The 2011 and 2012 droughts across much of the United States may be a harbinger of things to come, and "evidence is showing that many parts of the country may continue to experience moderate to severe drought in 2013 and possibly for several additional years," the Denver-based American Water Works Association reported.
If that wasn’t scary enough, in December some 61.9 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in moderate to exceptional drought conditions, up from 28.2 percent a year ago, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a daily survey produced by a group of academic and government organizations.
I would guess it’s time we all turned our attention to saving water at our places of residence, which I feel some of us — but not enough! — are already doing. However, the big flaw in trying to target the single-family homeowner is that so many of us live in multifamily dwellings, either apartments or condominiums.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its WaterSense program at the end of 2009 it focused on new single-family residences. After watching the program slowly taking root, on Jan. 1 the EPA launched a similar labeling guidance program for new multifamily buildings.
Like the better-known and two-decade-old Energy Star standards program for energy efficiency, WaterSense is trying to do the same in regard to water use efficiency.
"We are similar to Energy Star," said Alicia Marrs, marketing partnership and outreach coordinator for WaterSense. "The WaterSense label helps consumers identify products and services that are water-efficient and high-performing."
In regard to saving water, better performance has always been an issue, especially for those of us who remember the low-flow toilets that needed to be flushed about a dozen times to work, and thus wasted more water than saved.
Products with the WaterSense label are independently tested, and "WaterSense really stands behind the performance aspect," Marrs said.
Since WaterSense was conceived back in 2006, it has helped consumers save 287 billion gallons of water and more than $4.7 billion in water and energy bills. Those are both significant numbers considering the program targeting new multifamily homes has barely lifted off the ground.
"We had a bit of bad luck," Marrs admitted. "When we launched the single-family program at the end of 2009, the new-homes market was completely tanking. Three years later, the number of homes that carry the WaterSense label are in the 200 range."
It’s time to get everyone turned around since so many of us not only live in drought-affected states but are experiencing higher costs for water.
According to a USA Today report from last year, the cost of water doubled in more than a quarter of the 100 locations in its study and tripled in three municipalities: Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, Del.
The price of water is increasing — sometimes dramatically — throughout the world, Edwin Clark wrote in a recent Earth Policy Institute report. "Over the past five years, municipal water rates have increased by an average of 27 percent in the United States, 45 percent in Australia and 58 percent in Canada."
All something to think about as the average American household consumes about 127,400 gallons of water a year, according to The Water Information Program website.
That’s why WaterSense is important.
WaterSense products are already identified with almost anything in the bathroom, from the toilet to shower heads to faucets, but there are also WaterSense labels for irrigation outside the home, where huge amounts of water are often wasted.
WaterSense also works in conjunction with Energy Star on some appliances such as washing machines and dishwaters that run a high volume of water.
"If a product has the WaterSense label, it means it was built or constructed to be at least 20 percent more efficient than the standard product — and also tested and certified for performance," Marrs said. "Oftentimes, it’s more than 20 percent efficient."
Occupants of a rental may not be paying for water directly, so they may not have monetary incentive to be water efficient, but more and more do pay for utilities, and the thing to remember about water is that saving it generally saves energy as well. Heating water is typically the second-largest use of energy in a residence.
"One of the nicest aspects of a new-home certification is that we do have a requirement for hot-water delivery systems," Marrs said. "What that means is the homeowner or occupant won’t be waiting forever watching the water run down the drain while waiting for it to get hot."
For a multifamily development to get a WaterSense label, there is more to it than faucets and hot-water delivery systems. The landscaped area needs to be addressed as well as the pool and communal laundry facilities. In addition, one of the requirements of the builder is to give each occupant a homeowner’s manual that explains the water-efficient benefits of their home and how they can be maintained over time. Someone else also gets a manual: the building manager.
The WaterSense new-home specification is primarily geared to new multifamily development because the whole project is required to install the new hot-water delivery systems, and that is really hard to do for an older project unless the owners do a total rehab. Nevertheless, Marrs said, "Building managers can really up the performance of their buildings by retrofitting to include WaterSense-labeled product in all bathroom installations."
Developers of urban infill projects have taken up the WaterSense cause, Marrs said, because there are many green-build programs going on with urban infill.
Although not everyone is a homeowner, it doesn’t mean that water savings should not be an issue for everyone.
We can’t do anything about the weather and the conditions that make for drought, but we can use less water. It makes sense — WaterSense.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "The Death of Johnny Ace," is now available for sale on Amazon.
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