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Unusually long periods of drought across the country have forced many states, particularly in the West, to restrict water consumption and seek long-term ways to save water. At the same time, inflation is the highest it has been in 40 years — driving up water and energy costs. Americans are looking for any way to stretch their dollars even further.
These climate and economic challenges present an opportunity for the plumbing industry to emphasize how water-efficient plumbing fixtures can help people conserve water, energy and money — immediately and in the future.
From September 2020 through June 2022, about 60 percent of the United States experienced drought — an abnormally high level and lengthy duration notes the World Economic Forum. Our water supplies are shrinking. Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, is dipping to its lowest level since it was first filled in the 1930s.
Because of climate change, scientists expect extreme weather events of very cold and very hot, dry conditions to become more frequent and severe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has urged cities and states to encourage water conservation and efficiency to build a more sustainable water future.
Progress has been slow, and water conservation efforts have fallen short. California offers a strong example as the state called for residents to steeply curtail their water use. In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked residents to cut water use by 15 percent but only achieved a 2 percent reduction, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Collectively our industry — plumbers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers — can help. We can step up efforts to educate and coordinate with water utilities, the public, remodelers and others on the benefits of replacing inefficient legacy plumbing fixtures with water-efficient products, such as WaterSense toilets, faucets and showerheads.
Educate Public, Provide Incentives to Accelerate Water, Energy Savings
It seems simple enough. If we can easily save water and energy, why not do it? Most people generally don’t think about their bathroom fixtures, let alone the money and energy they can save by replacing those fixtures.
Plumbing Manufacturers International’s (PMI) most recent WaterSense Market Penetration report revealed that only about one in six American bathrooms have toilets meeting WaterSense efficiency standards, and less than half have showerheads and bath faucets meeting these standards. Because plumbing fixtures have long replacement cycles — 12 years for showerheads, 15 years for bathroom sink faucets and 30 years for toilets — homeowners and property owners are reluctant to replace them. They typically swap out fixtures only if they’re broken or part of a major remodeling project.
However, offering the right incentives — such as rebates, grants, giveaways and tax-free holidays — can produce powerful results. Take rebate programs, for example. Many water utilities and home improvement retailers offer rebates for WaterSense products. While nationwide statistics aren’t available, anecdotal evidence shows that municipalities have had good success getting residents to replace inefficient toilets, showerheads and bath faucets.
The Minnesota Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, which has earned many WaterSense Sustained Excellence Awards, provided rebates for almost 150,000 inefficient toilets since 2008. The city of Durham, N.C., won a 2021 WaterSense Promotional Partner of the Year Award for its toilet rebate program, which prompted customers to buy nearly 900 WaterSense toilets in 2020.
Giveaways and grants can offer an equitable means to help lower-income homeowners save water. To reduce the need to acquire expensive new water supplies, San Antonio gave away hundreds of thousands of water-efficient toilets over a 10-year period, hiring plumbers to help low-income residents install them. The city also took similar measures with inefficient showerheads and kitchen faucets.
The toilet replacement program contributed to a decrease in Texas’s daily per capita water use from nearly 145 gallons in 2011 to 118 gallons in 2015.
Tax-free holidays exempting WaterSense products from sales taxes for a limited time are another relatively simple way for states to encourage residents to embrace more water-efficient ways.
Education can make a big impact, too. Some of our PMI members have won WaterSense Sustained Excellence Awards for their impressive commitment to educating designers, plumbing trade professionals and the public about the importance of water efficiency.
One PMI member created a 24-person team dedicated to promoting WaterSense products to designers and others. Another PMI member conducted six continuing education courses for more than 3,400 trade professionals and 36 online courses for employees, sales reps and customers discussing the advantages of WaterSense products.
Yet another example involves a PMI member building an innovative mobile showroom featuring WaterSense toilets and urinals in a commercial setting, as well as residential WaterSense toilets and showerheads. The mobile showroom recently toured 173 cities, with almost 7,000 consumers and professionals visiting the exhibit.
Our members also continue to produce WaterSense-labeled products, adding to the more than 37,000 fixture choices available for residential and commercial use.
Why WaterSense Fixtures?
WaterSense plumbing fixtures use at least 20 percent less water than federal water-efficiency requirements, save energy, perform well — and they’re readily available.
The EPA recently reported the astounding savings the WaterSense program has delivered. Since 2006, WaterSense products have helped consumers and businesses save more than 6.4 trillion gallons of water, 754 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, and $135 billion in water and energy expenses.
PMI members produce 90 percent of the plumbing products sold in the United States, including the majority of WaterSense plumbing fixtures.
The EPA estimates that the average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water at home daily and spends $1,100 per year on water costs. However, the EPA says a family can save $350 annually by retrofitting with WaterSense-labeled plumbing fixtures and Energy Star-certified appliances.
Showering is one of the leading uses of water inside the home and represents about 17 percent of annual U.S. residential indoor water use. This translates into more than 1.2 trillion gallons of water consumed each year, the EPA notes.
Replacing old, inefficient bathroom sink faucets and aerators with WaterSense-labeled models can save the average family 700 gallons of water per year, equal to the amount of water needed to take 40 showers, the WaterSense website explains. These water savings reduce demands on water heaters as well, resulting in enough energy to run a hairdryer for 10 minutes a day for a year.
These are significant savings that can help Americans trim water use — and put extra dollars back in their wallets — without even thinking about it.
For states with serious water shortages, such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia and Texas, replacing inefficient fixtures can — and should — be a key part of their larger sustainable water strategy. A study by PMI and the Alliance for Water Efficiency found that those five states could potentially save up to 170 billion potable gallons of water annually by replacing nonefficient toilets in residential properties with water-efficient toilets.
That translates to enough water saved for each person on the planet, roughly 10 billion, to take a shower or enough water to serve the indoor home water needs of a city of 100,000 for 45 years.
The plumbing industry has made great strides in advocating for improved water efficiency with WaterSense products. PMI staff recently attended the National Conference of State Legislatures Legislative Summit to build relationships with state policymakers and share expertise on water-efficient measures and WaterSense plumbing fixtures.
We see that legislators are eager to learn more. They want to incorporate reasonable and responsible ways to help their citizens save water. Let’s all continue working together to make sure that happens.
Kerry Stackpole, FASAE, CAE, is the CEO/executive director of Plumbing Manufacturers International. Stackpole has spent more than two decades leading trade associations in manufacturing, technology and services. Contact him at email@example.com.