Although roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface is water, less than 1% of it is available for direct human use — including irrigation, industry and domestic use. It is a precious resource and shouldn’t be wasted. Unfortunately, American homes use more than half of the publicly supplied water in the country, reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is significantly more than is used by either business or industry. In addition, the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a May 2014 freshwater report notes that water managers in 40 of 50 states expect water shortages in some portion of their states under average water conditions by 2023.

Plumbing contractors and engineers can help conserve water by recommending and designing water-efficient products to their customers. For example, toilets are one of the largest users of water inside a home or a business — and water-efficient toilets offer the biggest opportunity for savings. The more gal. per flush a toilet has, the more potential for higher water savings after replacement.

Replacing showerheads, faucets and urinals save even more water. “The United States can save three billion gallons of water a day by installing WaterSense-certified toilets, showers, faucets and urinals in place of fixtures manufactured before the 1994 implementation of the 1992 Energy Policy Act,” says Barbara C. Higgens, CEO and executive director of Plumbing Manufacturers International. “That’s more than a trillion gallons of water a year.”

As the country faces water supply challenges, it is more important than ever to use water efficiently, agrees Paul Patton, senior research and development/regulatory manager for Delta Faucet Co. “While taking shorter showers and turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth can help, you’ll see the biggest impact when you upgrade older fixtures to more efficient products,” he says. “The largest water savings for residential and consumer buildings comes from the installation of water-efficient products.”

Contractors play a key role in helping lead the transformation to a more water- and energy-efficient society, says Rob Zimmerman, senior channel manager of sustainability, Kohler Co. “Many professional organizations offer training classes that help contractors understand the latest codes, how installations can be improved and how to communicate the value of efficiency to their customers,” he remarks. “Efficiency is a trend that’s here to stay, so it’s good for businesses to be on the leading edge.”

Making the communities’ water supplies more resilient is something everyone has a role in, Zimmerman continues. “Kohler will continue to expand its offerings of water-efficient plumbing products across all styles and price points,” he says. “But those products only save water if they are installed. Everyone in California should be looking at all ways to reduce their water use this summer, including upgrading their homes and businesses.”

The adoption rate within the state of California is about 5.5%, says Bill Strang, president of operations for the Americas at Toto. “That means there are an awful lot of opportunities for changing to 1.28 gal. per flush toilets and even down to 1 gal. to reduce consumption in homes,” he notes. “We believe one of the very first and most economically applied opportunities for conservation is certainly looking at your products in the home.”


California’s conundrum

The sustained period of increasing drought has resulted in devastating conditions in California, but it is important to note that Californian’s are not alone in their water supply concerns, Patton notes. “The country as a whole is in the midst of one of the longest periods of drought on record, according to the Palmer Index,” he says. “With these conditions expected to continue, it is important for everyone to evaluate how they use water and do their part to conserve.”

As recently as April, California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. directed the first-ever statewide mandatory water reduction in Executive Order B-29-15. In order to comply with the order, the California Energy Commission enacted water efficiency standards that go beyond the EPA’s WaterSense program.

Regulators in California are in a difficult position, Zimmerman notes. “The drought and low level of snowpack in the Sierras almost guarantees this will be a challenging summer, and further regulation is likely,” he says. “I believe there is a great untapped opportunity to reduce urban water use by updating pre-1992 fixtures and faucets that are still in service.”

However, when it comes to flow rates, lower isn’t always better, Higgens explains.

“Using water efficiently is the key,” she says. “It’s not good enough to simply restrict the amount of water used. The idea is to get the same work done using less water. Low flow rates can cause showers and tooth brushing to last longer, and use more water, by making it take longer to rinse the shampoo from your hair and the toothpaste off your brush. Consumers need to step up and replace products installed before 1994 with more-efficient ones. Just as you wouldn’t be satisfied with 20-year-old telephone technology, you shouldn’t be satisfied with older plumbing products.”

Lancaster, Calif.-based Pace Setter Plumbing owner Arnie Rodio, who is the PHCC of California’s code chair, shares these concerns.

“Reducing water flow in toilets means treatment plants require additional water to process the sewage,” he says. “Sewer mains are plugging due to insufficient water moving the waste product, requiring hydro jetting to flush the lines. Cutting back on the cleaning ability of urinals and failing to adequately dilute urine leads to uric acid crystallization, stoppages and rotting of cast-iron waste lines. And lower-flow showerheads mean individuals will take longer showers in order to ‘get clean.’”


What is out there?

For those in California, options are available that go beyond WaterSense. The CEC has an appliance efficiency database online that contractors and homeowners alike can view.

“The No. 1 website in Southern California is,” says Julio Jaime, sales manager for the Roto Rooter in Mission Viejo, Calif., and PHCC of the Greater Los Angeles Area member. “You can get information on the latest rebate programs for plumbing fixtures. I check websites of all the local cities in my own coverage area to see what they are offering. I often find toilet exchange programs and retrofit programs for recycled water use and irrigation rebates. I also check with manufacturers of waterless fixtures that have commercial exchange programs.”

All water-efficient Delta kitchen faucets and toilets meet the new regulations and urinal options are also available. Kohler has a full line of toilets and showerheads that already comply with the California Green Building Code, as well as the new regulations passed in April. It also offers several models of urinals and flushometer valves that meet the 0.125 gpf requirement.

Toto has placed a list of all its products that meet the new regulations on its website. It is also marking product packaging with the state of California wrapped around a water drop to let contractors and consumers know those products meet CEC’s requirement for 2016.

In order to meet the new faucet requirement, plumbing manufacturers are in talks with aerator manufacturers. “We’re being told it’s probably going to be six months before the aerators have been designed and manufactured in significant enough quantities to make them available for use in our faucets,” Strang says. “This gives Toto a couple of months’ worth of transition time to convert our faucets over to 1.2 gal. and then allow them for sale in California.”

Regulators in other drought-prone areas are watching California to see how it works out.

Strict water-conservation measures could be an issue in places where salt water intrusion is becoming a real issue, Strang notes. Coastal cities are drawing so much water out of the aquafer, the wells are becoming brackish. Another challenge is infrastructure. Mandating the installation of water-conservation products will reduce overall consumption and take some of the burden off very old and somewhat delicate water delivery systems.

“When you start to see things like drought-shaming on Instagram and Twitter, it becomes very important that consumers have a chance to engage in a dialogue with their contractors,” he adds. “Plumbing contractors must be prepared to answer their questions. The best thing contractors and engineers can do right now is listen to the messages coming from the CEC and plumbing manufacturers and educate themselves on what the new water-conservation requirements are going to be, as well as what end-point products they need to bring to the marketplace.”

Are your customers interested in water conservation? What kind of water-saving services/products does your company provide? Tell us in the comments section below!


This article was originally titled “Every drop counts” in the July 2015 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.