Even though about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, less than 1% is available for human use, and despite the water supply and infrastructure challenges faced by many communities across the U.S., Americans use an average of 88 gallons of water each day at home. Water managers in at least 40 states expect local, statewide and even regional water shortages to occur over the next several years.
What is WaterSense?
WaterSense, a voluntary partnership program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is both a label for water-efficient products and a resource for helping homeowners save water.
The label makes it simple to find water-efficient products, new homes and programs that meet EPA’s criteria for efficiency and performance. This program costs the EPA approximately $3 million a year to administer and has delivered more than $33 billion to consumers in water and energy bill savings, according to the EPA WaterSense website. WaterSense products use 20% less water than plumbing products meeting the required federal standards.
In April, WaterSense was one of the programs slated for elimination under EPA’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018. Multiple organizations urged the EPA to preserve and maintain the program, and in August the bipartisan Water Efficiency Improvement Act of 2017 was introduced by Senators Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. The legislation would formally authorize the program.
Both the International Code Council (ICC) and Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI) expressed its support of the act.
“Installing water-efficient plumbing products saves water and reduces strain on water resources, energy and infrastructure,” PMI CEO and Executive Director Kerry Stackpole says. “PMI and its members appreciate Senators Udall and Portman for spearheading this important legislation, which will improve our nation’s water efficiency. We look forward to working together on its swift passage.”
PMI, its member companies and industry allies — including the Plumbing Industry Leadership Coalition — have been working in a coordinated fashion with various Congressional committees and subcommittees to develop legislative, report and budget language calling for the preservation and authorization of the WaterSense program. For example, the House Appropriations Committee approved the FY18 Interior/EPA budget bill, which included subcommittee report language rejecting the elimination of the WaterSense program.
“In concert with our members, partners and others, the Code Council has actively engaged with Congressional leaders to support the authorization of this important program,” says ICC Chief Executive Officer Dominic Sims, CBO. “WaterSense is a great example of how government and industry can come together to support water conservation efforts.”
Stackpole notes the WaterSense program also encourages innovation and promotes growth in manufacturing — an important economic goal.
“WaterSense is win-win-win — for water savings, for consumers and for manufacturers,” he says.
Bill Strang, president of operations and ecommerce for TOTO, recalls how WaterSense first began.
“WaterSense reached out to advocacy groups — they reached out to non-profits,” Strang says. “They reached out to manufacturers, to Home Depot and the sellers, and had a very good dialogue to develop a standard that met the rigor of a water-reduction opportunity to reduce impact yet still was able to be, No. 1, achieved by manufacturers and, No. 2, accepted by all the non-governmental organizations and the advocacy groups as a great opportunity to further reduce consumption.”
LEED certification is another benefit to many water-conserving products.
“In the water-efficiency category of new construction, one LEED point is credited for a 20% reduction in interior aggregate water consumption versus standard fixture requirements,” Moen Bath Product Senior Product Manager Mike Reffner says. “Two LEED points are credited for achievement of a 30% reduction.”
Water conservation has become more of a necessity than a “trend” as people have realized the need to conserve, notes Carl Wehmeyer, executive vice president at Niagara Conservation.
“With ever-evolving technology making it easier to have everyday items that help with water conservation, we put efforts in promoting water conservation with education through different campaigns,” Wehmeyer says. “Given the demand to conserve water, it has become more of a lifestyle need rather than a trend. As more individuals begin to realize how important water conservation is, this industry is expected to make great strides.”
Having a certification program for products that help save water is beneficial to the person selling the product as well as the person buying it.
“It makes our job easier when talking to homeowners about water conservation,” says Roger Wakefield, LEED AP, founder and Responsible Master Plumber at Texas Green Plumbing. “The EPA has done a great job about getting the information out there for the public to see. More than 90% of the fixtures we sell or install have the WaterSense label. Most of these products are for bathroom use because that is where the most water in the home is used. However, I think the water issue is going to get much worse before it gets better.
“With water being as inexpensive as it is, most people don’t worry about it,” Wakefield continues. “I feel that we should raise the price of water enough so the impact of using water will affect their water bills and cause people to think about it when they use it.”
