How Can MF Communities Tap into Water Savings?

New York--If efficient management techniques are applied to water consumed in multifamily buildings, the impact can be very powerful.

New York–In recent years, water conservation has started to receive the attention it deserves. Much like oil, water is a non-renewable resource that needs to be conserved. Today, one in eight people don’t have regular access to safe drinking water, and according to UN estimates, by 2025, 48 nations, with a combined population of 2.8 billion, will face freshwater ‘stress’ or ‘scarcity.’ While this may seem like a problem unlikely to affect the U.S., scarcity of water here is becoming a reality. The U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly online report produced by the Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that severe drought still grips much of the American Southeast, is spreading east from California across the Rocky Mountains, and has also settled in the Texas Panhandle and parts of Oklahoma and Colorado.

Peter Gleick, science advisor to Circle of Blue and president of the Pacific Institute, a think tank specializing in water issues based in Oakland, Calif. has said, “I truly believe we’re moving into an era of water scarcity throughout the United States. That by itself is going to force us to adopt more efficient management techniques.”

If these efficient management techniques are applied to water consumption in multifamily buildings, the impact can be huge. There are over 17 million multifamily units in the U.S. and if they were to reduce water consumption by only 10 percent, it would account for 94 billion gallons of water saved every year. “This is enough water to build about 326 Olympic swimming pools in every congressional district (435 of them) in the U.S.,” John Klein, principal of JDM Associates, tells MHN. JDM develops energy, water, waste and materials, and carbon management solutions. Conserving water at multifamily properties could possibly be the easiest way of bringing down American’s water usage rates. Not to mention the financial benefits this can bring to building managers and owners. An added benefit of conserving water is financial savings. “If that 10 percent conservation rate is applied to a 300-unit community, the average saving to the manager will be about $15,000 a year,” explains Klein.

Currently, multifamily properties literally waste gallons and gallons of water, whether it is because of over-watering landscapes, or because potable water is flushed down toilets, or because leaks go unnoticed.

“Most of the landscaping is over watered anywhere from 30 percent to 300 percent,” says Klein. “This is happening because typically the control of that water if being put in the hands of the people who don’t pay the utility bills—an outside contractor for example. Right now, we flush down about 25 percent of all drinkable water used in the US today down our toilets. Water is cheap, so people don’t think about it. We haven’t viewed water in the way it should be,” he says.

Yes there’s plenty of water in our oceans, but desalination is extremely expensive and causes an awful lot of electricity to be used. According to Klein, as you reduce water consumption, there is also a reduction in energy consumption, because the delivery and treatment of water consumes about 4 percent of all electricity used in the U.S. In California, this number is about 15 to 20 percent.

Water conservation in multifamily buildings is not a new concept. In 1992, a legislation was passed requiring regulation of flow of water in various fixtures in the home. Then in the mid 90s, in New York City (which is the biggest multifamily market in the U.S.) there was a push for low-flow toilets. “The first generation of low-flow toilets worked poorly from the start but there was a push to get them out there so they were installed anyway,” Emily Reiss, energy efficiency specialist at Bright Power, tells MHN. “ Of course, it’s now a challenge to get these buildings to upgrade again.”

The way that water is billed has a tremendous impact on the way water is consumed. “In NYC, it has traditionally been billed on frontage basis (this is a fixed annual fee based on literally the length of the frontage they have in front of the building and the number of toilets, showers and baths). This has no direct relation to the amount of water a building uses,” says Reiss. “The city is trying to get everyone off this plan and onto the normal metered system. The annual fee system doesn’t give property owners an incentive to upgrade their equipment,” she explains.  The current date of conversion to the metered system is June 2012.

But Reiss recommends a combination of meters and people keeping tabs on the usage as the best way to control usage of water.

If a multifamily building has retail or commercial space, it may also have a cooling tower. The water from the cooling tower is used to remove the heat from the refrigerators to keep the food cold and that can really raise the water bill each quarter. Reiss recommends sub metering the retail tenants to get this consumption down.

“Additionally, some buildings cool/air condition with a chiller that requires a cooling tower.  Even if you can’t reduce the water use associated with either of these systems, they should be separately metered so they are charged at a discounted sewer rate, since the water used will rarely end up in the sewer, but instead evaporates,” says Reiss.

Sub metering is always a good idea to distribute costs evenly according to usage.

At least for NYC, there is the new real time monitoring system that the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) just released for the Bronx. You can go online and view automatic meter readings. You can see how a building is using water on a real time basis.  This provides control and understanding of water use of a building.

Back to the Green Future: Tips on reducing water consumption at a multifamily community

  • In existing buildings: Water the landscape early in the morning or when the sun goes down.
  • Perform proper maintenance of the sprinkler system. Often times, sprinklers are watering sidewalks.
  • Deploy smart irrigation controls. When there is rain, the sprinklers shouldn’t turn on. They should operate on sensors and not timers.
  • Use drought tolerant plants.
  • Educate the contractors and residents to look for the leaks and report them. Make sure everybody is engaged. One drip a second can cost the property $30-35 or more a year.
  • Retrofit all the mechanics and porcelain inside toilets with the lowest possible flush rates to do the job.
  • Fix aerators to fixtures, which reduce water flow from 2.5 gallon a minute to .5 gallon a minute. Reduce consumption by using this add-on device. Do the same with showerheads.
  • Educate residents; make an event out of it informing them. Make it fun.
  • Use EPA water sense products.
  • Benchmark your consumption.
  • For new construction: Be sensitive to the area in which you are building. Be far sighted about the future availability of water. Get the most water efficient technologies. Go to equipment manufacturers and ask them to bring them to you. Often times, they will install one at their own cost in the hope of selling hundreds. You can test it that way and get feedback.
  • Engage your local water provider in what you are doing-they can help you in design of systems, speccing of equipment, and often times there might be incentives and rebates available for water conservation.
  • Think global, holistic, outside the box. Think about dual plumbing systems. Reuse water!
  • Engage the right contractors; integrate them into your plan to be more water conscious.
  • Adjust pool temperatures downward–to about 78 degrees. When it’s higher, water evaporates faster.
  • While talking about water consumption convert cubic feet to gallons, which is a unit of measurement that everyone can understand and relate. Right now, water bills run in cubic feet and a lot of people may not understand what that really is.
  • Have common laundry rooms. In-unit laundry washers use an average of 11,810 gallons of water annually; equipment in common-area laundry rooms uses an average of 3,595 gallons a year per apartment. This is a 3.3 to one ratio.

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