As it turns out, the much maligned 1.6 gpf water closet has been a major factor in continuing to make this taken-for-granted scenario possible, according to a recent industry report on water usage throughout the nation. Just who would have thought that the two gallons of water saved per flush could postpone or avoid almost a quarter of a trillion dollars worth of public works projects needed to ensure our country’s supply of safe drinking water?

“Making efficient use of water also means making efficient use of the dollars needed to pump, transport, treat and distribute drinking water, together with the dollars needed to collect and treat the resulting wastewater,” the report concludes. “Water may be abundant in many areas, but dollars for water and wastewater infrastructure can be scarce in all 50 states.”

The report, Saving Water, Saving Dollars: Efficient Plumbing Products and the Protection of America’s Waters, was written by Edward Osaan and John Young, analysts on natural resource issues. The study was funded by the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute, the California Urban Water Conservation Council and the Water Conservation Coalition of Puget Sound.

As the report makes clear, the amount of water we consume is doubly important since it affects the cost of water and sewer service. Currently, Americans spend about $50 billion annually on residential water and sewer bills, and an additional $16 billion on the cost of energy to heat domestic hot water.

“Further increases are in the offing,” the report says. “New capital improvements will play a major role in driving water and wastewater costs up further. Both new and existing water supplies must now be treated to more exacting standards than ever, often necessitating treatment works to be upgraded.”

Overall, the amount of water withdrawn from sources such as rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers for public water supply purposes nearly tripled from 1950 to 1995. To keep pace with demand, communities around the country will face a double whammy — most communities have already developed their least expensive sources of drinking water, and wastewater treatment plants, once widely supported by grants from the federal government, is now primarily a state and local responsibility.

The report outlines the sorry state of much of this country’s water and wastewater treatment facilities. Two recent studies put the price tag for protecting public health and meeting further consumer demand at nearly $280 billion dollars over the next 20 years.

“Can any of these costs be reduced or postponed by water conservation programs?” the report asks. “ ... the answer will depend on the site-specific analysis of particular needs. But scores of communities of different sizes, physical characteristics and geographic locations are finding that the answer is yes.”

To put this in better perspective, take a look at what’s going on in Iowa City, Iowa, where the city’s 116–year–old water treatment plant will soon be replaced by a new $50 million plant. In the meantime, new federal water quality regulations required operational changes that essentially cut the aging plant’s maximum capacity by 15 percent. Meanwhile, the city’s wastewater treatment facility is undergoing a $42 million expansion and upgrade.

Rates for water and sewer service have been raised 45 percent; 35 percent; and 25 percent, respectively, in each of the past three years — and they are projected to rise another 20 percent each year for the next three.

In essence, this college town of 61,000 needs to spend $92 million in capital improvements to its water and wastewater systems.

To manage the process better, the town started a water conservation program in 1994, with measures including leak detection services and water-saving tips broadcast on the town’s cable channel and Internet Web site. The results: Water use during the fiscal year ending in June 1993 averaged 6.7 million gallons per day; year-end use by 1997 dropped to 6.1 million gallons per day — even with more customers being served.

1.6 To The Rescue: Water-efficient plumbing products were also a part of Iowa City’s plan, as they are a major cornerstone of many other communities’ conservation initiatives highlighted in the report.

“As a result of uniform national efficiency standards, water-saving plumbing products are installed in every newly constructed building throughout the country, lowering utility bills and easing the demand that new development places on our communities’ existing infrastructure,” the report says. “As kitchens and bathrooms are remodeled and as worn-out fixtures are eventually replaced, efficient faucets, showerheads and water closets will reduce the water demand of our existing neighborhoods, and save consumers even more.”

In a typical single-family home, 80 percent of all indoor use is devoted to flushing water closets, taking showers, washing clothes and allowing fixtures to leak. Flushing toilets represent the single biggest such use.

“Without changing our lifestyle, the volume of water committed to each of these uses can be substantially reduced with water-efficient products on the market today,” the report adds.

By and large, 1.6 gpf water closets are the most substantial way to reduce water use. Here are some findings outlined in the report:

  • Interior water use savings of more than 15 percent have been documented by installing 1.6 gpf toilets alone.
  • The 25 million 1.6 gpf water closets installed to date save 29 gallons of water per day in single family homes and 48 gallons per day in apartment units.
  • Nationwide, 1.6 gpf toilets will be saving more than 2 billion gallons of water per day by 2010. That equals about 5 percent of the nation’s total intake of public water supply systems in 1995.
  • Other water-efficient plumbing products also play additional roles:
  • Conversion to efficient showerheads has been projected to save 2.2 gallons per capita per day in single-family homes.
  • Showerhead water savings is expected to reach 850 million gallons per day by 2010.
  • Water savings from residential faucets are expected to reach 240 gallons per day by 2010.
  • Good estimates for the projected water savings from urinals have yet to be published. But with some 200,000 water-saving urinals installed annually, water savings by 2010 could approach 1 billion gallons per day.
  • Energy savings resulting from using hot water more efficiently is expected to reach $1.9 billion per year by 2010 for the residential sector alone.

Beyond plumbing, new water-efficient clothes washers, just beginning to enter the market, will also cut water usage even further. In all, the report says water-efficient plumbing and clothes washers should cut water usage by more than 30 percent.