Eight Site Improvements to Reduce Water Usage at Your Site
By Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq.
Clean, safe water is a precious resource that we all need to survive and often take for granted. But as moderate to severe drought in the West and Northeast affect water supplies and usage for millions of people, responsible owners and managers everywhere are starting to take steps to voluntarily conserve water usage at their sites. States like California, along with a growing number of municipalities, are encouraging and sometimes requiring owners to take steps to reduce water usage. For example, in April 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown issued Executive Order B-29-15 requiring owners to drastically reduce their water usage by 25 percent overall through incentives for conservation and penalties for excess water use, including:
• Funding for lawn replacement programs
• A limited-time appliance rebate program to replace inefficient household appliances, such as dishwashers, with water-conserving models
• Increases and surcharges for excess water use
• A ban against irrigation that is not drip or microspray systems at newly constructed housing and other buildings
California’s state-wide water usage restrictions were in place for about a year. In spring of 2016, the state relaxed the restrictions and allowed local agencies to use “stress-tests” instead to determine whether they have enough water to meet local customer needs for three more dry years. The restrictions remain in place for about 10 percent of local water local agencies or 4.2 million Californians.
Another reason to conserve water: Water takes considerable energy to use and heat. The water company uses energy to purify and pump water to your site and to treat the water that leaves your site through drains and as sewage. And water heaters on site and in units use energy to heat the water. So the less water you use, the less energy is needed to treat and heat it.
Making a few water-saving improvements can reduce your site’s consumption and save you money—and can do so in a big way. And the more inefficient your site’s water systems are now, the more savings you’ll see. According to a report prepared by Bright Power and Stewards for Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF), multifamily sites that made certain water-efficiency improvements funded under HUD’s Green Retrofit Program (GRP) reduced overall water consumption by 26 percent, achieving savings of $95 per unit per year, or $1.2 million per year for all 179 GRP sites—with the most inefficient sites seeing the highest percentage of savings per site. The report also showed that water improvements are cost effective, with water savings resulting in a simple payback period of one year. Simple payback periods are determined by dividing the cost of improvements by the annual energy savings. Finally, most of the water improvements have savings-to-investment ratios greater than one, which means that they’ll pay for themselves over the course of their useful lives.
Here are eight site improvements similar to the ones that many GRP sites studied in the SAHF report have taken that can have a big impact on your site’s water usage and save you big money in water and energy costs.
Improvement #1: Use Tracking Software Before & After Making Physical Improvements
Before making any physical improvements to your site, your first step is to track your water and energy usage using the EPA’s free ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager or other tracking software. Doing this helps you get baseline data for your site’s current water and energy usage so you can: (1) where the most potential for savings is; (2) set benchmarks and goals; (3) see recommended improvements; and (4) track changes in water and energy consumption to see if improvements are working.
Information you should collect includes:
• A minimum of one year of pre-improvement and one year of post-improvement utility data, and any additional post-improvement years when it is available
• Data on each building size, number of units, occupancy, equipment, and building features
• Information about the improvements made at the site
• Other changes (e.g., occupancy, new equipment, changing operations) taking place at the same time as the improvements
By tracking its water and energy usage before and after making a number of improvements, Foundation Communities in Austin, Texas, was able to accurately measure the savings and changes in water and energy consumption—over 12 percent in water alone—from the improvements it made at all its sites, says Susan Peterson, green initiatives director.
Improvement #2: Replace Fixtures with Certified Water-Saving Products
Install water-saving faucets, aerators, showerheads, toilets, and urinals when renovating or turning over units or at annual inspections and in common areas. These fixtures use a lot less water per minute and can save the site a lot of money, says Peterson. Foundation Communities completed a site-wide fixture upgrade using free aerators and showerheads from its local water utility. If your utility doesn’t offer free fixtures as part of a water-reduction program, purchase products that have a water-efficiency certification, such as the EPA’s WaterSense program. Here’s what Peterson recommends for all units and common areas:
Faucet aerators. Replace current aerators with aerators that allow .5 to 1.0 gallons per minute (gpm) in the bathroom faucets and 1.5 gpm in the kitchen faucets.
Showerheads. Replace showerhead with ones that allow no more than 1.5 gpm or even better, 1.0 gpm for real savings. Because residents sometimes like to remove the low-flow heads with their own, be sure to check during turnover inspections that the low-flow heads are still installed, says Peterson.
Common area/employee bathroom faucets. Install controls that turn off faucets automatically.
Toilets. Look for 1.28 gallons per flush (gpf) or lower, or better yet, replace with .8 gpf pressure assist toilets. Replace and upgrade flappers every five years or so.
Washers and dishwashers. Replace washers with ENERGY STAR-certified models. For example, an ENERGY STAR-certified clothes washer uses about 25 percent less energy and 40 percent less water than regular washers.
