Water costs in New York City and across the country are skyrocketing. With the new water rates kicking in this year, the combined cost of water plus sewer usage is slightly more than 1.29 cents per gallon. That means that your teenager’s daily 20-minute shower runs up a bill of $95 per year in water alone, not including the cost of heating it.
Is your building conserving water? Saving money in doing so? The answer in condos and co-ops is a resounding no. Unfortunately, your building, board, and management company have been listening to advice from 20 years ago, and times have changed. Saving water is smart, cheap, cost effective, and barely noticeable.
Consumption and Cost
The average apartment in New York City uses 52,000 gallons of water per year, or 142 gallons per day. Just to quantify 142 gallons usage in one apartment, this means:
Flushing a 3.5 gallon per flush (gpf) toilet 8 times (28 gallons)+
Taking three 8-minute 2.5 gallon per minute (gpm) showers (60 gallons)+
• Running the kitchen sink (2.5 gpm) for 15 minutes (37.5 gallons)+
• Running the bath sink (2.5 gpm) for 6 minutes 36 seconds (16.5 gallons)
This seems pretty easy, but that amount of water cost your building $650 last year and will cost $672.75 per apartment this year, assuming you’re an “average” user. But the clear majority of buildings I advise report that their water bill is greater than their gas or oil bill; some say their water bill is more than their property tax bill. So, let’s take the example above, and assume you have two teenagers and no dishwasher, and let’s add in the usage of water from your washing machines in the basement:
• Flushing a 3.5 gallon per flush toilet 16 times (56 gallons)+
• Taking four 20-minute 2.5 gallon per minute (gpm) showers (200 gallons)+
• Running the kitchen sink (2.5 gpm) for 24 minutes (60 gallons)+
• Running the bath sink (2.5 gpm) for 10 minutes (25 gallons)+
• One load of laundry per day in a top-loading washing machine (30 gallons) = 371 gallons per day, 135,415/year = $1,750.
This does not include leaks, which typically make up 10 to 25 percent of water use in the average residential and multifamily building.
Concerned yet? Whenever I suggest a water-efficiency retrofit, all of the “experts” associated with a building tell me that the new showerheads are awful, the toilets don’t work, and the lack of flow from these devices clogs the drains. These are probably the same people who keep rotary phones in their apartments and don’t carry those new-fangled pocket-phones. Hey, wake up! Technology has changed. It’s time for everyone to jump on board.
If you look at your water bill, and register with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) online, most buildings that have the new meter configurations that are readable from the street can watch their water usage on an almost hourly basis (start here: https://a826-amr.nyc.gov/DEP_AMRReads/). When you look at your hourly consumption, you will see it listed in cubic feet per minute (roughly 7.5 gallons to the cubic foot) and when you look at your daily readings, you will see a low point (typically, at 3 A.M. when there is little water use); this amount is usually caused by leaks. If that amount is 1 cubic foot per minute, for instance, the leaks in your building are costing $50,851 per year.
Leaks are hard to find. For some buildings, it has been found cost-effective to attach meters to each major plumbing line, and hook these to a data collection box, and then to a computer and/or the internet. What do we find? One line is 60 percent of the building leaks, and once fixed, another line is 40 percent of the leaks. A very dedicated manager in the Bronx I worked with last year brought its building usage from 280 gallons per apartment to 220 gallons to 185 gallons in two years. I asked how she did it, and she said, “I had the super knock on doors to find the leaks; we changed to all front-loading washers in the laundry room; and then we started swapping out toilets.”
Let’s talk about the toilet. On average, it is flushed five times per person per day. At 3.5 gallons of water per flush (gpf), that’s 43.75 gallons for your average 2.5 person apartment every day. Because residents have no incentive to flush less, or to use more efficient toilets, taking on a toilet retrofit program in your building might be daunting, but the payback is pretty quick.
Back in the 1990s, owners were enticed to try a retrofit program by earning $200 per toilet that used 2.5 gpf or less. Trouble was, there were no performance specifications for toilets, so the low-flush toilets didn’t work, and you had to flush twice, using more water.
But toilet technology has changed. Two engineers, John Koeller and Bill Gauley, found that toilets didn’t move “material,” so these two invented the Maximum Performance (MaP) testing protocols. To quote Koeller and Gauley as well as numerous reports found on their website (www.map-testing.com): “Since its development and release in 2003, MaP has been a major driving force in the improvement of toilet flush performance in North America. In 2003, the average MaP score of all tested toilets was 336 grams (12 ounces or three-fourths of a pound), while by September 2012, the average score of 1,860 different toilet fixture models had more than doubled to 799 grams (28 ounces or one-and-three-fourths of a pound).”
The publications on their website are informational and functional (like the toilet specification part where you tell them color, size, height, length for replacement), as well as tongue-in-cheek hilarious at times. A big part of savings in new toilets is that old flapper valves develop slow leaks while new pressure-assist toilets don’t have those leaks, so sometimes changing the toilets saves a lot of leaks as well. Toilet flapper leaks can be among the most prevalent in your building.