Doing more with less
The industry has come a long way from when 5 or 3.5 gallons of water was used to flush a toilet.
“You would not have to worry about characteristics of hydrodynamic flow rates and how water flows because you had so much water going down that it would just push everything through the toilet,” Strang says. “As you further reduce the water consumption, you’re now getting into an understanding of how water works, the hydrodynamic characteristics of water and how it flows, both kinetic and potential energy. And we must be very frugal about how we manage that potential and kinetic energy to allow it to be most effective in No. 1, rinsing the bowl, and No. 2, removing all the waste into the trapway and then down the sewer line effectively with only 1 gallon of water.
“And so what that meant was that we needed to be very, very good at managing the engineering of water science,” Strang continues. “And we have gotten quite good at that — so good, in fact, that we now have hydrodynamic characteristics in both toilets and urinals that actually are referred to as biomimicry.”
Plumbing professionals are starting to expect water-saving options in most product mixes.
“Whether they’re in a state that currently requires it or somewhere else, they know it’s inevitable that it will become a mandate across the country at some point soon,” Danze Senior Product Manager Katie Hayes says. “In bath faucets, especially, professionals can really see that water savings doesn’t equate to poor performance.”
“As the population continues to grow, it is important that we work together to conserve this natural resource,” Jacuzzi Luxury Bath Vice President of Business Development Dean Francola says. “We are seeing more integration of technology in products to improve performance while conserving water.”
The shower has seen a lot of new technology that both directly and indirectly help save water. There are devices that allow for increased pressure with less water, as well products with Bluetooth technology that allows a homeowner to pause a shower at a desired temperature and not waste additional water while waiting for it heat.
“Showerheads are probably one of the largest opportunities to take advantage of technology in the world of plumbing products,” Hayes says. “Danze has several proprietary technologies that help maximize performance, even at lower water pressure or flow rates. Specifically, several of our showerheads feature our air-injection technology — the construction of the showerhead helps inject air bubbles into the water stream so that water intensity is maximized.”
“A self-pressurized system that channels water and provides even water flow and pressure across the spray face provides consumers with a powerful spray, no matter the angle of the showerhead, while still conserving water,” Reffner says.
In general, the market is demanding high-performing showers in a wide variety of spray-face sizes and styles. However, as flow rates have been reduced in the U.S., many sustainably focused showerheads on the market have been homogenized, Hansgrohe USA Director of Product Development and R&D Ryan Ramaker says.
“We are seeing that there is a shortage of shower solution options that satisfy both market demands,” he says. “When we updated our current shower offering to meet the latest Title 20 requirements, we were unwilling to sacrifice on performance. Our work was simply not to add flow restrictors to these products. Rather, we re-engineered them to optimize the flow at lower rates. Unique air injection technology delivers water savings at nearly 60% less water than conventional products. Air is infused in each of the water droplets, creating the sensation of being covered with more water than is actually being used.”
WaterSense does not have guidelines for kitchen faucets. Kitchen faucets account for approximately 1% of daily home water usage, and unlike a shower or toilet, people tend not to waste a lot of water near a kitchen sink, as water is for washing hands, filling a pot, quick cleaning, or food prep. WaterSense has yet to adopt a national standard for them, as the program balances water savings with practical consumer use and comfort.
However, California and other areas have adopted water-savings measures in the kitchen due to drought conditions and the need for forward-thinking use of the limited resource.
“We have been on the forefront in this area and have been converting and even launching new products with 20-30% savings,” Blanco Director of Marketing Tim Maicher says. “While we meet all low-flow requirements, Blanco has also focused on delivering maximum performance so that consumers can effectively enjoy the everyday use of their kitchen as well as save water.”
Most often, customers see the benefit of changing products when told they can save at least 20% on their water usage, Wakefield notes.
“I also like to explain that by using the WaterSense products, they are also saving on their energy costs because they have less water to heat up,” he says. “There is nothing more effective that showing people that you can save them money. That brings value to these products. Most people want to be ‘green’ but they don’t want it to cost extra or be inconvenient. The technology behind WaterSense products make this possible.”
It is not enough to be saving water, however — the plumbing fixtures must also provide safe water.