Improvement #3: Insulate & Upgrade Water Heaters
Install an insulation blanket on all water heaters seven years of age or older, and insulate the first three feet of the hot water pipes coming out of both old and new water heaters. Set water temperature to comply with local temperature codes, but generally no higher than 110–120 degrees, which will help save energy and prevent scalding.
When replacing or buying a new water heater, always buy the most efficient model possible and look for an ENERGY STAR-rated model. In areas of the site that use water infrequently, consider “tankless” water heaters to reduce standby water storage costs and unnecessary water waste.
Or consider installing a solar thermal water system on your roof like The Rose Apartments, a state-of-the-art, ultra-sustainable affordable site in Minneapolis, Minn., did. Smaller than a full solar panel, a solar thermal system preheats your water and sends it down to the water heater, significantly reducing the energy needed for the water heater to maintain the set temperature for hot water. Though the installation costs for a solar thermal system can be somewhat high, $2,000 to $5,000 or more, the repayment period in energy savings is short, about three to five years, depending on the amount of sun in your area, says James Lehnhoff, Vice-President of Housing Development at Aeon, the nonprofit owner of The Rose. During the summer and in sunny climates during day hours, solar hot water can provide 100 percent of your hot water needs, while in colder, darker climates, about 30 percent of hot water needs, Lehnhoff notes.
Improvement #4: Check for & Repair Plumbing Leaks
Even small leaks can add up to many gallons of water and site dollars wasted each month and in some cases, can be the largest share of your site’s water usage. For example, according to the EPA’s WaterSense, a toilet leaking at the rate of .5 gpm can waste over 21,000 gallons per month and depending on your water utility rates, can cost you several thousand dollars each year. A broken water line, leaking at the rate of 15 gpm, can waste over 21,000 gallons per day, 150,000 gallons per week, and 650,000 gallons per month and cost your site well over $70,000 each year.
Avoid these losses by conducting regular inspections and pressure tests of your site’s fixtures, toilets, and water distribution systems to check for leaks. Check all visible and accessible water supply connections and valves for any fixtures, appliances, and equipment that use water for proper installation and leaks. Fix any leaking pipes, fixtures, and seals immediately.
Standard 1.6 gpf toilets with flappers often leak, says Peterson. So this is another reason to replace them with a water-saving version that uses pressure-assist technology instead of standard water gravity and a flapper.
Improvement #5: Submeter Each Unit & Outdoor Water Usage Separately
Having separate water meters for each unit helps site managers understand and manage overall site and individual unit water use and more easily spot problems such as leaks in certain units and areas of the site. It also helps residents understand their own water usage and can help you train residents in ways to conserve water. Consider adding separate meters for units and for your landscaping and irrigation water use, and even any central HVAC systems and boilers. Be sure to follow HUD Handbook 4350.1, Paragraph 12-21 rules and procedures for seeking HUD permission to convert to individual metered utilities.
Editor’s Note: If your site gets tax credits under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (LIHTC), be sure to follow new IRS and the Treasury Department final and temporary regulations for utility allowances at LIHTC sites released on March 3, 2016. With the final regulation, LIHTC owners that submeter utilities at their sites can use the energy consumption model for calculating utility allowances. The temporary regulations extend the principles of these sub-metering rules to situations in which a building owner sells to tenants energy that is produced from a renewable source and that is not delivered by a local utility company. Some owners may opt not to individually meter apartments but rather choose to submeter their units so they can have easier access to the data. The change is significant because an owner of a site where the units are not individually metered can now submeter the property, bill the tenants for their actual energy usage, and customize the utility allowances to reflect actual consumption, using the established methodology previously adopted by the IRS. Under this methodology, the utility rate charged to the tenants cannot exceed the rate incurred by the owner for that utility. For more information, see “IRS Amends LIHTC Utility Allowance Submetering Regulations,” at TaxCreditHousingManagementInsider.com.
Improvement #6: Use Low-Water Irrigation Systems & Green Landscaping Practices
In some parts of the country, outdoor water use can account for more than half of the total site water used during the summer. Inefficient or leaking irrigation systems or an unattended water hose can waste thousands of gallons of water each month and cost your site thousands of dollars each year. Take steps to conserve the water you use outside your site, including converting to sustainable “green” landscaping practices to maintain the landscape around your site. Depending on your geographic location, you can expect savings in water costs ranging from 40 percent to 75 percent per year and a return on your investment ranging from 35 percent to more than 100 percent. Examples of ways to reduce landscape water usage include:
• Planting native or drought-tolerant plants that need less water and are more resistant to pests
• Spreading mulch around trees and plant beds
• Installing WaterSense or other “smart” irrigation controls with rain or soil moisture sensors
• Using drip irrigation to water plant beds
• Making sure spray heads are working properly and not wasting water by spraying onto places that don’t need water, such as sidewalks
• Ensuring the irrigation or other watering schedule is appropriate for the climate, soil conditions, type of plant, grading of land, and season
• Hiring a certified irrigation professional to conduct an irrigation audit
• Reusing rain or reclaimed water for irrigation or vehicle washing (see Improvement #7 below)
• Making sure landscaping contractor and staff follow any local drought restrictions
• If your site has a pool, using pool covers to control evaporation loss and limit the need for cleaning and draining by maintaining proper pool chemistry
Improvement #7: Properly Manage Stormwater & Wastewater for Reuse
Rather than let rainwater or certain types of wastewater from washing clothes, doing dishes, and bathing run down the drains and into your municipal sewers, consider harvesting and reusing it as alternative water to meet a portion of your site’s water needs. Too much stormwater and other wastewater going into a municipal sewer system and onto the ground lowers a municipality’s overall water quality by increasing surface and groundwater pollution and taxing the capacity of the soil and storm drains to handle the amount of water that runs off of building rooftops and other surfaces.