Imagine, if each apartment changed its water-guzzling toilet for one that was more efficient and better performing (1.2 gpf). The savings per 2.5 person apartment would be about $135 per year. If you have 100 apartments in your building, your water bill would be reduced by $13,500. The bestselling efficient model sells for about $163 while the high-end ones sell for $500; adding $100 for installation, the payback is 2 to 4.5 years.
New power-flush toilets don’t have flapper valves, which are notorious for leaking, so the savings are typically better than listed above. For example, in one building where I worked, the management company sent a letter to all 17 apartment residents (there are roughly 2.5 residents per apartment) telling them that water was leaking and instructing them to call the super and have the leaks fixed. I convinced the management company to change the toilets in the building, and went to the very helpful toilet replacement part of the MaP website and specified replacements. The building went from a 2013 usage of 2,872 gallons per day to today, using 1,698 gallons per day (a 40 percent reduction) or $5,528 in savings per year. As their toilets cost $275 per apartment, it was a less than one-year payback.
Let’s look again at the example mentioned earlier of an apartment that flushes a 3.5 gpf toilet eight times per day, and changes to a more-efficient and better-performing 1.2 gpf model. The savings per apartment would be 6,716 gallons saved per apartment per year, or about $87 per year (2.3 gpf x 8 x 365).
I will admit to being tall and overweight, yet when I take a shower with my 1.5 gallon-per-minute showerhead, I get plenty wet. When I go to a hotel that has the tropical rain showerheads at 5 to 10 gallons per minute, it spills on the walls and floors, but not on me. We understand that when it comes to cars we don’t have to sacrifice comfort for high performance; can we apply that same logic to our showers?
The old showerheads that we remember from 10 to 30 years ago that were given to us from numerous city, state, and private programs cost 99 cents each and were awful. In the early 1980s, Consumer Reports recommended one of the more expensive showerheads at the time, the WaterPic ShowerMassage, for great showers and reduced usage. Many years later, that’s still true, but the market has widened and improved, and low-flow does not mean low pressure. The trick with any building-wide retrofit is to go to manufacturers and say, “I am about to retrofit 1,000 apartments, and I want a sample.” Test five or ten showerheads around the building, give them to the people who have complained the most about their showers, and let them report back. The money is so huge in this retrofit, because low-flow showers also save hot water, and therefore gas or oil. In fact, you can pretty much estimate that the energy it takes to heat water saves a little less today than the cost of water itself – for argument’s sake, let’s say another conservative penny per gallon.
In the examples cited earlier, here are the potential savings when you switch out a 2.5 gpm showerhead for one that offers 1.5 gpm:
• Taking three 8-minute 2.5 gpm showers (60 gallons) instead w/1.5 gpm = 36 gallons saved = 55¢/apt/day
• Taking four 20-minute 2.5 gpm showers (200 gallons) instead w/1.5 gpm = 80 gallons saved = $1.80/apt/day
Potential savings of $200.75 to $657 per apartment per year. Do showerheads cost that much? May we continue?
“What is an aerator?” everyone asks me; it’s the little thing at the end of the sink spout that has a screen on it, but is also designed to reduce the flow at the tap in the kitchen and bath. Trouble is, most are 2.5 gpm and splash all over the place. Ever notice that the floor by your bath and kitchen sink is sinking? Yes, 20 years of splashing will do that. We suggest changing the kitchen sink to 1.5 gpm and the bath to .5 gpm; the kitchen is happier with a light spray for rinsing dishes, and the bath sink makes people happier with a laminar flow (appears more solid but is highly aerated). And aerators cost about a dollar apiece. Let’s assume they cost the same to install. Again, using the examples above, here are some potential savings, assuming only half of the water at the bath and kitchen sinks is hot:
• Running the kitchen sink (2.5 gpm) for 15 minutes (37.5 gallons) instead w/1.5 gpm = 15 gallons saved = 26 cents/apt/day
• Running the bath sink (2.5 gpm) for 6 min 36 secs (16.5 gallons) instead w/.5 gpm = 13 gallons saved = 23 cents/apt/day
• Running the kitchen sink (2.5 gpm) for 24 minutes (60 gallons) instead w/1.5 gpm = 24 gallons saved = 43¢/apt/day
• Running the bath sink (2.5 gpm) for 10 minutes (25 gallons) instead w/.5 gpm = 20 gallons saved = 35¢/apt/day
Potential savings of $84 to $157 per sink per apartment per year.
(See table above.)
So if you invest on the low end and save on the low end, or invest on the high end and save on the high end, your potential return on investment is 160 percent to 169 percent. Switching savings are 70 percent to 385 percent.
This is before you address leaks, which again, are 10 to 25 percent of your usage, and before you change from top-load to front-load washing machines in the laundry room.
If condo and co-op members refuse to conserve, should one of the typically largest costs in buildings be assessed at higher levels to the bigger users?
Water retrofits are painless, cost-effective, cash-flowing, and – shall we admit it? – good for the environment.