Answer The WaterSense Call
Benjamin H. Grumbles
Necessity is the mother of invention - but a little extra incentive never hurts either. WaterSense is providing that bit of incentive by raising consumer awareness about the need for water efficiency. Consumers, in turn, will drive a greater demand for innovation in water-saving technology. The Environmental Protection Agency created this partnership program in 2006 to protect the future of our nation’s water supply.
The EPA is partnering with manufacturers, plumbing product distributors, utilities and other key organizations to help transform the market for water-efficient products through a WaterSense label that is backed by third-party certification. WaterSense benefits all its partners in various ways and hinges on the idea that together we can create a public demand for water-efficient products and services, helping to save water while ensuring product performance.
This most recent push to change the plumbing and irrigation markets comes not a moment too soon. The need for water efficiency is paramount. Ask anyone who experienced the ongoing drought in the Southeast in 2007. Georgia and North Carolina logged their worst droughts in recorded history. According to a 2003 U.S. Government Accountability Office survey, the water problem is likely to persist. With at least 36 states anticipating some degree of water shortages by 2013, even under nondrought conditions, necessity is in fact knocking at the door.
The WaterSense program is now in its second year, and already the market has responded. The EPA designed the WaterSense label to identify water-efficient products. The WaterSense program’s labeled products are 20 percent more water-efficient than conventional models. To earn the label, all products must undergo rigorous testing by independent, third-party laboratories to confirm that they meet or outperform the agency’s efficiency and performance criteria.
As it turns out, a small nudge is all it took to open a floodgate of innovation in water-efficient manufacturing. WaterSense released its high-efficiency toilet specification in January 2007, and manufacturers have responded in a resounding way. More than 100 models of toilets have already earned the WaterSense label. A lavatory sink faucet specification was released in October 2007, which means labeled faucets and aerators are on the horizon. The EPA issued a notification of intent to develop a high-efficiency showerhead specification, so WaterSense-labeled showerheads may be on the way, too.
The EPA wants to attract the public’s attention to the merits of water efficiency. We know that water-efficient products help preserve water for our communities, and we want to spread the word. Accomplishing this feat requires: 1) educating the public about the urgency for using water more efficiently; and 2) educating the public about WaterSense, which identifies products and services that meet the EPA’s testing criteria.
The Right DirectionUnfortunately, there are some patches of rough water to navigate. Misgivings about water-efficient plumbing are widespread, in large part due to problems with the infamous first-generation “low-flow” toilets from the early 1990s. Some consumers complained that the toilets clogged too often, needed several flushes to clear the bowl, or caused problems with their home plumbing.
Although later generations of water-saving toilets have resolved such issues, misconceptions have persisted and kept many consumers from saving both water and money. Consumers and other buyers also might not understand the need for saving water. They may live in a region of the country less affected by water shortages, such as in the Northeast. And still others simply might not know where to start.
To clarify existing misperceptions, WaterSense set stringent criteria for toilets to earn the label. A fixed amount of waste must be cleared from the bowl, and the waste also must completely clear the fixture. The EPA conducted separate testing to make sure the waste also moved a sufficient distance down the drain line so as not to cause clogging. The WaterSense clearance tests and criteria were developed based on the Maximum Performance testing protocol, which was designed by a consortium of water utilities and manufacturers to address performance concerns.
In establishing the WaterSense label, the EPA created a process for third-party testing and certification of products to determine which ones qualify for the label. Manufacturers agree to have their products tested by one of five independent, third-party certification bodies, accredited by the American National Standards Institute, to determine if they conform to the specification. The certification bodies also monitor quality practices at manufacturing sites and police the label in the marketplace. Finally, ANSI oversees the capability and competence of the certification bodies and ensures compliance with international guidelines on product certification.
If Americans can become more water-efficient through these measures, the savings will add up. In fact, if just 10 percent of U.S. homes were retrofitted with water-efficient toilets, faucets, showerheads and irrigation controllers, we would save approximately 150 billion gallons of water annually, enough to supply 1.5 million households for a year.
In The PipelineWaterSense is encouraging manufacturing innovation across all water-using products, first in residential settings, then in commercial and institutional sectors. It’s no accident that the program started with toilets. These fixtures account for nearly one-third of residential indoor water use. WaterSense is strategically reviewing products and their markets, developing specifications through a thorough review process, and challenging the industry to meet more rigorous testing criteria and to develop protocols.
The process to develop these specifications - the criteria that products must meet to earn the label - involves working closely with industry stakeholders. WaterSense holds public meetings and seeks comments from all interested parties on our specifications and future action. Where appropriate, the EPA also works with existing consensus processes to develop specifications, such as the approach used by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Joint Harmonization Task Force on plumbing products and the Irrigation Association’s Smart Water Application Technologies committee on irrigation products.
Earning the WaterSense label is an incentive that is steering manufacturers in a more water-conscious direction and, together with other partners, they are collaborating to smooth the market for water-using devices and work with the EPA on specification development.