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More so than any other utility, the cost of water varies vastly depending on where in the country you're turning on a faucet. In water-poor places, like Georgia and the Southwest, where water is most expensive, water efficiency is a priority. The paybacks on water efficiency measures — strictly in financial terms — are good. And water gets its due attention.
But where water is perceived as cheap and abundant, like the Midwest and certain parts of the East Coast, water efficiency probably ranks only slightly above something like light-pollution reduction on a facility manager's checklist of sustainable strategies. Even in those areas, though, water efficiency is becoming more of a priority as organizations view it as a key piece in the holistic sustainability puzzle. Yes, it may still take a back seat to energy and other utilities, but as Peter Strazdas, associate vice president of facilities at Western Michigan University, puts it: "Water is still part of the overall utility portfolio, and when you're looking at sustainability, it's important to touch all utilities."
One way to do that is to use LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) as a guide. LEED-EBOM is the great equalizer in terms of making water efficiency a priority across the country. The reason? To get a building certified, facility managers have no choice but to be water efficient.
"LEED is effective at getting facility managers to care about water," says Natalie Bodenhamer, a green building consultant with CTG Energetics, Inc. "The prerequisite has been transformational and effective." Bodenhamer refers to the mandatory requirement in the latest iteration of the LEED-EBOM rating system that mandates a 20 percent reduction of in-building water use, based on a baseline calculation set by the 2006 edition of the Uniform Plumbing Code, for any level of certification. According to the Department of Energy, domestic water comprises 41 percent of a building's water use, by far the largest portion.
Beyond the prerequisite, LEED-EBOM also provides up to 12 additional points for water strategies like metering, controlling irrigation and going beyond the 20 percent reduction minimum.
Even meeting that prerequisite and the voluntary LEED-EBOM credits is no small task. For new construction, water efficiency is a simple matter of specifying water efficient fixtures with known flush and flow rates, and calling it a day. But in existing buildings — especially older ones — in which fixtures have been in place for years, or decades, it's hard to know which fixtures use how much water, and therefore, even what the baseline might be.
"If you have an older building, and lots of things have been replaced, no one may know how much water fixtures use," says Bodenhamer. "You can't just say 'Let's get the plumbing schedule from 1982.' It won't be accurate. So it takes some elbow grease and detailed attention to calculate that baseline."
But even before facility managers begin work on the LEED-EBOM calculations (which are based on fixtures and flow rates), just knowing how much water they're actually using is an important, and moderately easy, first step to conserving water. Just look at the water bill. "Just watching the bill is the easiest thing to do," says Strazdas. "That's way more powerful than putting an aerator on a sink. That monthly exercise may be equally or more important than even installing low-flow fixtures. Water can be flowing in places that are not observed."
But just glancing at the bill obviously isn't enough. "We'd seen our water bills," says Rick Pospisil, director of facilities for USAA Real Estate Company's FBI Chicago Regional Office, a LEED-EBOM Platinum building. "But we didn't know if they were outrageous or if they were normal. So we started metering, and we immediately recognized opportunities for savings."
Facility managers can get two LEED-EBOM points for metering. One is for metering total water use on the whole site, and the other is for additional submetering on one or more of the following systems: irrigation, indoor plumbing fixtures and fittings, cooling towers, domestic hot water, or other process water.
A Quick Look at Water Legislation
New York City Council recently joined a growing list of municipalities by enacting four laws aimed at drastically reducing the city's water use. The four laws will require water meters on a variety of building systems, like cooling towers and boilers; require WaterSense-labeled plumbing fixtures by 2012; prohibit once-through cooling systems; and require new drinking fountains to replace bottled water vending machines.
Here are some other local and state water efficiency laws:
— Greg Zimmerman
LEED Lays the Groundwork for Water Efficiency Plans