Is Water the New Oil?

With water shortages expected, better resource management is needed

While more than 70 percent of the planet is comprised of water, less than 1 percent is available for human consumption. Meanwhile, the world’s  population continues to grow and climate change is impacting the security and quality of Earth’s resources, in the form of floods, droughts and melting snowcaps. In fact, water managers in at least 36 states expect local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013, according to a Government Accountability Office study. Because of this apparent scarcity, some are calling water the new oil.

“Rising costs [are] directly associated with water as a resource,” asserts Chris Manchuck, co-founder and vice president, channel sales, HydroPoint Data Systems Inc. “Those costs have gone up 19 percent last year across the U.S., compounding annually with no end in site. In that regard, it’s outpacing oil in terms of percentage increase year-over-year in cost.” He adds, “Requirements are also changing because [of] compliance around how people use or are allowed to use that resource.”

Many states and/or localities have either passed legislation, or have something in the works, that would mandate how water is used. The state of Georgia, for example, recently passed the Water Stewardship Bill (Senate Bill 370), which will require higher efficiency standards for plumbing fixtures, as well as standardized water loss reporting, metering of commercial construction and an outdoor watering schedule (see sidebar).

“Those markets that are pricing water more appropriately have taken into account the carbon footprint of water, [including the] energy to provide clean drinking water and to treat sewage,” points out James Brew, FCSI, AIA, LEED AP, principal architect in the Built Environment core practice area at Boulder, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Institute.

As if that’s not enough, there have been battles fought over water rights. Take, for example, Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day, which, when decided, will set a precedent for whether property owners innately own the water beneath their land.

Despite this so-called water shortage, however, not everyone compares it to the resource for which wars are fought. “I think there are good reasons to be concerned about fresh water and potable water supplies today, but in the years I’ve been working with water suppliers, I’ve seen this [as] more of an issue of mismanagement and neglect than true scarcity,” explains Amy Vickers, president of Amherst, Mass.-based consulting firm Amy Vickers & Associates Inc., a member of the board of directors of the Alliance for Water Efficiency and author of the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation.

“Much of what we see as shortage is a result of gross mismanagement,” she adds. “The number one problem in every water system is water waste through leakage.”

In fact, a leaky faucet that drips at a rate of one drop per second equates to about 3,000 gallons of water per year, while a leaky toilet can waste about 200 gallons per year, according to WaterSense, an EPA-sponsored partnership program that seeks to promote water efficiency and enhance the market for water-efficient products and practices.

Indoor water use

With the mounting prevalence of sustainability in buildings, it is no wonder that low-flow fixtures have grown in popularity, particularly since they use up to 30 percent less water, according to WaterSense. However, as Steve Sadler, vice president, strategic business services at Post Properties, acknowledges, “from a fixture perspective, you’re forced to use low-flow because it’s pretty much all you can buy” at this point in time.

Still, upgrading to these fixtures is one of the first steps—after checking for leaks—in any water conservation effort, be it for an affordable housing community or Class A asset. If a property is not ready for a retrofit, a faucet aerator can at least help to conserve water. Displacement bags for toilets that have a flush volume of 3.5 gallons per minute are another cost-friendly alternative, points out Brew.

“At some point we’ll hit a limit on how much more water we can save,” asserts Vickers, who believes that composting toilets will become more popular in the long-term. In fact, while Brew believes that such fixtures may have a limited appeal for now, he knows from experience that, in the right market, they can be quite popular. For property managers considering such innovative fixtures, though, Brew suggests installing them in limited spaces, such as common areas, first to educate residents. (Waterless urinals, he adds, are another opportunity for water savings in common areas.) He also warns that they can only be installed in new construction, where there is space built in below the toilet for the composted material.

In laundry rooms, owners and managers should upgrade to high-efficiency washers to recognize cost savings both to their bottom line and to the environment’s. Upgrading to high-efficiency washers can save up to 50 percent in water usage—and many utilities offer rebates for retrofitting to such fixtures. Meanwhile, residents with in-unit washing machines use about 3.3 times more water than those who use common area laundry rooms, according to the Multi-housing Laundry Association’s 2002 report, “A National Study of Water & Energy Consumption in Multifamily Housing.”

Because renters don’t pay for their fixtures, they often don’t have the incentive to monitor their water use. This is where submetering can come into play.

In newer communities, installing meters is relatively easy, but it can be cost-prohibitive to do so in older buildings.

“One of the issues that multifamily has faced is, since we are billing residents back for water consumption, any additional fixture is benefitting the resident, not the owner,” notes Sadler, whose Atlanta-based company is dealing with Georgia’s new water legislation. “From an owner perspective, I think at the state level we would hope to get a tax credit or cash rebate to help us offset the costs of those kind of water conservation efforts.”

The great outdoors

As the summer months approach and the industry gears up for what should be the busiest leasing period, curb appeal becomes an enormous factor as managers take advantage of the beauty of the great outdoors. What’s not to love about the community’s luscious greenery and beautiful flowers dotting the sidewalk? And prospective renters can only imagine bathing by the pool after a long week. Late July through early August are considered peak water use months, though, when residential water use is at its highest, according to WaterSense.

“The age-old issue with multifamily housing is brand and curb appeal. With water becoming more a focus, there’s a two-pronged effect: making sure that as cost goes up, you can still use [water] intelligently to maintain landscape and curb appeal to keep rental rates high but also make sure you are being perceived as environmentally friendly,” explains Manchuck. “The first impression that is often key to new [residents] is often related to landscape.”

At the same time, the greatest opportunity for water savings is, in fact, outdoors, notes Vickers, particularly when it comes to pools and landscaping. Up to 50 percent of irrigation water waste is due to evaporation, wind, improper system design or overwatering, according to WaterSense, but converting to water-efficient landscape can reduce water use by 20 to 50 percent.

Using “native or organic stock that can thrive on natural rainfall” is just one solution. Smart water management tools, such as HydroPoint’s WeatherTrak, can also be used to limit water waste. These systems “apply the right amount of water at the right time for your specific landscape, as determined by local water conditions and specifics of landscapes, plant type, soil type, sun exposure and slope,” Manchuck explains.

“No longer is irrigation just a tool to keep plants alive; now the requirements have changed, and in addition to having to maintain a healthy and beautiful landscape, you need to manage the application of water intelligently,” he adds.

Pools also use unnecessary water if they are not maintained. When they are not in use, managers should cover them to lessen the amount of water that evaporates. To also diminish evaporation, the pool’s temperature should be as close to the ambient air temperature as possible, Vickers suggests. It’s also important to ensure the water level is not too high, since much can be lost due to splashing, and managers need to make sure that the Auto Drain feature is properly working,” Vickers points out.

Greywater reuse and rainwater collection are two other methods that some multifamily communities are utilizing. Brew points out that rainwater harvesting is fairly simple and can be used as an educational tool for residents. While greywater reuse is also an option, it may be difficult to retrofit an older building with the required piping.

To comment, e-mail Erika Schnitzer at