Minimum effort, maximum benefit

By David Kachurak

It used to be that conservation and sustainability efforts were zeroed in on energy and the ways to reduce using it. Today, with the cost of water steadily on the rise and the calls for increased conservation growing louder, many are expanding sustainability efforts to more consciously incorporate water.

Water, you could say, is the new energy when it comes to sustainability. The American Water Works Association reports that water and wastewater rate increases outpaced changes to the consumer price index almost every year between 1998 and 2014, the most recent year for which data were available — sometimes at a ratio of more than five to one. 

As businesses and individuals look for ways to reduce consumption, there are some obvious high-volume culprits such as irrigation and heating and cooling systems. But facilities shouldn’t overlook some of the small but often impactful ways to reduce consumption — simple changes that can cost as little as $15 but save thousands. According to the EPA, an overwhelming 83 percent of water usage in restaurants  occurs in the kitchen and restroom. Those hot spots also combine for half of water usage in office buildings and 42 percent of water usage in hospitals. About 25 percent of water in grocery stores is used in kitchens and bathrooms, according to the Alliance for Water Efficiency. The first step to reducing water use is understanding how water is being used in the first place. 

Plumbing manufacturer T&S Brass has conducted water audits at hundreds of restaurants and supermarkets to help operators evaluate their water usage and ways to reduce it. Most people don’t realize how much water is going needlessly down the drain until the numbers are in front of them. A handwash sink without an aerator may be flowing at excessive rates, in some cases as much as eight gallons of water per minute. As facility sewer costs are directly tied to water usage, the financial impact of reduced consumption is magnified beyond simple water savings. Factor in the energy it takes to heat water, and the operator’s bottom line improves even more. 

Following are three low-cost places to look for potential water savings in a commercial facility’s kitchen and restroom areas.

Aerators

By reducing the flow of water from faucets, aerators are one of the best ways to create water and cost savings. The typical water flow rate for handwash sinks is 1.0 gpm, achieved with the installation of aerators. Unfortunately, these are sometimes removed under the assumption that more water is better. Vandal-resistant aerators are recommended to prevent tampering and maintain the integrity of the product. Plumbing advances also mean aerators available today can offer water flow lower than previously standard flow rates without diminishing performance. Lower-flow aerators can range from 1.5 gpm to 0.35 gpm, which are becoming the required standard in certain areas such as drought-stricken California.

An aerator change, which is inexpensive and simple to complete, can reduce water consumption by thousands of gallons and utility expenses by hundreds of dollars every year. For example, in a facility with 40 hand washes per day, at 30 seconds per wash, switching from a 2.2 gpm aerator to 0.5 gpm saves more than 12,000 gallons of water per year. An average-sized grocery store deli department can potentially save $700 annually in water, sewer and energy costs by switching to lower-flow aerators. It’s a return on investment that can be measured in days instead of years.

When considering this change, it’s imperative to understand how a faucet is used on a day-to-day basis. Is it a simple restroom sink? Low flow will not diminish performance and will decrease water use. In high use areas, proper selection of aerator flow rate is critical to ensure tasks can still be performed effectively. Going to the lowest possible flow rate available may not always be the right option for maintaining efficiency in the workplace.

Spray valves

Pre-rinse units are a crucial and heavily used tool in most kitchens. They can also be one of the biggest water users. Older spray valves can potentially use 4 gpm or more to clean and rinse dishes. Today’s spray valves use far less water and actually perform better, based on cleaning time tests, thanks to technological improvements.

In a high-capacity restaurant or supermarket chain, a spray valve may run regularly for as many as 10 to 12 hours a day.  Reducing spray valve water flow from 4 gpm to 0.65 gpm can save more than 235,000 gallons of water a year, based on three hours of use per day. At a casual dining restaurant, replacing older spray valves, which typically use about 4 gpm, with modern 1.07 gpm valves can save $1,000 annually per location. Multiplied by numerous locations, the potential savings can reach tens thousands of dollars annually. And in an average grocery department, going from 4 gpm to 1.07 gpm can save $5,700 in a year. 

Flow-control devices

In some facilities, notably health care, aerators are not preferred due to concerns over bacterial contamination, leading to increased water consumption. In situations where laminar or non-aerated flow restrictors are required, other flow-restricting devices are available and can be used to reduce water usage. Flow-control devices can be installed at the base of the faucet or spout to reduce annual water usage by up to 20 percent. These types of controls are also inherently vandal-resistant since they are installed inside the faucet body and are not easily accessible.

The key to capitalizing on this low-hanging fruit of water conservation is assessment. Many facility owners or operators may not be fully aware of their current water usage and existing issues, but a regular review of plumbing equipment should address some basic questions: How old is it? Is it functional? Are there leaks? Are better options available? Should it be replaced? When excessive water usage is taken into account, plumbing products may be a larger contributor to water consumption than they appear. 
Much as major building systems tend to undergo regular evaluation and maintenance, everyday plumbing fixtures should receive a periodic review of their status and functionality. With minimal expense and effort, there’s plenty of savings to be realized in places other than the HVAC or energy systems. 

David Kachurak is director of Key Accounts at T&S Brass and Bronze Works. Active member of ASPE, ASA and SWA, his particular areas of interest include business development, account management and sustainable product solutions.

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