Water-Use Strategies That Work
By Renee L. Shroades - August 2006 - Green
In response to rising water costs in many areas of the country, water-saving projects have become increasingly popular among institutional and commercial facilities. In addition to repairing leaky plumbing systems, more maintenance and engineering managers are considering the installation of low-flow and waterless plumbing products.
By watching for water-saving opportunities and implementing more efficient technology and products, managers can help their organizations water use and the related costs.
Lowering the Flow
Some of the simplest plumbing projects can produce the biggest paybacks. This is particularly true for buildings with plumbing systems installed before the Energy Policy Act of 1992 regulating water-flow rates for plumbing fixtures. For these systems, retrofitting faucet aerators and showerheads might be one of the the easiest and most cost-effective water-conservation measures managers can take.
“We installed flow modulators on our shower heads and sinks and flow restrictors on our toilets,” says Todd Wilkening, director of facilities at Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, Minn. “The project was extremely easy, and our payback was about 1.8 years. It is saving us about $27,231 annually and about 180,000 gallons of water and sewer monthly.”
Replacing flush fixtures with more water-efficient models requires more work, but these updates also can produce tremendous savings in water use.
In 1995, the National Energy Policy Act mandated the use of toilets that use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Today, manufacturers offer fixtures that use less than 1.6 gallons per flush. Before the mandate, toilets often used 3 gallons or more per flush.
Managers might be concerned that low-flush models won’t perform adequately and users will double flush, which will ultimately increase water consumption. Many managers, however, find that today’s low-flush models perform quite well.
John Rasmussen, former building construction engineer at the University of Southern Maine (USM), installed a toilet that uses 0.8 gallons per flush.
“We tried it in one of our dorms, and it seemed to work just fine,” he says.
Before specifying low-flush fixtures to replace existing fixtures, managers need to take a close look at their facilities’ plumbing system to ensure the replacement project will succeed.
Plumbing systems are designed for particular levels of water flow, and problems can occur when a building’s piping is not designed to accommodate low-flush fixtures, says Joe Howard, director of facilities at Boulder (Colo.) Community Hospital. In such cases, successfully retrofitting fixtures can be challenging.
“When you start installing 1.5-gallon toilets in a system that was designed for 3.5 gallons per flush, the next thing you know, your whole system might be stopped up,” he says. “I caution people that if they have a system that has several 3.5-gallon toilets and they switch to 1.5-gallon toilets, they might cause all kinds of grief that they don’t want.”
In addition to installing fixtures that use less water, managers also might want to specify touchless fixtures. Besides improving hygiene, sensor-operated faucets and flushers can help prevent water waste by providing water only when in use.
When these fixtures are in restrooms that feature automatic lighting controls with occupancy sensors, however, a problem might occur that increases water use, Howard says. These lighting systems turn on automatically when the sensors detect motion. But if sensors on touchless plumbing fixtures operate on the same frequency as that of the lighting sensors, faucets might activate when the lights go on or off. The problem can be worse if the systems operate on the same power lines.
“This problem caused us to have ghost flushers,” Howard says. “We fixed the problem by replacing the line-powered flush valves with battery-powered flush valves and making sure they operate on a different frequency.”
When manufacturers began offering waterless urinals, managers were skeptical about claims that the units would perform efficiently and require little maintenance. Some managers remain skeptical or might have had bad experiences with waterless fixtures, others have come to believe that waterless urinals are an important advance in restroom technology.
“These things actually work,” says Howard, who admits he was one of the skeptics before installing 12 waterless urinals in one of his facilities. “Surprisingly, they have been absolutely trouble-free.” Since their installation, the units have been mainly maintenance free, requiring only periodic replacement of the cartridges that seal in odors.
“It takes about two minutes to install a new cartridge, and you’re done,” he says. While different manufacturers have different recommendations to determine when workers should change the cartridges, Howard says odor often is the simplest indicator. When the units start to smell, it’s time to change the cartridge.
When testing the performance of waterless urinals, Rasmussen says the cartridges didn’t seem to last as long as manufacturers claimed they would.
“Manufacturers claimed the cartridges were good for 7,000 uses, and we tried to set up a way of gauging how often were we changing them, which seemed more often than the manufacturer thought we should be doing,” he says. One factor that might have contributed to the cartridges’ poor performance was improper use of the units, such as dumping a bucket of water into the urinal, he says.
Rasmussen says he found a solution — a replacement cartridge that is designed to last much longer than cartridges that use oil to seal the trap.
“It features a special rubber tube that stays folded, effectively sealing the trap, when it’s dry,” he says. “But within milliseconds of sensing moisture, it opens up and drains.” Rasmussen says that he would specify waterless urinals again.
Howard would, too. Now that the units have proven to be a success, he plans to retrofit his hospital’s other public restrooms with waterless units.
Managers have a growing range of products and technologies from which to choose when it comes to curtailing water use and waste in their facilities. But the high levels of water use in many facilities mean that managers also must look beyond the obvious areas into practices that are less apparent.
“Look at all the demands of water an organization might have,” Wilkening says. Managers might be able to help organizations curtail these demands by implementing water-saving technologies, as well as by educating occupants about relatively simple measures they can take to conserve water.
“People are sometime wasteful just because they don’t know any better and need education,” Wilkening says. Or maybe they’re running the water 10 minutes longer than necessary because the piping system doesn’t provide hot water efficiently.
By determining the cause of the water waste, managers will be better able to minimize their organizations’ water consumption, as well as their water-related costs.
WaterSense Targets Smart Water Use
In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled its water-efficiency program, WaterSense. The program’s goal is to educate consumers about making smart water choices to save money and maintain high environmental standards without compromising performance. Through this program, local water utilities, product manufacturers and retailers will work with EPA to encourage water-efficient products and practices.
— Renee L. Shroades