Droughts are nothing new in the U.S. Probably the worst drought in the country’s history occurred in the 1930s. Referred to as the Dust Bowl, it spanned eight years in certain parts of the Great Plains and caused mass migration. Although it resulted in a number of changes in farming and land management, as far as water conservation and efficiency, once the drought was over, the area essentially turned back to its traditional water-using/water-wasting habits with little or no thought of water conservation or efficiency.
If we look back at the history of droughts in the U.S., we see this is a well-repeated pattern. For example:
From 1950 to 1954, a drought hit the southwestern portion of the county. Texas rainfall dropped by more than 40 percent; Dallas temperatures soared to more than 100 F for 52 days, resulting in increased water consumption. But, by 1957, this drought was essentially over and within a short time, the old water-using habits returned.
Starting about 1977 and ending in late 1979, California was totally unprepared for one of the worst droughts in its history. Citizens were asked to scale back water consumption by as much as 40 percent. Looking back, public officials now admit things were far worse than anyone had imagined. But once again, by 1980, water was plentiful and the state was using and wasting as much water as it had ever done before.
Jump forward to 2012 and we see California literally in the same boat, stuck in a dry lake. This time the state was better prepared and did not institute water restrictions until last year. However, this drought appears to have broken the water-free-for-all pattern of yesteryear. Not only is the state taking far more steps to better endure these dry years, which appear to be more frequent now than ever before, but citizens—especially building owners/managers and businesses—are getting involved.
Now, steps to reduce water consumption are on just about every organization’s mind. And because most commercial office buildings tend to renovate restrooms—where most of the water is consumed in a facility—every seven to 10 years, ways to retrofit the restroom to ensure water is used more efficiently should be a top concern.
Before discussing this issue further, we need to clarify some terms. For instance, we have referred to reducing water consumption as “conserving” water, as well as using water more “efficiently.” While these terms appear to mean the same, they do not.
When we conserve water, we are taking steps to reduce consumption during a drought and for a specific period. Once the drought has passed, history has shown that we tend to no longer conserve water; it’s now a thing of the past.
Using water efficiently is not necessarily tied to a drought; however, today it typically evolves as the result of a drought. What water efficiency refers to is a long-term reduction in water consumption. A very simple way to explain this is to consider a toilet that uses 1.6 gallons of water or more per flush. If we replace that toilet with one that uses about 1 gallon of water per flush and performs satisfactorily, we have now reduced consumption over the long-term.
Although it is not necessarily a term, we should also be familiar with the WaterSense program. The program was created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency specifically to help manufacturers of water-using devices market their products—from HVAC systems to toilets and urinals—and invest in and develop technologies that reduce water consumption long-term. When a product is developed that meets EPA’s standards and criteria, the manufacturer may place the WaterSense label on the product and use it to help market the item.
Since its inception a decade ago, WaterSense says it has helped reduce water consumption in the U.S. by more than 1.5 trillion gallons. Further, and something many building owners/managers may not realize, this reduction in water consumption has helped reduce energy costs by more than $32 billion dollars while also eliminating 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
The delivery and removal of water from every dwelling and facility in the country requires electricity, the charges of which are worked into every water bill. Accordingly, reducing water consumption reduces energy consumption and reduces costs, which in turn helps protect the environment.