When it comes to water, it feels like a whole new era is upon us. The western half of the U.S. — and California, specifically — are awash with water. After nearly five years of drought, we can honestly say water is just about everywhere.

While the focus is primarily on California, the facts below reflect what has been happening in many areas of the West:

  • As of Feb. 6, 2017, the National Weather Service reports that California has recorded 15.44 inches of rain. This is about one inch more water than the state receives normally, which typically means a wet, one-year period;

  • Rainfall and snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Region, where most of California’s drinking water comes from, is a full 73 inches above normal;

  • Most parts of Northern California up to coastal Oregon, which have been classified as being in severe drought conditions for the last four years, are no longer listed as drought areas; and

  • As of January 2017, it was reported that as much as 350 billion gallons of water have poured into California’s largest reservoirs, exceeding levels not seen in years.

With all this great news, it’s easy to see why some building owners and managers may now put water efficiency efforts on a back burner. Why save water when we have so much?

Well, these owners/managers may be making assumptions that just do not hold up to scrutiny. California and much of the West have a drought, of varying levels, about every 15 to 20 years. This precedent is likely to continue and may be more frequent in years to come due to climate change.

With each decade of experience, we get better at dealing with droughts. In fact, the 1976-1978 drought changed the minds of public officials. They realized “grinning and bearing” it was simply no longer going to work, especially as California grew in population as well as in economic prowess.

As a result, several steps were taken to make the state more water efficient, improve water storage and infrastructure, and “spread the pain” — if one section of California was water short, another area that was plentiful could step in and help.

And, this has certainly paid off. In the 1976-1978 drought, portions of California were on their knees in just one year. In some areas, residents and businesses had to cut back on consumption by more than 60% until rainfall returned in 1978. But, look what happened recently.

This past drought was as bad as, if not worse than, the late 1970s drought, yet it was not until the last year of the recent drought that restrictions were imposed. This time, the state was better prepared to weather the drought for two key reasons:

  1. On a state level, water was better managed and new technologies have been introduced that help consumers and businesses use water much more efficiently; and

  2. Building owners and managers also took advantage of these new technologies.

It is for this second reason that plumbing professionals must keep steering their customers forward, ensuring the water efficiency momentum continues. We see how it has already paid off and, along with better water management measures, will likely pay off even more in the future.


Defining a drought

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, a drought is a period of drier-than-normal conditions that results in water-related problems. This happens when rainfall is less than normal for several weeks, months or years. Water levels in lakes and reservoirs fall and the depth to water in wells increase. If dry weather persists and water supply problems develop, the dry period becomes a drought.


What plumbers can learn from cemeteries

Unless located in an urban area, most public and private buildings are landscaped. This is important because in these types of settings most of the water consumed is for irrigation.

In fact, it might be helpful for plumbing professionals to learn how some cemeteries around the country are taking steps to reduce water consumption. Cemeteries market themselves by being very lush and green. Because of this, they take steps to stay as attractive as possible while still using water efficiently.

Plumbing professionals would be wise to learn some of these outdoor water strategies to be able to guide customers:

  • Catalog all the vegetation growing in the cemetery. Then, determine which plants/vegetation can be replaced with native plants and drought-tolerant grasses that use less water;

  • Analyze the land layout. Higher areas will likely need more water while lower areas may require less because of water runoff;

  • Switch to recycled water. This typically requires treated wastewater to be delivered to cemeteries and plumbing professionals to convert irrigation systems so they can access this water;

  • Irrigate only at night; and

  • Use water meters and install water sensors that can help determine if irrigation is even needed.

However, if a facility is not landscaped, plumbing professionals should then focus on restrooms. This is where the most water is consumed in these facilities. Plumbing professionals are well aware of how valuable aerators in faucets are in reducing water consumption.

Staying up to date with toilets is another matter. For instance, as a result of the drought, California now requires that new urinals consume half a gallon of water per flush, which is less than half of what is federally regulated. But, this regulation has had implications beyond what the state expected.

Because these new urinals must still be plumbed, have flush devices (usually sensor-controlled), and contain all the conventional components of a water-using urinal, owners/managers have gone a step further and more are installing no-water urinals. Ultimately, this decision is based on cost savings, but it cannot be denied the no-water systems reduce water consumption significantly.

As for toilets, plumbing pros should know the two big advances are dual-flush toilets and, even better, toilets that think. Dual-flush toilets use on average 1.25 gallons of water per flush, down from the 1.6 required. Some now also have sensors that determine which type of flush is needed — to remove liquid waste or solid waste. They do this depending on how long the toilet has been used. More than 60 seconds usually tells the sensor a bigger flush is needed.


Determining water waste

Most of this discussion has been on ways plumbing professionals can help customers use water more efficiently. However, the other side of the coin is taking steps to reduce water waste.

A water audit is used to determine exactly where water is being used and, more importantly, where it is being wasted. The key steps in a water audit are:

  • Gather 24 months of water bills; these will tell us how much water is being used and provide a benchmark.

  • Conduct a walk-through of the building with plumbing plans in hand; locate pipes, fixtures, and other water-using and water-removing systems.

  • In the walk-through process, look for leaks. Check if pipes are damp or if you can see a leak. Also, determine if there are leaks around such areas as toilets, urinals and sinks.

  • Ask why water is being used in an area. For instance, water audits in manufacturing facilities often locate areas where water is being used, but the reasons for this are long gone many times due to change in the manufacturing process.


Trump and water

The jury is still out as far as what steps President Trump will take when it comes to water. Via executive orders, he has reversed many of President Obama’s policies designed to protect some waterways and has also opened the door for private companies to dig further and in more areas in search of water, especially in the West. As of now, however, water efficiency and steps to reduce water consumption do not appear to be on the agenda.


Final thought

One thing plumbing professionals will likely need to know after they find ways in which water consumption can be reduced or where water is being wasted is where to start.

It typically is best to take a three-bucket approach. In the first bucket, fill it with items that can be addressed now and inexpensively — install aerators, for instance. The next bucket is for items that can be addressed over the next 12-15 months and have average costs, such as installing new toilets and urinals. The third bucket is for the big-ticket items, such as changing cooling systems so that they use less water.

Knowing where and how to cut water waste can help a plumbing professional stand out in his or her profession, especially in areas where water is a scarce resource.