Why consider doing a building water audit

Commercial sector often one of the largest consumers of municipally treated water in Canada
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
By Klaus Reichardt

Canada is in the enviable position of being “water-rich,” according to a July 2013 Frasier Institute study. In 2011, it had the fourth-largest supply of freshwater in the world, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Even though its annual supply of freshwater, specifically in southern Canada, where 98 per cent of its population lives, has declined, “at the current rate of decline it would take over 300 years before annual renewable freshwater ran out,” says Joel Woods, author of the Fraser Institute report.

However, all may not be as rosy as it appears. Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chair of Washington-based Food and Water Watch, questions these conclusions, saying that much of the country’s freshwater is not readily accessible. “The majority of Canada’s major sources of freshwater are in the far north,” which means that much of this water is frozen and not directly available.

Also note that, in the coming years, Canada will likely be pressured to help its neighbours, especially the U.S., meet their growing appetite for water. Already, several U.S. states are seriously parched and chronic water shortages are now becoming a way of life in many areas of the U.S., such as California — now it its fourth year of drought — Nevada, Texas, and New Mexico.

For these reasons, Canadians must use water carefully and responsibly. It is certainly not something that can be wasted or taken for granted, no matter which argument one accepts. For facility managers, this is especially important because the commercial sector — which includes office buildings and similar commercial facilities — is usually one of the largest users of municipal water in the country on an annual basis. While these amounts can vary by region, according to a report by the Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), commercial buildings consume about 1.2 trillion litres per year of municipally treated water.

In order to use water more carefully and responsibly, the first step facility managers and building owners should take is finding out just exactly how much water they are using,  and where. This key data is gained by conducting what is termed a water audit.

Water auditing

A water audit is essentially an accounting procedure. The goal is to go through a facility and find where water is being used — which may offer a few surprises along with way — and where it can be conserved. It typically starts by gathering about 24 months’ worth of water bills. The amount paid for water isn’t necessarily the point of interest but rather how much water is actually consumed.

Twenty-four months provides a solid benchmark. Look for spikes. Are there months when water consumption jumped up (or down) and can it be determined exactly what caused this? Did water consumption surge, for instance, in the second quarter of a year, and has it not retreated? Spikes can often indicate a leak somewhere, and if water consumption levels have not returned to normal, this could mean the leak has continued.

The next steps involve an actual walk-through of the property. For a very large facility, this may require an engineer, but for a smaller location, it can often be conducted by in-house staff. What follows are key steps:

  • Locate pipes, fixtures, and other water-using or water-removing systems in the facility; architectural blueprints may prove helpful.
  • Identify where water is being used and, depending on the facility, why it is being used.
  • Identify how landscaping is being irrigated; if a sprinkler system is in place, see if a drip-irrigation system, which uses considerably less water, could be installed.
  • Keep an eye out for leaks, especially if spikes were noted in the water bills; Environment Canada estimates that up to 30 per cent of water that enters the supply system is lost to leaks, which adds up to millions of gallons each year.
  • Check HVAC systems; air-conditioning units frequently have leaks and older systems tend to use more water than newer units.
  • Take a look at the restrooms. In most facilities, next to landscape irrigation, restrooms are where the greatest volume of water is consumed.

Reducing consumption

Throughout the auditing process, facility managers must keep their eyes open for areas where water can be used more efficiently and help reduce overall consumption. Because the use of water in restrooms is so significant, it is typically the most important area for commercial facilities to focus on.

Toilets installed in the early 1990s, before restrictions were in place to limit the number of litres per flush to 6.06, are slowly being replaced. However, even newer toilets that are older than five years may need a closer examination. Often, with time and wear, toilets start to use more water. There are simple (as well as complex) tests that can be employed to know exactly how much water is being used per flush. If the toilet is several years old and using considerably more water than it is designed to use, it may be best to replace it.

Similarly, newer urinals, which should use about four liters of water per flush, may be using more. If so, managers can see if the valve system can be adjusted to reduce this amount or, taking this a big step further, if it is time to install no-water urinal systems. In the southwestern part of the U.S., this is now becoming commonplace and the reason is simple. Even a properly operating urinal may use more than 132,000 litres of water annually. Replacing these systems with waterless urinals can make a huge dent in water consumption in any location.

As Environment Canada points out, with little change in lifestyles or in business operations, by taking steps to use water more responsibly, Canadians at large, as well Canadian building owners and managers, can cut consumption by as much as 40 per cent. Conducting a water audit is the first step in this direction, allowing Canada to protect this precious resource.

A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc, Vista, CA, makers of waterless urinals and other restroom products. He may be reached at Klaus@waterless.com.