Building the Way to Water Efficiency

Building the Way to Water Efficiency

It's no revelation to say that water is going to be the most important resource of this century. We know of all kinds of alternatives to fossil fuels, but there is simply no substitute for water.

And although food crops are taking a lot of heat as being poorly managed, it may come as a surprise that more acreage is devoted to growing turf grass than any other crop in the United States. According to recent research, as much as 30 million acres of the country are covered in lawns, almost all of it drawing much-needed water -- and often drawing it to excess. Watering our lawns at high noon on a midsummer day is just one example of the bigger water problem: Across the board, businesses and individuals are simply consuming and wasting too much water.

Even as U.S. states are plagued by drought in increasing numbers -- not just in the typically dry Southwest, as shortages in Alabama, Georgia and even the Great Lakes region make clear -- consumer consumption behavior is changing far too slowly.

Perhaps the only good news is that the biggest cause of this problem is easily identified: "Consumers don't understand how much water they're consuming," said Mary Ann Dickinson, the executive director of the Alliance For Water Efficiency (AWE). Dickinson believes outdoor irrigation makes it all too easy to use water excessively, and that the time has come to re-evaluate how we use water.

Stepping in to help address the water crisis are a slew of companies and municipalities that are pushing the envelope on ways to maximize the efficiency of our water use, and bring businesses and consumers alike up to speed on becoming more water conscious.

Building the Way to Water Efficiency

A major part of the water problem is that water is often the most poorly thought out part of any green building curriculum, Dickinson said. She sees the biggest savings being realized from changing landscaping. "That will help reduce water use substantially, and it's taking us working with consumers, land holders, builders, architects -- everyone -- to reduce that residential component," she said.

Another part of the problem is that the services piece of the energy-savings infrastructure has not kept pace with the technology innovation. So while proven technologies exist, ease of use for consumers has yet to reach the convenience level of their Comcast service. It's got to be that easy for the technologies to be widely adopted.

Bridging the gap between consumer use and technologies available are city and state programs, mandates and rebates, as well as legislation that is increasingly pushing consumers to do what existing programs have not been able to do: force change in water consumption behavior.

For example, starting next month, DeKalb County in Illinois will no longer hook up water service to newly sold homes that do not have low flow toilets. The Ineffective Plumbing Fixture Replacement Plan was approved by the county commission and signed into law, affecting the sale of all homes built before 1993. With approximately 165,000 homes in the county that were built before 1993, county officials estimate that if all those homes, along with older businesses, switched to low flow toilets, that single county in a single state would save 6 million gallons of water a day.

Along those same lines, the city of Atlanta has offered rebates of up to $100 to homeowners willing to flush their old toilets and replace them with low-flow products. The city has committed $1 million to convince more to make the switch.

The list goes on: Louisville, Ky., offers its water customers rebates on certain water-conserving landscaping materials and high efficiency clothes washers; the Portland Water Bureau provides conservation devices to its retail customers free of charge; and the Water Conservation Office of Boulder, Colo., has had a rebate program since 1997 that has contributed to the installation of hundreds of high-efficiency devices.

It seems like the rest of the country is taking a look at how historically arid regions like Arizona have addressed water use. Val Little of the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona explained that its efforts have yielded legislation that allows and encourages gray water use for watering landscaping, and builds rainwater harvesting systems into new construction projects.

The federal government is catching on. "H.R. 3957, the Water-Use Efficiency and Conservation Research Act of 2007, is the first time that I've ever seen any federal legislation that had 'gray water' or 'harvesting rainwater' in it," Little explained. "They're looking, at the national level, (at) what we're trying to do at the Arizona level. There's an opportunity for lessons learned here and other places to be fully utilized in other parts of the country that are just now beginning to feel the pinch."

Websites like Water -- Use It Wisely also target consumers and businesses, including food service companies, and even go so far as to provide a comprehensive list of water conservation technologies (i.e. for irrigation, re-use, commercial use, as well as turf alternatives, indoor plumbing, tools equipment and products) and links to other websites, such as the California Urban Water Conservation Council.

The EPA also has launched WaterSense, the water-oriented counterpart to the Energy Star Program that promotes water efficiency and aims to boost the market for water-efficient products, programs and practices.

WaterSense has partnered with manufacturers, utilities, retailers and distributors to bring WaterSense-certified products to the marketplace and make it easy to purchase high-performing, water-efficient products. What's noteworthy about the program is that all products listed and labeled by the WaterSense Program are certified by third party certification bodies, unlike those labeled under the Energy Star Program through manufacturer self-certification. "This distinction is quite important because what Energy Star relies upon is manufacturers to police the system for compliance," said John Koeller of Koeller and Co. "On the water side, it's all done independently by certified labs, and that's a big step forward."

