Water-Saving Strategies to Make Every Drop Count

Water-Saving Strategies to Make Every Drop Count

What water-saving measures are musts for any commercial property? What's the best way to tackle water management outdoors?

Increasingly businesses, cities, schools and other institutions are asking these questions about a resource that was once only a concern for water-dependent companies and enterprises.

While it's no surprise to GreenBiz.com readers that water is becoming the new carbon, issues of water management and mismanagement and risks faced by industries are gaining wider attention across business sectors and the public.

The latest State of Green Business Report by GreenBiz cites a 30 percent drop in industrial water use since 1985. Other research, such as Ceres' recent study "Murky Waters: Corporate Reporting on Water Risk," also examines how big businesses are responding.

{related_content}For the general public, events like World Water Day -- observed annually on March 22 since 1993 -- call greater attention to the need for stricter and smarter water management.

That attention is welcomed by water-conscious architects, builders and facilities and landscaping managers who often face a double challenge -- devising strategies to use water efficiently and persuading clients or their companies to follow them.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense partnership program is a good starting point for advice on water efficiency for commercial and institutional sites -- and tips on how to make the business case for conservation measures.

asked a range of design and sustainability professionals with experience in water management to offer ideas on water-saving strategies for a variety of budgets and needs.

Brian Feagans, an associate at the Ratcliff architectural firm, Alex Spilger, sustainability manager for the BCCI Construction Company, Nicholas Rumanes, vice president of development at Las Vegas Sands Corporation, and Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd, spokeswoman for Rain Bird, offered their suggestions.

Water Consumption by the Numbers

LEED-certified buildings can be credited for saving an estimated 15 billion gallons of water through 2009, according to the Green Building and Market Impact Report by GreenerBuildings.com Executive Editor Rob Watson.

However, that comprises just 0.5 percent of the annual non-residential water use, Watson stresses in his report and says much more needs to be done.

Buildings in the U.S. account for 14 percent of potable water consumption, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

Basic Steps for Conservation

  • Fix all leaks and install water-saving flow restrictor aerators in faucets and showers. Across the board, the pros we talked to called this step a no-brainer.
  • Retrofit existing toilets with flushkits for greater efficiency or for dual-flush capability. The pros said this can be considered a basic to medium-tier measure depending on the type of retrofit done and a facility's budget.
  • Upgrade irrigation controls. Updating basic irrigation controls are an important measure for small businesses and properties.
  • Retrofit irrigation system with controls that incorporate smart technology on a plug-and-play basis. This measure can also be considered a basic to medium-tier measure depending on facility/budget size and your perspective. Vendors tend to consider this a basic measure.

The biggest barrier for efficiency measures isn't cost, it's user habits, says Feagans, who has analyzed water systems as part of Ratcliff's Green Action Plan service and worked on several high-profile assignments. They include serving as project architect of the Windrush School in California, one of a handful of schools in the country to earn a LEED-Platinum rating.

"For water and energy conservation, there's always low-hanging fruit -- things that are easy to do and don't cost too much money," Feagans says. "And for the low-hanging fruit category, keeping behavior out of the equation creates the greatest opportunity for success."

The pros largely concurred on the point of user habits and changes that affect them, though each emphasized a different facet of the issue.

"Ours are 5-Star and 5-Diamond properties ... it is essential to us to achieve our sustainability goals without diminishing the guest experience," says Rumanes of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, whose Venetian Resort, Sands Expo and Convention Center and Palazzo Hotel-Resort-Casino comprise the largest contiguous LEED-certified structure in the world.

The Palazzo received LEED-Gold certification and the two other properties recently earned LEED-Silver ratings for existing buildings as a result of dozens of resource-efficient elements, including measures that save the properties more than 97 million gallons of water a year.

To attain that savings Las Vegas Sands took steps in each of the tiers mentioned here, including a number of customized, innovative solutions spearheaded by Sands Executive Director of Engineering John Hess, Rumanes said. The key to success, he says, was that none of the measures adversely affects visitors to the properties.

Be Sure to Read the Fine Print

Whether pursuing basic or top-of-the-line strategies, BCCI Construction's Sustainable Division leader Spilger urges designers, builders and sustainability consultants to ensure that their projects are measuring up to the latest version of LEED standards for water conservation, which have become stricter.

That's considered a good thing overall, but designers and planners who don't do their homework can find that their projects will get no credit for water efficiency if they don't meet new thresholds -- and will be costly to correct.

Mid-Range Measures

  • Replace toilets with higher efficiency fixtures. Consider dual-flush models.
  • Install low-flow or waterless urinals.
  • Install low-flow, sensor-activated faucets in restrooms.
  • Outdoors, change the way you water. Most professionals said that if a drip irrigation system isn't in place, one should be.
  • Change what you water. Opinions differed on whether this is a medium-tier or top-grade measure. Much depends on whether plants are replaced with more sustainable choices as they age or die, and what they are replaced with.

Apart from aerators, toilets and urinals end up being Topic A in just about every conversation on water efficiency for commercial and institutional settings. Charts provided by Ratcliff that depict water use by fixture type in a non-residential facility and in households illustrate why. And if you need to know more, experts are happy to provide details.

On average in non-residential settings, men, women and children tend to use the bathroom three times a day -- "twice for No. 1 and once for No. 2," and for the most part, men won't use or simply don't use dual-flush toilets, sustainability experts say.

So for potential water-savings bonanzas, hone in on restrooms and for greater impact, pay special attention to the urinals.

