I was surfing the Internet for data that I could use for one of my columns when I wandered onto a kind of eco-home blog site. I probably wouldn’t have given it much attention, but it mentioned the big homebuilder, Pulte Homes Corp., was constructing water-efficient homes in Las Vegas.
I know that scintillating subject might put you all right to sleep, but I live in Arizona and those kinds of things interest me. I mean, as I drive around the Phoenix metro area and I see (or I did at one time) new neighborhoods going up, I always wonder if builders are just erecting the same old crap or whether they’ve taken the time to design a home that fits the desert’s harsh, arid environment.
As it turned out, Pulte was building just 20 homes as part of an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-sponsored WaterSmart home study, but that was OK because it told me the government was taking an interest in water-efficient construction and that a homebuilder was also leaning in this direction.
Supposedly, the information gleaned from monitoring these homes would help set a benchmark of how newer, high-efficiency homes with water-saving features contrast with standard homes built over the past decade.
This is important because, as I was to learn, "new" American homes over the past decade have actually gotten more thirsty, gobbling up even more water than the "new" homes of the prior generation, which seemed extraordinarily incongruous considering the advancement in water-efficient household items like washing machines and showerheads.
For the answer to this paradox, I turned to Doug Bennett, conservation manager with the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas, whose organization took part in the EPA study that determined American households were going the wrong way on water issues.
"We did a study of nine cities, including places in Florida — which gets plenty of water — and in seven of those cities, new homes were using substantially more water than the new homes that preceded them," Bennett said, "and today we have much more efficient toilets, dishwashers, washing machines and plumbing fixtures."
Surprisingly, the main culprit is sprinkler systems for landscaping.
Builders can impact 30 percent of water usage, all inside the home, said Robert Broad, director of purchasing for Pulte Homes in Las Vegas. "Sixty percent to 70 percent of all home water usage is external."
Bennett added, "All these great plumbing features we were putting in were just being completely dwarfed by the demand for sprinkler systems."
Until the past decade, few if any new homes came with sprinkler systems. Now, however, sprinkler systems are becoming an expected necessity in a new home, just like appliances. The trouble is, people don’t use sprinklers properly, because they have a tendency to overwater.
"Sprinklers are now being installed in places where historically people would just let the rain water the lawns," Bennett said.
I know at my house, my lawn guy loves to pump up the sprinkler minutes, because a greener lawn makes him look like a hero. We’re always turning back his clock.
Here’s another interesting note: The greatest amount of water is wasted in the autumn, and that’s because people are slow to turn down lawn watering times even after the summer months have long departed.
The WaterSmart homes Pulte built in Las Vegas combat this problem with landscape irrigation control units, which can be programmed for different types of shrubbery, soil and model of sprinkler. The homes also have a water usage monitor, which can send text or email alerts to notify users of plumbing malfunctions.
Pulte also realigned the plumbing network in and around the homes using cross-linked polyethylene, or PEX, so hot water is delivered quicker. The company uses a host of water-efficient appliances, some of which are already common in Pulte’s new homes, such as high-efficiency toilets and showerheads.
Water efficiency programs, appliances and other devices can be introduced quickly or slowly into the market, but speed really depends on the consumer. If consumers feel they are giving up too much, they reject technological advances. Secondly, if they feel they are paying extra for something they can work around, they also decline the items or programs.
"It’s true there’s a lot of new technology out there, but homebuilders can’t get too far ahead of the curve," Broad said. "We can’t give things away, which would put us at a competitive disadvantage, so we try to find as many win-win situations as possible."
Some new technologies don’t make economic sense. For example, in Las Vegas Pulte installed leak-detection devices, but since so few houses spring leaks it would be an embedded item that people wouldn’t really want to pay for. (I, however, could use one of those, as my sprinkler system goes pop — and geysers erupt — much too often.)
These new programs do work. As Bennett pointed out, the WaterSmart homes used half as much water as those new homes of preceding years, including those that were built just the year before.
I ask Bennett, what the — pardon the pun — landscape was for water efficiency in the years ahead.
He said, "We are making progress. National code developers are starting to move in the direction of greener measures for commercial and residential buildings; WaterSense programs have standards for showerheads and faucets; more efficient appliances such as toilets have become mainstream; and the International Code Council is moving in a green direction."
In Arizona, Nevada and other Southwestern states, we are all moving in a "brown" direction. Turf front yards are banned in many desert locales, with recommendations for landscaping with native plants.
"Whether consumers choose turf or desert landscaping actually has a greater impact than what we as builders are doing inside the house," Broad said.