The Urgent Need To Address Water Waste In Commercial Buildings

Facility executives could be wasting a precious resource and funds by not having a water action plan in place, especially during droughts.

water conservation
Photo: Adobe Stock – vladk213

From Connecticut to California, the U.S. has experienced extended drought conditions since the summer began. According to a drought summary report from the National Drought Mitigation Center, over 54% of the U.S. and Puerto Rico were considered to be abnormally dry throughout August 2022. A long drought season, especially in extremely dry areas, can lead to water scarcity, wildfires, flooding, erosion, and famine.

In an Urban Land Institute report, “Water Wise: Strategies for Drought-Resilient Development,” it’s revealed that more professionals have needed to focus water conservation, efficiency, and reuse to keep up with increasing local regulations. To elaborate on how facility managers will need to approach water management, Ross Sheil, smart tech building expert and SVP of Global Revenue at Infogrid, shares his perspective on running water-efficient buildings.

For facility executives still relying on a manual, pen-and-paper approach to track their water management and identify any issues, how can they transition to a more advanced system? 

Many commercial buildings are effectively data black holes. This means most commercial property owners and managers are operating in the dark. They have little to no idea what is going on in their buildings because they simply don’t have the data—so their monitoring relies on manual processes that are stuck in the last century, and are downright ineffective. In many cases, the checks don’t even get done.

The bottom line is that without the data, it’s hard to know where to start and how to best use technology to optimize for water conservation, energy savings, etc. A good first step would be to do a quick search for simple monitoring technologies. Even a quick retrofit in a certain section of a building can serve as a good starting point. Many sensors are small, simple to install—literally peel and stick in some cases—and can give you access to data almost immediately. Consider a remote pipe monitoring solution to detect leaks and keep an eye on water quality. You’ll eventually need one cohesive system, what some call a single pane of glass, to see what’s happening in your buildings and which inefficiencies are problematic. Energy savings from that kind of system might be considerably greater than water savings. The more efficient the system, the better the savings. But you have to start somewhere.

A good example for your readers is one of our customers, JLL, that monitors plumbing systems in its building for Legionella compliance without needlessly running taps in on-site checks. If a pipe or tap is used regularly, it’s safe. If you have the data to prove such activity occurred, you won’t need engineers to routinely go visit every week—or daily—and flush the tap out, and that is a major reduction of carbon footprint. JLL’s water savings are typically 160 gallons per year per line; that’s not huge, but it also improves protection against a disease that requires hospitalization for most patients and has a 5% to 10% death rate, causing upwards of 250 deaths annually in the U.S. Most customers will see a full return in less than a year, so leak detection and pipe monitoring solutions represent both water and commercial savings.

Can you speak to the role sensors, IoT, and AI play in addressing water waste in commercial buildings? 

The IoT, together with AI, machine learning and automation can play a critical role in water conservation.

For example, pipe monitoring solutions are important in large buildings which likely have miles of water supply piping. We have customers using our solution, based on monitoring temperature and water flow remotely, via sensors and AI to determine where water is stagnating and might create conditions for Legionella. This enables us to detect issues, like leaks for example, in real time and send alerts to ensure they are addressed right away, rather than left to wait for a technician’s visit.

Traditional, non tech-enabled methods–which do not measure and record water usage– require all outlets and taps to be flushed for between two and three minutes every week. Using our pipe monitoring solution, typically only 2% of taps require manual flushing, saving the water wasted in 98% of preventive line flushing. It also reduces the need for engineers to visit building sites as regularly, which results in additional climate related savings through emissions avoidance.

How often should facility executives evaluate their water distribution systems and points of access for any potential problems? 

Simple answer: 24/7. But it needs to be done by way of continuous, and therefore remote, monitoring, and alerts should be automated. Otherwise, checks will fall through the cracks and, before you know it, you could have a big water wastage issue on your hands.

How can facility managers adjust their approach to water management in drought conditions to preserve even more water? 

First, irrigate efficiently or not at all. The EPA estimates that up to half of external irrigation is wasted. Almost any building that irrigates outside every night is wasting a lot of water. The water bill is going to escalate if you don’t cut usage, and there may be penalties for overwatering. Drip irrigation should probably be mandated for many facilities.

The cost of energy, AC, and heat will shoot up for everyone who relies on power generated by a hydroelectric dam that has to run under capacity due to drought.

But it’s also important to consider the fact that rivers, lakes, and reservoirs around the world are drying up. Water levels getting low can pose a real threat to water supplies of course, but also to the environment and even our health. There are studies that link higher levels of natural and human pollutants to lower water levels.

What kind of damage may impact buildings during or after a severe drought?

When people think about climate change and water conservation, they often don’t calculate the potential damage brought about by droughts. This can pose a serious risk to commercial property. In fact, droughts are second only to hurricanes when it comes to the most costly weather-related events. Unlike with other natural disasters, it’s incredibly difficult to predict when a drought will begin or end, meaning it’s much harder to prepare in advance.

The risk to commercial buildings imposed by droughts varies depending on soil composition in a particular spot. For example, Texas soil is primarily composed of clay. When a drought occurs, water is drained from the soil causing it to shrink around buildings and other structures. This results in uneven settling and can cause damage to a building’s foundation. It may not be obvious at first, but eventually the foundation may reveal signs of cracking. Any compromise to the foundation of a building can also later result in damaged pipes, sloping floors, warped windows and door openings, and more.

What does the future hold for water management? 

Water management is changing from year to year, as the impact of climate change continues to grow. Regulation will only become more rigid as governments around the world act to help preserve the planet. It’s not only the responsibility of the commercial sector to do their part by curbing water wastage, it is good for business. Not only will they save money, but they make their facilities and buildings more appealing to today’s eco-conscious business tenants.

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