Green Building, Maintenance and Operations, Plumbing

When Bathrooms Operate Inefficiently, It’s Money Down the Drain

As a facilities manager, are you looking for ways to lower your monthly water bill? Bathrooms use 30%–40% of the water in a typical commercial building, so they’re the first place you should look for inefficiencies. Other building uses that consume the most water are cooling and heating, landscaping, and kitchen and laundry facilities. It also may be surprising to learn that treating, pumping, and transporting water consume energy. An estimated 8% of a commercial building’s energy is used just to heat water!

Photo of a facility restroom; bathroom

Marcel Derweduwen / Shutterstock.com

While water is a generally cheap utility, sustainable facility operations are quickly becoming a standard. From both an energy and a water standpoint, conserving water makes good financial sense and can keep your business competitive in the marketplace. For more information on the business case for water conservation at your facility, check out our recent article. Today, we’ll focus on bathrooms and discuss how to perform a water assessment, how to conduct maintenance and repairs, and what you need to know before making the upgrade to efficient bathroom fixtures.

Perform a Bathroom Water Assessment

No matter how efficient a plumbing fixture is, if it is leaking or otherwise not working correctly, water is wasted. Mechanical components like valves, flappers, and gaskets can degrade over time, which can easily go unnoticed. But, if you perform regular water assessments, you can catch any issues early. Here’s what to do:

Conduct a visual inspection. Look for drips, discharge to floor drains, and running components. Train your custodial staff to make these observations, and make sure they know how to report any issues.

Identify leaks. A leaky flapper on a tank-type toilet can waste 900 gallons (gal) per month, and a leaky faucet, dripping 1 drop per second, can waste 3,200 gal per year. With this much water down the drain, finding these leaks is extremely important.

  • Manual leak detection: Manual detection methods are quick and cheap, but the results provide only a rough performance estimate. Comparing the gallons per flush (gpf) or gallons per minute (gpm) that the fixture is supposed to use with the actual amount it uses can give you a first-order estimate of whether a fixture is working properly. For flushometer-valve toilets and flushing urinals, you can perform a quick timed flush test. Flush the unit and count the number of seconds that elapse during the flush. Then, multiply by 0.42 or 0.25 for toilets or urinals, respectively, to estimate the gallons per flush. (For more information on this method, see this guidance from the South Florida Water Management District.) For instance, a 1.28-gpf WaterSense toilet flush cycle should take slightly longer than 3 seconds. If you count any longer, there may be a leak somewhere. For faucets, you can use a flow-gauge bag or a measuring cup. If you’re using a measuring cup, divide the number of gallons your cup can hold by the number of seconds it took to fill it. Then, multiply that number by 60 (for instance, for a quart measuring cup that took 15 seconds to fill [.25 gal/15 seconds]x60 = 1 gpm).
  • Electronic leak detection: If possible, install submeters, and regularly monitor the data (you can easily keep track of data and perform analysis in the Energy Star Portfolio Manager). If you notice higher-than-usual readings, investigate the source of the problem. If you don’t have submetering, examine any changes in your water usage bill from month to month. Temporary flowmeters or acoustic leak detection can also be used. Another strategy is to check the meters and submeters during nonbusiness hours. If the meters are still running, it could indicate a leak. Data can be a powerful tool to help you identify problems so you can act on them quickly.

Conduct Maintenance and Repairs

If the flushometer-valve toilets or urinals in your facility have automatic sensors for flushing, it is important that they be calibrated according to the manufacturer’s specification. Proper calibration can prevent the sensor from causing an early flush, which would require the user to perform a double flush, and can avoid a phantom flush, a flush that occurs when there is no waste to be removed. Faucets with automatic sensors should also be calibrated so that they don’t run long after the user has finished.

Other regular maintenance should include inspecting and removing scale buildup on faucets and testing the water pressure on each floor of the facility.

Upgrade to WaterSense

Launched by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2006, WaterSense is a program that certifies fixtures that meet certain efficient operation requirements. Today, over 30,000 products have the WaterSense label.

Toilets. WaterSense toilets use 1.28 gpf or less, while traditional toilet models from after 1994 can use up to 1.6 gpf (and pre-1994 models can use 3.5–7 gpf!). WaterSense urinals use 0.5 gpf or less, while traditional urinal models from after 1994 can use up to 1 gpf (and pre-1994 models can use 1.5–3 gpf!). Depending on the occupancy and traffic in your facility’s bathrooms, these low-flow models can result in real savings.

Faucets. Private-use (e.g., home) faucets have a higher maximum flow rate than public-use faucets because they are assumed to have uses beyond hand-washing—namely, tooth brushing, face washing, and shaving. The WaterSense-labeled private-use faucet models use less than 1.5 gpm. However, public-use faucets generally have a lower flow, and many models of 0.5 gpm or less are on the market. Because of this, there aren’t WaterSense models for the public-use faucets you probably have in your building. However, if your facility has showers, there are WaterSense models available.

Here are some things to consider before making any upgrades. First, not all high-efficiency products may work with your system—just because they meet waste removal requirements doesn’t mean they will work with your system if your building is old. Before purchasing any new fixtures, consult a plumbing engineer. It’s also important to only use product components that have been tested together. Because WaterSense products are certified in combination, you can find an easy solution to meet your needs.

Educate

As previously mentioned, it is important to train janitorial staff how to identify and report leaks or running bathroom fixtures. But did you know that it is also important to educate all bathroom users? Including a sign in the bathroom for occupants to learn about the facility’s water conservation efforts, as well as contact information on where to report leaks, can make your program more effective. If you installed new technology such as a dual-flush toilet, you may find it helpful to post a sign about how to use it properly.

Remember that the operations and maintenance of bathrooms are critical—even an efficient toilet will waste a lot of water if it is not functioning properly. And, if you have older or inefficient bathroom fixtures, you may consider upgrades or retrofits. These are generally inexpensive, and you will likely see a quick return on your investment.