"Urinals can contribute to more savings than toilets," says Spilger. He notes that 1.6 gallons per flush is considered baseline for toilets, with about 1.3 gallons or less being considered low-flow by today's standards. One gallon per flush is baseline for urinals with options available for half-gallon to one-pint per flush models and waterless units.

With all the choices available (see "Water-Saving Toilets of the Future" on GreenBiz.com) and the potential savings, opting for the latest efficiency models is another no-brainer, says Spilger. He again warned that it's important to stay on top of changes to industry standards. "People will say that they have low-flow fixtures and that they installed them, say, five years ago," he says. "Well, what was low-flow then is probably today's worst-case scenario."

And about the performance of waterless urinals ... some have gotten a bad rap among users and in the news for odor problems. If maintenance crews are taught how clean and care for them, odor isn't an issue, the pros say. They also acknowledge that some high-performance efficiency toilets were dinged for their spray-factor when they first came on the market -- a tendency that has for the most part been addressed by manufacturers.

Outside, if designing landscaping from scratch, using plants, shrubs and trees that require little or no water is considered the best way to go for most commercial properties.

For existing properties, the sustainability pros recommend transitioning to adaptive, drought-tolerant or native plants when the vegetation that's already there needs to be replaced, rather than ripping out swaths of live growth.

Rumanes also suggests considering artificial grass made from recycled materials if appropriate to the setting. Advances in materials now provide options that can be aesthetically pleasing, environmentally friendly and functional, he says. While in New York at another firm, he worked on project with a soccer field made from recycled rubber content. The texture was very fine, he says, "it was evergreen, always looked great and was resilient and bouncy."

Outdoor solutions also must take into account the size and complexity of properties and the weather patterns of the region, as well as vegetation being watered and the budget available to do the job, says Riley-Chetwynd at Rain Bird. Las Vegas Sands uses a Rain Bird module with a centralized control system for its drip irrigation system in Nevada.

Top-of-the-Line Strategies

  • Work with vendors to customize solutions. Major firms and property managers of large portfolios can realize big savings when fixtures and other products are customized or developed for their use.
  • Install a sophisticated irrigation system with smart controls throughout a campus or property portfolio.
  • Install a system to monitor all water use inside and out at facilities.
  • Install groundwater seepage and/or rainwater harvesting system.

Here's where big firms can shine, especially if they leverage their size with vendors and manufacturers to develop customized solutions that can be applied throughout a company and beyond to other firms.

For example, Rumanes says, "Toto is our preferred vendor on the toilet and urinal front." The firm's tailored solution for the Las Vegas Sands involves urinal flush valves that use a fuzzy logic control microprocessor to automatically provide a variable flow rate that ranges from .5 to 1 gallon depending on frequency of use of the hands-free john. A frequently used urinal flushes with a half gallon of water and a less frequently used fixture will flush with a gallon (to decrease the potential for salt deposits forming in pipes).

The Toto urinals with fuzzy logic technology are used in public areas of the Palazzo, and fixtures in the Venetian and Sands Expo are being converted to them. Toto waterless urinals are available in back-of-the-house areas. And high-performance 1.28 gallon per flush Toto toilets are featured in the guest suites at the Palazzo. The flush mechanism for the commodes are hydro-turbine powered.

With 7,000 hotel rooms and 60,000 visitors a day, the Sands' properties in Las Vegas have been a living test lab for the company's sustainability efforts. Other customized solutions include water-saving shower fixtures that "feel like they're pumping out more water than they actually are" as a result of the speed and pattern of the spray, Rumanes says.

Other big-ticket and big-savings measures for the company in Las Vegas include a rooftop cooling tower system (seven towers and 21 cells) for chilled water supply that saves 50 million gallons a year. There's also a groundwater seepage harvesting system.

The harvesting system can pump more than 80,000 gallons of water daily from the bottom level of the parking garage. (Without the harvesting system, the water would go into the city storm drain.)

The system is designed to serve the site's horticultural needs and can handle a flow of 100 gallons per minute.

The captured water is filtered, later injected with liquid fertilizer and delivered directly to areas where it's needed. The harvest averages 100,000 gallons daily in the summer and 55,000 gallons daily in the winter.

At the Sands Marina Bay property under development in Singapore, a rainwater harvesting system is a centerpiece in the project's design. The property is scheduled to open this year.

Important Points to Remember

To determine water efficiency strategies and solutions: 

  • Consider the water uses and needs at the site in addition to budget and ROI.
  • Look beyond the spigot for savings.

Sustainability measures are not "something that you're simply adding,"  says Feagans. "You have to think about and start with the activities that you do every day and ask how you can do them in a more sustainable manner. From there you identify potential strategies and the people who can help you develop them."

In developing those strategies, planners and designers also need to consider the key obstacles to adoption -- and address them.

"Comfort, knowledge, cost and code are the four biggest barriers," Feagans says, adding that planners must be prepared for client choices that don't always reconcile with the business case for efficiency measures. "From a money perspective, people want to save (with) sustainability, but they also want to spend money on what they can see."

So a rooftop solar hot water system may be more appealing to a customer than an underground water storage system -- even though latter might be of greater benefit cost-wise and environmentally -- because the solar thermal system can be seen and the subterranean storage tank can't, he says.

Rumanes' parting advice to building owners and managers is to remember that "water savings don't always occur at the spigot."

For example, increasing lighting efficiency and insulation reduces energy load for lighting as well as heating and cooling. And if water is an integral element in a cooling system, then there's also a significant reduction in water use.

"People don't always realize the connection with electricity and water," he says.

Image of water drops CC licensed by Flickr user emrank.