasing water demands can also mean energy savings for utilities and communities. EPA estimates that about eight percent of U.S. energy demand is used to treat, pump and heat water. Drinking water and wastewater systems spend about $4 billion a year on energy to pump, treat, deliver, collect and clean water - with much of this cost borne by ratepayers and municipalities. The energy costs to run drinking water and wastewater systems can represent as much as one-third of a municipality's energy bill.

As a result of increasing infrastructure needs, the cost of water is also rising in our communities. The WaterSense program's preliminary research indicates that water and wastewater rates are rising faster than inflation-7 to 12 percent annually.

WaterSense is Seeking Partners

EPA is building WaterSense as a national brand for water efficiency, and helping to establish an ethic for saving water among individuals and businesses. EPA will grow this brand with the help of partners, and recruitment is now underway.

WaterSense is looking for manufacturer, retailer and distributor partners to help bring water-efficient products to market. We are recruiting promotional partners such as utilities, trade associations, non-governmental organizations, and local governments to share information and spread the word about the program to consumer and commercial audiences. For example, WaterSense is partnering with landscape irrigation professionals and irrigation certification programs to promote water-efficient landscape irrigation design and maintenance.

WaterSense is also working with other EPA labeling programs such as Energy Star. Together, the programs will coordinate on criteria for appliances that use both water and energy. Additionally, businesses may now track and in the future will be able to benchmark their water use through Energy Star's Portfolio Manager.

Products and Programs Eligible for the Label

Soon you will see the WaterSense label on products that are at least 20 percent more efficient and perform at least as well as similar offerings in the marketplace. Projected savings potential for initial WaterSense product areas- toilets, faucets and irrigation controllers, based on a 10 percent replacement of existing fixtures, is estimated to be 128 billion gallons or enough to supply water to 3.5 million people for a year.

High Efficiency Toilets
In January, EPA launched its first product specification for residential high-efficiency toilets (HETs). High-efficiency models are defined as using less than 1.3 gallons per flush, compared to today's standard of 1.6 gallons per flush. Toilet usage accounts for nearly one-third of home water consumption, and replacing older models with a high-efficiency model can reduce water bills by about 10 percent.

This new generation of toilet is the result of extensive research conducted over the last six years. While the exterior differs little from traditional models, interior redesign significantly improves flow and reduces water usage. The next product eligible for the WaterSense label will be residential bathroom faucets. EPA's draft specification is currently posted online for public review and comment until March 23.

Landscape Irrigation
The first WaterSense-labeled program is for landscape irrigation professionals. Why? The potential to reduce water waste is enormous. Of the seven billion gallons of water used outdoors each day, as much as 50 percent is wasted due to wind, evaporation, improper system design, installation or maintenance.

Well-trained irrigation professionals can help reduce water waste. Irrigation systems that are designed, installed and maintained by WaterSense partners can save end users time, money and water, while still delivering on the promise of healthy and beautiful landscapes. In the future, there will likely be several irrigation-related products that will be eligible for the WaterSense label including weather-based irrigation controls, soil moisture sensors and drip irrigation systems.

As the program continues to grow, specifications for each product and service category are being developed through a process that includes market research, technical review and stakeholder input. Products that meet or exceed these specifications may bear the WaterSense label. Each product is then third-party certified to confirm it meets EPA criteria for efficiency and performance.

The WaterSense website has more information on the program. And check out the EPA's interactive online quiz "Test Your WaterSense" to see how your knowledge of water-wasting behaviors and water-saving opportunities stacks up.

Benjamin Grumbles is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Assistant Administrator for Water.

More on this topic

More by This Author