Water reuse strategies, such as cisterns, rain barrels, green roofs, and other stormwater collection and reuse systems, can help reduce your municipal water usage as well as your sewer cost. They can also give you a buffer of protection during periods of drought and help keep the water quality in your area clean and safe.
The Rose Apartments in Minneapolis incorporates several water reuse strategies, capturing and reusing 75 percent of the site’s stormwater runoff, including watering the site’s community garden and creating a series of visually pleasing and connected rain gardens, says Lehnhoff. Like a growing number of cities, Minneapolis has strict stormwater requirements and offers incentives in the form of credits to reduce sites’ monthly stormwater utility fee if they put in place effective stormwater practices or tools that manage their stormwater properly—up to a 50 percent credit on stormwater utility fees for practices such as rain gardens, permeable paving, green roofs, and certain trenches that help improve stormwater quality, and 50 to 100 percent credit for practices that reduce stormwater quantity (the ability to handle a 10- or 100-year rain event).
Also, green building standards such as Enterprise’s Green Communities, one of several third-party green building certification programs that state housing finance agencies and other funders use when making decisions about financing new construction and rehab sites, has stormwater management standards and gives owners extra points for incorporating stormwater management and reuse systems, along with other water-reduction practices into their site plans.
If local laws permit, consider diverting “greywater,” which is wastewater from hand washing, laundry, and bathing, for irrigation and other uses. Greywater is not potable and can’t be used for food preparation, but it is not heavily contaminated either and can be recycled through filter systems. In some areas, particularly high-drought areas, more and more cities are permitting or even encouraging reuse of greywater.
Potential reuses for greywater include:
• Cooling tower water
• Toilet and urinal flushing
• Water for decorative ponds, fountains, and waterfalls
• Vehicle washing
• Processes or other uses not requiring potable water
Editor’s Note: For more on installing a “green roof,” including the costs of and incentives for doing so, you can download the one-hour webinar, “Green Roofs—How to Add This Value-Enhancing Amenity in Multifamily Housing,” available here. Recorded in April, this webinar is presented by sustainability and affordable housing expert Carolyn Zezima and green roofs expert Mike Curry.
Improvement #8: Encourage Resident Water Conservation
No matter how energy-efficient and water-efficient a site’s infrastructure and equipment is, residents make most of the day-to-day decisions about their water and energy use. So focusing on ways to reduce their usage will have the most impact, says Rory McIlmoil, energy policy director for Appalachian Voices in Boone, N.C. As part of your site’s overall resident and staff policies and education, encourage residents to do their part by taking the following steps to conserve water in their units. Consider adding water-conservation tips similar to ones like these to your resident manual or house rules:
Water Conservation Tips for Residents
> In the bathroom:
• Do not run hot water longer than absolutely necessary. Showers use less water than baths if you keep track of time.
• Shut off the water when you brush your teeth, wash your face, or do other chores. According to Water—Use It Wisely, turning off the water while you brush your teeth alone can save as much as four gallons a minute.
• Small household leaks can add up to gallons of water lost every day. Call the management office immediately to report leaky faucets, plumbing leaks, and drafty rooms.
> In the kitchen:
• Use a stopper or basin if washing dishes by hand.
• When using a dishwasher, make sure it’s fully loaded, and scrape plates instead of rinsing them before loading them into the dishwasher.
• Keep a pitcher of cold water in the refrigerator instead of letting the faucet run for cool drinking water.
• Thaw food in the refrigerator overnight rather than running hot water over it.
• Add food waste to site compost collection instead of using the garbage disposal.
• Wash only full loads of laundry or use the appropriate load size on the machine for the amount of laundry.
• Use cold-water detergents in washing machines, and wash and rinse in cold water. According to Water—Use It Wisely, this could save as much as 1,000 gallons of water per month per household.
This article was adapted from Section 2.1 of Sustainable Affordable Housing Management: A Money-Saving Guide to Keeping Your Site Green, Healthy & Energy Efficient, by Carolyn E. Zezima, Esq. The book provides more information about this and other sustainability topics, including how to write an effective sustainability plan that sets goals for reducing overall energy costs and take steps to improve your residents’ quality of life by improving the site’s air and other health impacts.