“In too many scenarios, poor plumbing leads not only to excess water being used but to bacteria building up in the pipes and behind walls, leading to mold and bacteria that could get into the water,” Hastings Tile & Bath Director of Bath Products Bob Gifford says. “An ‘in-wall’ shower system offers a number of extremely important benefits, but the two most important are moisture control and mold prevention.”
“Water conservation is not a fad — it is a way of life for us at Sloan and for the industry in general,” Sloan Global Regulatory Manager of Design Engineering Mariana Nicolae says. “Saving our precious natural resource whenever possible is simply the right thing to do. New technologies would emerge in the near future not only to save the water, but also to save the planet in general.”
Saving water in the future
National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) Board Member Steve Petock, senior vice president — business development at Ferguson, and Ferguson’s product strategy team list that in the last decade, the EPA’s WaterSense program helped transform water efficiency and save more than 2.1 trillion gallons of water through 2016. In 2016 alone, WaterSense plumbing products helped save 534 billion gallons of water.
“We expect a continued reduction in faucet flow and water usage for toilets in the coming years,” he says. “Most toilet manufacturers offer 1.28 gpf models as standard, and some offer 1.0 gpf and 0.8 gpf while maintaining flushing performance. Surface engineering and flush technology have led to improved performance with these reductions.”
“Codes here become stricter every year, as Southern California is basically a desert,” Victoria + Albert Product Development Manager Tom Burke said. “The growing trend is water-conserving products that perform with the lower water flow and are still cutting-edge in their designs. It can’t look basic or generic. All our faucets are made in England, yet we have invested in the technology to make sure they comply with U.S. guidelines.”
“The industry has to continue to evolve and find ways to conserve water,” Burke adds. “As climate chnge continues and the world population grows, water is only becoming more precious. One of the ways to mitigate shortages is to be as efficient as possible. The more products that are available and the better they perform, the easier that will be. This applies to commercial and hospitality applications and irrigation, as well.”
Water-saving bath fixtures and faucets are continuing to grow in popularity, especially as more states enact water-saving restrictions to address drought conditions around the country, says Gray Uhl, director of brand education for the LIXIL brands American Standard, DXV and GROHE.
“Incorporating ‘intelligent water’ into the home is the next step for us as it relates to water conservation,” he says. “As we continue to focus on the pillars of quality, design, technology and function, we are pioneering technologies that will deliver real-time, actionable data to help homeowners improve efficiencies and water conservation efforts.
“Given that more regions of the country are experiencing intermittent droughts, and that an increased number of homeowners are aware that using water-conserving products does not sacrifice strong performance, we feel that high-efficiency toilets, faucets and showerheads will become more mainstream in both residential and commercial applications, both in new-construction specifications as well as in personal remodeling projects.”
There is a physical limit to how little water plumbing fixtures can use while still being able to safely and consistently remove sanitary waste from buildings.
“Studies suggest we are approaching that limit, especially with toilets,” Kohler Co. Director of WASH and Sustainability Rob Zimmerman says. “If we want to continue to drive efficiency, water reuse and alternate supplies — such as recycled wastewater, graywater and rainwater — are critical. Proper use of these sources requires new plumbing codes and standards, as well as new expertise in the trades. Much of this work is ongoing today, and we are seeing these types of installations become much more common.
“All of us in the plumbing industry need to continue to be the voice for more sustainable use of water in our communities. For manufacturers like Kohler, it means innovating products and services that deliver performance with lower environmental costs. Ideally, it means creating products that are restorative to the environment and human wellbeing. Our first responsibility is public health and safety. We believe it’s possible for the plumbing industry to find the right balance between water efficiency, system performance, public health and economic sustainability.”
Strang believes water will be the oil of the past century.
“Eventually, water will be the troubling resource for the future of our world,” he says. “Water’s a very precious resource. The availability of fresh, potable water is sometimes limited. Often, it is contaminated; even the water that you may be drinking today has traces of pharmaceuticals, traces of other materials in it and other bacteria and viruses. It’s important that we have the opportunity to reduce as much as possible — to try to conserve and reduce the overall consumption, not only from a water standpoint but also the double-positive of also reducing the energy impact.”