Technologies to Make Change Easier

To be sure, getting consumers and industry to change their behavior regarding water consumption is not easy. The issue is complicated by a number of additional puzzle pieces, including the fact that strategies that work in one region do not necessarily work in another.

But technologies available today ease consumers into new habits of water consumption in an almost unnoticeable manner, at both the product and ecosystem management levels. From low-flow toilets to high efficiency shower heads, weather or sensor-based water use and "smart" irrigation technologies, the list of technological advances in water efficiency is steadily growing.

AWE's Dickinson estimates there are currently about 250 high-efficiency toilets on the market that all perform well above the mandated minimums. Consumers can pick high efficiency toilet designs from two dozen different manufacturers, including Toto, Kohler, Whirlpool and Caroma. Caroma alone has delivered more than 25,000 of their high performance dual-flush toilets within the San Antonio Water System service area as part of their rebate program for consumers.

Earlier this year, Koeller and Veritec released the 11th edition of its MaP report (Maximum Performance Testing of Popular Toilet Models), a comprehensive review of the flush performance of toilet models and a way to find the best-performing high efficiency models on the market.

Having seen toilets evolve over the last 15 years, Koeller said the toilets of today are far superior to what existed 15 years ago. "I call these the third and fourth generation -- and they're being mandated in California and elsewhere," he said, predicting this will inevitably spread to the national level.

"The plumbing industry's committed to taking this new flush threshold to a national level," Koeller explained, "and it's all really taken off in the last five years because serious water issues affect communities throughout North America in contrast to the old days when people thought of water problems as entirely focused in the Southwest, where it's arid. It's been like a huge awakening that's provided many, many new business opportunities to address water efficiency at the same time that energy efficiency is being addressed."

Toilets aside, an increasing number of smart energy and water monitoring products are hitting the market to give consumers and businesses an easy-to-use way of watching power and water consumption in homes and businesses.

Examples of what could be called the "Prius effect" on resource management include Agilewaves' Resource Monitor and Lucid Design's Building Dashboard, two technologies that aim to make real-time energy and water use visible at a glance, much like how the Prius' dashboard display results in changes to how people drive.

Peter Sharer, the CEO of Agilewaves, describes the company as a "conservation technology" company. Founded in the fall of 2006 and self-funded until recently, Agilewaves makes a product that Sharer describes as an integration layer -- a web-based system that integrates with off-the-shelf sensors to measure water flow, electric current, and gas flow, as well as the impact of green technologies like rainwater catchment, gray water irrigation, solar thermal and photovoltaic systems.

Sharer sees the market for this type of technology on the brink of exploding. "This last month, the phone has been ringing off the hook," he said. "We're getting calls as far away as Puerto Rico and Australia."

Sharer believes that, given the right information, people are inclined to do the right thing. "If we use less water, we leave more for the rest of the ecosystem," he explained, pointing to additional benefits from reduced water usage, such as energy savings and a smaller carbon footprint.

Technologies available to help companies and individual consumers monitor and control outdoor water use include Petaluma-based Hydropoint's WeatherTRAK system, which was tested for five years before being launched to the broader market. Today, Hydropoint leads the market of smart-controlled water devices for outdoor irrigation. More than 20 studies validate its smart controller technology.

The company's WeatherTRAK ET Everywhere service draws on information delivered wirelessly from 30,000 weather stations to automatically schedule irrigation based on individual landscape needs and local weather conditions. The result is smarter water use and much lower water bills.

"People using water outside have a very difficult time applying the right amount of water," said Tom Ash, Hydropoint's director of sustainability. "Our technology was designed to overcome the sophisticated problems of watering outside -- watering every other day, watering too much, watering too little. We designed it to make it easy for people, basically by taking the science out of peoples' hands."

The science says that too much or too little water is a problem, and environmentally, too much water is the bigger problem. In addition to water shortages, watering too much leads to runoff, which, in turn, can result in downstream water pollution from motor oil, cleaning chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals.

"The water agencies knew this [was a problem], and tried to educate people, but it wasn't working," Ash explained. "Still to this day, education -- seminars and such -- doesn't work. What's needed is the services infrastructure."

