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For the small number of green buildings saving water, hundreds of thousands of buildings are constructed with standard plumbing fixtures. Photo courtesy of ©


The green movement is killing water conservation. You read that right!This happens to be one of the unintended consequences of all the green codes and green ratings. It may appear strange, but when you follow the logic it makes sense.Up until 1992, the plumbing codes regulated water conservation. The codes lowered water flow rates and flushing volumes because it was the right thing to do. If you track the progress from 1980 to 1992, it is amazing how much water was saved by the plumbing code requirements. There will never be that amount of water savings again. When you go from 8.0 gpm down to 2.5 gpm, you just saved 5.5 gpm. You can’t save that much water when the flow rate is only 2.5 gpm. The same is true for flush volumes.The federal requirements for water conservation were good and bad. On the bad side, the law was pre-emptive. That meant plumbing codes could no longer regulate water conservation. Of course, this annoyed many involved in water conservation.What followed was the green movement. The first major player was the U.S. Green Building Council with its LEED program. Don’t get me wrong, LEED is a wonderful program. During this time, the federal government got involved with the Energy Star program. All of a sudden, plumbing fixtures could have an Energy Star rating. All they had to do was use less water.Finally, IAPMO and International Code Council developed green codes with water conservation playing an important role.After nearly 20 years of pre-emptive requirements, the feds finally removed the pre-emptive ruling. In other words, plumbing codes could now regulate the flow rates and flush volumes of plumbing fixtures provided the flow rates and flush volumes were less than the federal requirements. If you read the fine print of this change, any flow rate or flush volume must be done on a statewide basis. Changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction are not technically permitted.The problem with the feds removing the pre-emption is that it was too late. All the green initiatives were already in place. As a result, you get points or credit for being better than the federal requirements. If the plumbing codes lower the flow rates and flush volumes, the points and credit disappear.I know — it makes no sense — but that is how a voluntary program can screw up general plumbing code requirements.

A numbers game
First, look at it from a building owner and engineer’s perspective. If you install 1.28-gpf water closets, you instantly are credited with saving 20% of the water in the flush volume. If you install 0.5-gpf urinals, you instantly gain credit for saving 50% of the flush volume for a urinal. Similar savings are realized for lavatory faucets, kitchen faucets and similar fixtures. The end result is the building can be identified as green for all the savings obtained. Those savings are compared to what the plumbing code (and other codes) requires.
From a manufacturer’s perspective, if it produces a quality 1.28-gpf water closet, it can have the fixture listed as an Energy Star model. The water savings is 20% of the water closet. That is the basis for the Energy Star rating.
If the plumbing code lowers the flush volume to 1.28 gpf, the Energy Star rating disappears. To obtain an Energy Star rating, the flush volume would have to be reduced to 1.02 gpf.
In other words, we have created a vicious cycle whereby doing good in the plumbing code is punished by the ratings and green codes. Manufacturers, engineers and building owners involved in the green movement do not want to see the baseline requirements changed. That simply makes it more difficult to remain green in terms of the different organizations. This is what we refer to as “unintended consequences.”
At some of the recent code meetings, both Plumbing Manufacturers International and ASPE opposed changes to flush volumes and flow rates in the plumbing codes. Both organizations have been wonderful at promoting water conservation.
However, from a realistic standpoint both organizations have valid reasons for not supporting the lower flush volumes and flow rates. They use reasons such as freedom of choice and “let the customer decide,” when in reality they are thinking, “Stop messing with our ratings.” I get it and I don’t begrudge anyone opposed to a change in the plumbing code requirements. Rather, I’ll have to blame the green movement.
While the green movement has done a lot of good, this is one of the bad aspects of rating systems. They are too focused on a few buildings in the overall scheme of construction.
If the green movement would stop penalizing owners, engineers and manufacturers, there would be a whole lot more water conservation in the country. For the small number of green buildings saving water, hundreds of thousands of buildings are constructed with standard plumbing fixtures. In other words, we are not saving the water we could be saving. Just think of all the residential buildings being constructed with 1.6-gpf water closets as opposed to 1.28-gpf water closets.
Two groups fighting hard for water conservation are the National Resource Defense Council and the Alliance for Water Efficiency. Unfortunately, both groups are running up against the green backlash.
The green movement needs to stop issuing points and credits just to see lower numbers. If the plumbing code lowers the flush volumes and flow rates, consider that to be green. That is the way it always used to be.
It is time for everyone to pull their heads out of the sand and realize what is good for the country, not what is good for a particular organiza-tion.
Let the plumbing codes establish the “green” water conservation levels for flush volumes and flow rates.