With Scarcity and Costs Rising at Alarming Rates, Water Efficiency Must Take Center Stage in the Sustainability Conversation if We Hope to Preserve Our Way of Life

Challenges and Opportunities

While implementing water-saving efficiencies into new buildings might be an easy sell, retrofitting the existing building stock may present some challenges because of structural limitations. However, there are strategies and products available that can help owners and facility managers realize savings and efficiencies without adding excessive costs.

“In the existing building stock, you’ve got an infrastructure already in place, so we’re dealing with water and waste lines that were designed, in some cases, in the ’20s, ’50s, ’70s, ’80s—just all across the board—so those systems are designed for a larger capacity of water,” Mason explains. The problem, he says, is that once the flush and flow rates have been reduced in a building, the infrastructure in many cases may become oversized as a result, creating the need for preventative maintenance in the waste line.

However, Mason is quick to point out that the potential for buildup in the waste line as flush and flow is reduced does not have to be costly or difficult to address. Building owners and facility managers simply need to be aware of it and plan accordingly.LEED water requirements

“We have numerous clients that have implemented high-efficient plumbing fixtures and have not experienced any problems,” he says. “In fact, we have not had any negative feedback to date.” He adds building owners in no way should avoid making upgrades to improve water efficiency.

Another difficulty in multi-tenant commercial buildings, in particular, is that upgrades to water fixtures, for example, are typically made when leases are being renewed, not during a tenant’s occupancy, according to Arlein. But the challenge is worth exploring, he says. “If you could get over the obstacle of doing plumbing-fixture retrofits only as buildings turn over and you could start looking at water as a huge cost for a building and changing those fixtures when tenants are in the middle of their leases, [you could] save the building a bunch of water. And if you can figure out a way to amortize the cost of the retrofit to the tenants over a reasonable period, that definitely will spur more investment,” Arlein adds.

So where does a building owner or operator start the process of reducing water consumption? As with any decision to retrofit, do what makes sense and offers a quick payback first before looking at long-term (and more costly) upgrades.

FIXTURES. “When you talk about [water] conservation, start with the low-hanging fruit in swapping out your fixtures for low-flow aerators,” suggests Mike Ruck, assistant treasurer and former vice president of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, Tempe, Ariz. “Any of those off-the-shelf products would see an immediate return on investment just by the water savings.”

Rather than changing out flush valves and porcelain, which can be very costly, Mason recommends clients install flush-valve diaphragm kits to restore a fixture’s low-flow performance to its optimal level, which is much more affordable. “We strategically test these kits, and if they’re successful, great—put them in and we continue to monitor. If they’re not successful, then we look at actually installing new porcelain, which is a dramatic change for the simple payback. For flush kits, we’re looking at three months to a year max for a quick payout on those projects.”

WATERLESS URINALS. Although waterless urinals are huge water savers, building owners and facility managers need to be aware of their educational component to ensure they work successfully. Mason notes the cleaning staff and occupants must be educated that pouring substances down waterless urinals can cause odor cartridges to malfunction—an issue that has caused some building owners to remove the urinals after installation.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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