Wasted Water Can Add Up To Significant Costs

Historically, water efficiency has taken a backseat to energy efforts, but this is all changing now.

Historically, water efficiency has taken a backseat to energy efforts, but this is all changing now.

Special Feature: Water Conservation – The Rising Tide

Wasted Water Can Add Up To Significant Costs

Water conservation image.
Photo: istock.com

By Mary Ann Dickinson and Bill Hoffman, Jr. P.E.
From the November/December 2014 issue

Water has always been relatively inexpensive, even in regions of water stress and scarcity where one would think its price would be higher. However, water and wastewater costs have been rising in the past decade at an alarming rate—2.8 times higher than electricity costs. Nationally, these water and wastewater costs have collectively risen at an average rate of 5.85% per year, according to recent studies by Black and Veatch and the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University. The Circle of Blue, an international water think tank, just published that between 2013 and 2014, water and sewer rates in the United States increased by 6%, and 33% since 2010. These are not insignificant cost increases, and they can seriously impact a facility manager’s (fm’s) budget.

Most facilities receive their supply from public drinking water utilities, and discharge their wastewater to public sewer systems. The rapid rise in water and wastewater costs will continue well into the foreseeable future, as utilities struggle to renovate their aging infrastructure, as well as build new facilities to accommodate growing demand for services. As these cost increases hit a facility’s bottom line, suddenly many water efficiency practices become cost-effective, with a near immediate payback. Strategies that formerly would not have been considered are now available to the fm on a solid return on investment basis. But do most know what those measures are?

Today’s fms are often not well equipped to answer this question. Furthermore, they are usually not aware of other factors: the rapidly developing codes, standards, and new technologies related to water efficiency; the increasingly popular green initiatives advocating alternate sources of water for toilet and urinal flushing, landscape irrigation, cooling towers, and other non-potable applications; and the pathogen risks associated with poor management of a building’s premise plumbing lines and other water using fixtures. All of these considerations can and will impact a facility’s financial bottom line.

Evaluating Water Use: Starting With The Audit

Evaluating or “auditing” water use within a facility is not a simple affair. Every use of water must be identified and evaluated, and the sources of water coming into the facility must be compared with the consumption and discharge of water out of the building. Water use, heating water, water treatment, cooling tower and boiler operations, landscape irrigation, equipment in commercial kitchens, icemakers, laundries, medical facilities, and, of course, plumbing water use in restrooms must be assessed.

In addition to quantifying how all water is used, the audit can also help identify if leaks and other losses are occurring such as water wasted to drains. This also involves examining how water is metered and helps identify where critical submeters may be needed to monitor such uses as cooling tower makeup or large landscape irrigation operations. Such a comprehensive review can tax the ability of even the most proficient engineer to keep up with the rapid changing costs, technologies, codes, and trends related to water use and efficiency.

Auditing water use also requires assessing water costs. All related factors must be considered, including energy, chemical treatment, wastewater, and industrial pre-treatment costs. For fixtures that use water, the rapid rise in cost of water and wastewater must be taken into account and a budget assembled. As an example, Table 1 below examines the cost to flush a toilet just one time both now and in 20 years if the current rate of water and wastewater utilities inflation continues.

Toilet flush costs chart.
Table 1

Another example is a hot water faucet in a restroom leaking at a very low rate of 0.05 gallons per minute—barely a stream and not looking like much of an impact. When energy is added to the cost, a very different picture emerges.

Using national average water, wastewater, natural gas, and electricity prices, this leak will cost the facility $420 a year if gas is used to heat the water, and $750 a year if electricity is used, and this cost will continue mounting up until the leak is fixed. What is even more interesting is that if gas is used to heat water, the water and wastewater cost account for 60% of the cost and energy for 40% of the cost.

U.S. EPA WaterSense estimate of the end of use of water in office buildings.
U.S. EPA WaterSense estimate of the end of use of water in office buildings.

The chart from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program (pictured at right) shows how a typical office building uses water. But every building is different, and fms must calculate the actual consumption for each end use point and see how their facilities compare to others of similar type. This will help to discover if a facility is using more or less water than the average, and what that average is.

The potential for long-term savings depends on the proper selection of newer efficient models for retrofitting existing fixtures, equipment, and processes, such as new plumbing fixtures, irrigation controllers, and water using appliances ranging from ice makers to medical equipment. Code, life cycle cost analysis, and related considerations all come into play when selecting the correct equipment to be retrofitted. (See the chart below for suggested water use thresholds for select plumbing fixtures.)




The Need For Training

Two decades ago, energy manager certification programs were successfully launched to train fms how to manage energy use. But such training and certification has not been available for the evaluation and management of water efficiency and water technology issues. Historically, facility staff have had to learn on the fly.

Now with the rising costs of water supply and wastewater, an in-depth training program would be desirable to enable facility staff to make their facilities more water efficient. Such training could include detailed instruction on the following:

  • true cost of water at the facility level
  • codes, standards, and regulations affecting the facility
  • water use quantification derived through a facility audit
  • metering and submetering and adding water data to the facility management “dashboard” for real-time management capabilities
  • maintenance and commissioning
  • understanding water using systems ranging from plumbing to irrigation and cooling towers and selecting water efficient fixtures and equipment
  • using alternate sources of water: reclaimed/recycled water from municipal reclamation facilities; rainwater harvesting; and alternate on-site sources (rainwater, graywater, AC condensate, etc.)
  • developing a comprehensive facility water efficiency program
  • measurement and verification

As water and wastewater prices rise and new codes and standards for water efficiency emerge, it is becoming clear that fms and their engineers need concise training and certification programs to ensure they are ready for this rapidly changing water landscape. Just as with energy in years past, water efficiency is becoming a necessary and critical component of facility management. 


Dickinson is the President and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a non-profit organization for promoting the efficient and sustainable use of water in the United States and Canada. Headquartered in Chicago, IL, the Alliance works with nearly 400 water utilities, water conservation professionals in business and industry, planners, regulators, and consumers.

With more than 45 years of experience in the water industry, Hoffman is a principal at H.W. Hoffman & Associates, LLC, working to help utilities, states, and commercial entities develop effective industrial, commercial, and institutional (ICI) programs. He serves on numerous national water efficiency standards and codes committees.

For those interested in the type of training program described at the end of this article, please e-mail comments or questions to the authors at [email protected], or to TFM Editor-in-Chief at [email protected].

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