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Water Savings 101: Top 10 Tips for Commercial Buildings

As the hurricane season begins to bring torrential downpours, it makes folks forget that wide swaths of the country are still suffering through persistent drought and low water levels. Fortunately, many savings opportunities are low cost or no cost, and the majority can be handled in house.

As the hurricane season begins to bring torrential downpours from Texas through the Southeast and up to the mid-Atlantic states, it makes folks forget that wide swaths of the country are still suffering through persistent drought and low levels of water supply. While agriculture, power generation and other industrial uses account for a large portion of water consumption in the U.S., the built environment is responsible for a significant portion. Outdoor water use accounts for nearly 30 percent of the 26 billion gallons of water used in the U.S. Indoor water use both for domestic water and heating and cooling makes up the other 70 percent; a statistic to which every commercial building in the country contributes. Needless to say, facility managers can have a tremendous impact on water use and water conservation.

Fortunately, many water savings opportunities are low cost or no cost. None of them are rocket science, and the vast majority can be handled in house. What follows below is my top 10 list of no-cost and low-cost strategies for reducing water use both in and outside your buildings. If you are doing some of these already — great! If you are doing them all, you're far ahead of the game and congratulations on the efforts. If you're doing nothing yet, you'll appreciate the minimal financial cost associated with these ideas. So, without further ado …

Tommy Linstroth's Top 10 Water Saving Tips for Commercial Buildings

1. Separately meter your irrigation

As simple as this sounds, I've been to way too many commercial buildings that do not submeter their irrigation. This is important for two reasons: First, if you don't know how much water you are using for irrigation, how can you measure your savings? Having that baseline water consumption will allow you to not only track your savings,

but also to calculate the financial impact of your water reduction efforts. The second reason is just as important. If you do not have your irrigation separately metered, you are more than likely paying sewer charges on that water. Municipalities can only track water coming into a building (I wouldn't want to be checking that meter on water coming out!), so they bill you for your consumption for both water charges and sewer charges, since they assume all water coming in needs to be sent to the wastewater treatment plant. Irrigation falls outside that realm since municipalities know that the water is being infiltrated.

So, if you do not have a separate meter for irrigation, get one installed and watch your sewer bill plummet.

2. Separately meter your cooling tower

The same rule that applies to irrigation applies to cooling tower water use. One, you can't work to reduce the evaporation rate if you do not know how much water you are using. And two, you should not be paying sewer charges on cooling tower water that is being lost to irrigation. Even if a separate meter from the water authority is not available, they will often let you do an internal submeter and report monthly cooling tower water use for a credit on your sewer bills. If you do not have both your irrigation and cooling tower water submetered, make that your priority for the fall.

3. Better manage your irrigation schedule

How many times have you been by a building that has the irrigation running when it is raining outside? This is almost as frustrating as irrigation systems that are not

maintained (see point No. 5). Irrigation systems are far too often watering plants for longer periods than they need or watering when it is not required. Both are easy fixes. The simple fix is to make sure you are setting back your irrigation system seasonally. Once you are doing that, begin to challenge how long that it actually needs to run. Is 30 minutes four times a week sufficient, or can you get by with 20? It is amazing to see how quickly savings add up.

And if you notice the plants starting to wilt, simply readjust the schedule. It costs you nothing to try. To prevent watering when not required, adding a basic rain or soil moisture sensor to your irrigation system costs maybe few hundred bucks. You don't need a full weather system, just something that keeps the water off if it is raining or if it senses sufficient soil moisture. Talk to your local landscape maintenance company and you can likely have it installed the same week.

4. Change some of your more water intensive plants

Something we've incorporated in many of our buildings at Melaver is simply removing some of our more water-intensive plants, predominantly the uber-thirsty annuals that go in, and replacing them with just as colorful native or adapted species. The "color" plants for buildings require the most amount of water (or at least compared to turf) but less water demanding options abound, no matter what region of the country you are in. We also found that we saved money since we were able to reduce the amount of seasonal changes that were required. As we planted hardy native species, they lasted much longer and were able to flower for an extended period of time. So, you save money not only on water, but on landscaping expenses as well.

