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Locating the Leaks

You’ve got a nice building with great maintenance in a good neighborhood. Water leaks from your plumbing are not your problem.

Or so you think.

“People say, ‘I’m in a good building, I can’t have leaks,’” says Mark Schwartz, president of New York Water Management, a company that works with co-ops and condos to lower their water bills. “Leaks don’t discriminate.”

But some water, leaking from a few faucets or running toilets couldn’t cost that much, right?

Wrong again.

Schwartz works with Clinton Hill, a Brooklyn co-op where a city-provided water audit recently uncovered an estimated 25 million gallons of leaks per year from faucets, shower heads, and toilets in the 1,200-unit, 12-building complex. Fixing the leaks could provide an estimated $162,719 per year in savings. “Actually, I was shocked when I got the report,” says Schwartz.

Even though leaks can be pervasive and costly, fortunately for savvy condo and co-op boards and management companies there is a free – yes, free – way to find out whether your building’s plumbing has leaks. There’s even a free way for individual owners or shareholders to get materials to fix the problem. “It’s a no-brainer,” says Steve Greenbaum, director of property management for Mark Greenberg Real Estate, who is the managing agent at Clinton Hill. The program, sponsored by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is called the Residential Water Survey.

It began in 1991 when the state was looking for ways to conserve water, explains Uriel “Rick” Gunthorpe, project manager at the DEP. Once you contact the city to arrange a water leak survey, technicians from Honeywell, the company with a city contract to do the audits, come to the building. They should be accompanied by the superintendent or someone from the management agency. Gunthorpe says it takes about two weeks to schedule an audit.

The technicians evaluate the common area water usages (laundry, gym, boiler) and also look at water use by commercial tenants. When it comes to individual units, technicians must be able to access at least 70 percent of the apartments. The workers look at toilets, shower heads, and faucets in kitchens and baths.

Between 50 and 70 percent of water use in a household comes from the bathroom and the No. 1 water hog is the toilet. Old toilets can use between 3.5 and 7 gallons of water per flush (new toilets are required to use only 1.6 gallons, Gunthorpe says.) But the big problem comes from leaks and that can happen even if you don’t hear the toilet running all the time. Leaking toilets can waste a stunning amount, from 10 to 2,000 gallons per day.

To see if a toilet is leaking, technicians drop a pellet of food-grade dye into the tank and let is dissolve. If any of the colored water leaks into the bowl before the toilet is flushed, there’s a leak.

Often, the culprit is a faulty flapper, which seals the hole between the tank and the bowl, allowing water to keep seeping into the bowl. As the tank gets lower, more water is added, leading to extra water being used, even though the toilet has not been flushed. If the toilets have what are called flushometers, technicians use a gel inside the bowl. If the gel streaks, they know the toilet has a leak.

The problem with shower and faucet heads is that they are often inefficient, Gunthorpe says. A wasteful shower head can use about 2.5 gallons per minute; a bad faucet can use 2 to 3 gallons per minute. After the water audit, the building gets a detailed report of how much water is being wasted, and which units have the problems.

In the case of Clinton Hill, it turned out that a small amount of units had problems that were causing the leaks. For example, at one of the buildings, 345 Clinton Avenue, only 27 of the 112 units had problems with toilets, faucets, and showers, but the total amount of waste was 6.3 million gallons per year.

In some cases, a leaky toilet in just one unit cost the complex about 401,000 gallons of water annually (or $2,100). A substandard faucet in another unit caused 3,650 gallons of wasted water for a yearly price tag of $3,650. In addition to the money that could be saved, many buildings would also see savings from wasted fuel to unnecessarily heated water. At Clinton Hill, the fuel savings: an estimated $5,158.

After the audits at Clinton Hill were done, mostly in the spring and summer of 2008, management fixed the problems at some units by installing proper flappers and faucet heads.

Residents will not see a sudden slash in their maintenance charges, where the water bill would be reflected, but they’ll still see savings, Greenbaum says. “In the long run, it will keep the maintenance costs level, which is good because pretty soon water is going to be as expensive as electricity.”

Also at Clinton Hill, the audit revealed that several ground-floor commercial tenants were using a large amount of water, so the co-op decided to install separate meters and then have New York Water Management bill them directly for their water use.

Beyond the bottom-line benefits of the audit, Greenbaum says it is also good for shareholders and owners to see that management is working hard to save money. It helps to combat the misconception that water is free.

“It’s the same theory as it is in buildings where they don’t charge separately for electricity,” Greenbaum says. “Unless the shareholder gets a bill for it, they don’t think they’re paying for it.” When owners are reminded that water is costly, they’ll be more likely to report future problems.

One thing to consider is whether the building pays for water use with a flat rate or by a meter. At Clinton Hill, the complex switched to meters from a flat rate about five years before the water audit. Schwartz says he’s worked with many condos and co-ops to get a leak audit done and the only thing more shocking than how much water is wasted is what it takes to fix the problem. “The scariest part is that a leak that costs $2,000 can take seconds to fix and it can cost only pennies.”

If a building does not have a management company in place or the means to fix problems building-wide, individual owners can request a so-called “Water Conservation Kit,” says Gunthorpe. The kit contains a new toilet flapper, a low-flow shower head and devices called water aerators for the kitchen and bathroom sinks.

Gunthorpe says the water aerators mix air into the water so the flow remains the same but the faucet uses less water. For toilets with flushometers, the state cannot provide a flapper, but Gunthorpe notes, “at least they can be pointed in the right direction if there is a leak.”

This part of the program, however, is limited to individuals. Building owners and managing agents cannot request, say, 100 kits for their units. The DEP estimates it gives out about 1,000 kits per year. Through Honeywell the agency performs about 700 water leak audits a year covering about 13,000 apartment units (the agency does not differentiate between condo/co-op and rental.)

The agency estimates that because of the audits, between three and five million gallons per day are being saved citywide.

“Wasting water is bad for the environment and it’s also wasting money,” says Greenbaum. “The program is a win-win.”

 

DATA SHEET

For information on how to apply for the Residential Water Survey program, go to:
http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/survey.pdf

 

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