And the services infrastructure -- the streamlining of communication between service providers and retail customers through the Web and wireless technologies -- is coming. Customer demand and federal and state laws are increasingly expecting more efficiency -- in terms of both energy and water consumption. "Water agencies have had to respond in a legislative way because people haven't gotten it," Ash said. "They haven't fixed the problem of over-watering. The technology that's available works to reduce water use but it's still not being used on a large scale, so that's where public agencies are driving greater use with rebates and legislation -- and that may be the fastest way that a community can turn the tide and stop wasting water."

In addition to limiting water use at the spigot, significant gains can be made from recycling water that would otherwise just head down the drains. Stormwater and gray water recycling offer companies another option to manage both consumption of water and reduction of wastewater output.

Gray water remediation technologies from companies like WaterSaver Technologies' Aqus or Pontos' AquaCycle allow for small-scale package gray water treatment systems to be put in place, which capture water from bathroom sinks, tubs and showers and disinfect it to provide reused water for toilet flushing and landscape irrigation. Companies like Brac Systems also offer gray water recycling systems on a larger scale.

Among the largest-scale projects are constructed wetlands, fast becoming a popular gray water remediation system on corporate campuses and facilities. These systems can act to recharge treated wastewater to underlying ground water, or act as flow-through systems. Earlier this year, outdoor retailer REI created a 12-acre wetland on its distribution center in Bedford, Pa. Companies like Rana Creek, an ecological restoration, environmental consulting and ecological design company, are working in this field. Rana Creek constructs wetlands and graywater systems, and designs bioswales for the filtration and retention of stormwater. The firm has also partnered with Agilewaves on monitoring the water-filtering effects of green roofs.

The benefits of recycling such gray water are clear: You can lower the amount of fresh water extracted from rivers and aquifers, decrease the impact on septic tank and treatment plant infrastructure, recharge groundwater, soil and plants with otherwise misdirected nutrients, and reduce the overall energy use and chemical pollution from treatment.

The wide range of firms developing gray water treatment and reuse tools for commercial and residential properties shows how practical -- and profitable -- these technologies can be.

The ROI of Reducing and Reusing Water Flow

"We make the water side an attractive return on investment for a company, or a home owner, or a city," Hydropoint's Tom Ash said. He estimates the payback time is faster than some other efficiency projects, ranging from a couple of months for something like a McDonald's franchise, six months for an apartment complex, and perhaps a year and a half for a corporate campus. "Once we show a REIT [Real Estate Investment Trust] the payback time, then it becomes 'we need to do this across our portfolios,'" he explained, adding that corporate understanding of the green paybacks of these types of projects is much higher now than in the recent past.

Looking at where waste is occurring in the commercial sector, new water saving technologies are starting to make a dent in helping reduce water usage. These technologies may be more expensive in the short run, AWE's Dickinson noted. "From a lifecycle cost perspective, these technologies more than make up for what the long term cost would otherwise be," she said.

Innovation in water conservation programs is on the rise, as is participation by consumers. Peter Gleick at Pacific Institute applauds Seattle for its aggressive water conservation strategy, as well as the Santa Clara Valley Water District. He also pointed out Las Vegas' program to pay people to remove grass as innovative, although he also noted it was about the only innovative thing the Institute thought the city was doing in reducing water use.

His comments come on the heels of a report the Institute recently released in partnership with the Western Resource Advocates. The report, "Hidden Oasis: Water Conservation and Efficiency in Las Vegas," examines Las Vegas' water conservation and efficiency efforts, looking closely at the region's potential water and money savings in single-family residences, hotels, and casinos in particular. The verdict? Las Vegas Valley is sitting on an oasis of savings. The report estimates that Las Vegas can cut homeowners' indoor water waste by 40 percent and hotel and casino water waste by 30 percent, with indoor efficiency gains coming from upgrading fixtures and appliances, independent of any attempts to change users' behavior.

The payback for cities doing the right thing is impressive. Tom Ash also offered the example of Newport Beach, Calif., where the free installation of 750 WeatherTRAK controllers in area homes resulted in a 20 percent drop in water runoff into the ocean. Similarly, the city of Petaluma, Calif., used WeatherTRAK controllers to save 30 percent more water in the face of a severe shortage by targeting homeowner associations with documented high water use.

Getting people to change behaviors can be challenging but it can and is being done, sometimes to great effect. Climate change has forced the subject into the public eye, and innovative companies are among the leaders in making change happen.

"There's been a fair amount of research on behavior change driven by consumption information feedback and research shows we can expect at least a 10-15 percent reduction [in general resource use] just due to behavior change," Peter Sharer said. "I haven't seen any studies on water consumption, but I think we can expect to see that 10 percent and a lot more -- and we've got to do something different."