5. Make sure your irrigation is maintained

I am not a botanist, but I'm pretty sure that it's the plants that need watering, not the sidewalks or the parking lots — similar to making sure it is not irrigating during a rain event. So, how are your sprinkler heads looking? When was the last time a complete inspection occurred to ensure that sprinkler heads were pointed in the right direction and that the system was not leaking? This also leads into incorporating more drip irrigation into your facility. Drip irrigation has a 95 percent efficiency rating versus 65 percent for spray irrigation.

6. Change your flush valves

How old is your building? If your toilets were installed prior to 1992, you are likely using three to five gallons of water per toilet flush — more than triple what your fixtures are using post-1992. Even for the newer toilets, options abound. There are now 1.28 gallons-per-flush (gpf) flush valves from a variety of manufacturers that offer a 20 percent savings per flush over newer toilets and 70 percent over pre-1992 fixtures. For commercial toilets, changing the flush valve allows you to retain the actual toilet, and can be a very minimal charge. If you have standard tank-type toilets, numerous manufacturers make a traditional flap tank with 1.28 gpf, or pressure assisted toilets all the way down to 1 gpf. I've installed both in many different types of buildings, and have yet to hear one complaint or added service call.

7. Change your aerators

This is the $2 fix. Most standard faucet aerators us 2.2 gpm or higher — almost the same as a shower — just to wash your hands. Most of that water is wasted. For two
bucks, you can get a new 0.5 gpm aerator for your faucet, cutting lavatory water use by nearly 80 percent. We have 0.5 gpm aerators in all our buildings, and again, no complaints. If you are not comfortable going that low, put on a 1.0 gpm, and still save over 50 percent, for only a few dollars.

8. Touch free faucets

This is one of the more expensive options. But every time I walk into a bathroom and see a faucet left running, I appreciate every dollar spent on touch-free faucets. Touch-free keeps water running only when sensing hands underneath, almost guaranteeing that faucets won't be left running down the drain. Not to mention that it can be more sanitary and give users peace of mind (same goes for toilets and urinals).

9. Waterfree or 1-pint urinals

Standard post-1992 urinals use 1 gpf. Waterfree urinals, as the name implies, use no water. They simply have a gel barrier that allows liquids to pass through but prevents odors from rising back up. Therefore, water use is eliminated. However, they do require different care than typical urinals do. Dumping cleaning water or chemicals can damage the gel seal and permit odors to permeate the air. Also, some have filters that can cost $30 per pop, which can add a cost burden if the gel seal wears down prematurely. However, with proper education, cleaning crews maintain them properly and you use zero water. In the buildings we maintain, we have not had an issue. We have actually seen fewer service calls, because as there are no moving parts, nothing can jam or clog up the system. If you are not comfortable going waterless, one-eighth gallon (1 pint) urinals are now on the market. They use just a bit of water to move waste and keep liquids flowing, while reducing water consumption over 85 percent. That's not as much as waterfree, but if you aren't ready

to take that plunge, this may be a route to consider.

10. ENERGY STAR dishwashers

This only applies if you have dishwashers, of course. But Energy Star-rated dishwashers use 40 percent less water than a standard dishwasher, while saving energy in the process. The cost is virtually the same, so if it is time to upgrade your dishwasher, make sure you are looking for the Energy Star label.

Incorporating these tips doesn't just save water — it also helps ease the burden on your municipality. On average, 25 percent of a local government's electricity bill is due to treatment of wastewater. If you reduce the amount of wastewater generated, you're helping reduce the greenhouse gas emissions generated for its treatment. And you're keeping more money in your pocket as well. Our bodies are over 75 percent water — let's make sure to conserve this precious resource.

Tommy Linstroth, LEED AP, is head of Sustainable Initiatives with Melaver, Inc. ( Melaver owns and manages approximately 1.5 million square feet of LEED-certified space.  

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