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What the plumbing industry really needs is a “check engine light.” That old rubber hose behind the washer? When is that finally going to spring a leak? Worse, what about the toilet in a vacation home two states away that never seems to flush right?
And worst, what about that crazy kid in the back of the espresso and gelato shop who loves going full blast when washing the pots and pans?
Doug Pushard, who founded HarvestH2O in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a decade ago, says the owner of his local Italian coffee and ice cream shop knows something’s up ASAP. Just by looking at an app on his smart phone, the owner can tell which of his employees is working that day based on his business’ water use.
“What he knows now is that certain employees fill pots all the way to the top, and other employees don't,” Pushard explains. “And those pots do not need to be filled to the brim to do the work. The sink does not need to be so high to do the dishes and you do not have to go full bore on the rinse. He’s talked to his employees about it, too, and he's literally changing his employee training and their work habits based on his water usage data.”
That usage data comes thanks to a leak detection device Pushard installed in the back of the shop that’s part of a pilot program Santa Fe city officials recently began to identify ways to cut commercial water use.
“You just don’t appreciate where it goes and how quickly it goes,” Matt Durkovich, owner of Ecco Espresso and Gelato told a local newspaper. “Water is unyielding and brutally unforgiving, especially at restaurants.”
Pushard describes himself as “a business owner who is dedicated to water conservation,” and says this type of real time data is crucial to hurried restaurateurs who can pay thousands in water bills every month.
“Restaurant owners concentrate on running their restaurants,” he adds. “None of them have time to wonder how many times the toilets flush. But they can now. Without the data, they would have just gone on wasting water day after day, paying for it without knowing that a huge business expense can be brought under control.”
Pushard, who is a member of the Santa Fe Water Conservation Committee, teamed up with Uponor for the project underwritten by city officials to install the company’s Phyn Plus devices in seven restaurants last February. The program will analyze participants’ water consumption over a period of 12 months to identify promising ways to reduce commercial water use.
“Doug knows just about everything there is to know about water conservation,” says Cassie Schmid, senior marketing manger at Uponor. “He was very much integral in bringing everyone to the table for this pilot program. Doug’s a great advocate.”
Until the Santa Fe project, Phyn, based in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, has focused almost entirely on residential water systems with just a handful of light industrial and high-rise apartments. Santa Fe is its first restaurant project and only second government partnership along with Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas.
Installed on a single location on the main water line, Phyn Plus protects a property’s entire plumbing system by automatically detecting water leaks and plumbing issues. In the event of a catastrophic leak, the device shuts off the main water supply to prevent costly damage.
The device, however, also gives users insight into their water consumption so they can conserve and save money.
The accuracy of the Phyn Plus system depends upon high definition ultrasonic sensors that sample the pressure of a plumbing system 240 times per second in order to learn the fingerprint of each fixture and catch plumbing issues no matter how small.
The devices were a natural fit for the city of 83,770 that’s long since done its best to conserve water.
“Santa Fe is among the most water-conservation-minded communities in the United States,” Pushard explains. “We have the lowest gallons-per-capita-per-day usage of any major city in New Mexico, and we are viewed as a leader in water conservation in the Southwest. Due to our history of water scarcity and periodic droughts, conserving water is part of our culture. It has also taken civic leadership mixed in with regulations, pricing, education and incentives to achieve our leadership position.”
Santa Fe has cut water usage nearly in half since 1995, much of that by targeting residential consumption. Water use in gallons per capita per day, or GPCPD, was 168 in 1995. Robust residential water conservation programs cut that to 90 gallons by 2017.
Part of the decreased water usage came as water bills rose, with rates at one point increasing 40 percent over a five-year period up to 2013.
Despite the promising progress, Santa Fe officials knew more work needed to be done. A study of the Santa Fe Basin found that by 2055, the region’s population will grow by 80 percent and the water supply could fall short by 5,155 acre-feet of water per year. This shortfall accounts for the amount of water that provides for more than 20,000 people.
According to city officials, commercial water usage accounts for some of the highest levels in the city, consuming 801 million gallons of water per year. To go lower than the 90-gallon mark, city officials knew they needed to address the commercial side.
For his part, Pushard is one of the original members of Uponor’s Pro Squad, a group of 3,000 specially trained plumbers Uponor relies on to market, install and service the Phyn devices. (For more on the Pro Squad, see our sidebar.)
He’s installed many Phyn devices in high-end homes or vacation property. But considering a price tag of about $1,500 dollars to purchase and install the devices, Pushard knew the product would be perfect for restaurants.
Water leaks in the restaurant business are particularly troublesome since not only does the faulty plumbing need to be repaired, the health department will shut down the business in the meantime.
“Many restaurants will simply go out of business,” Pushard says. “Some of them would be lucky enough to have revenue protection insurance, but that's probably 10 percent of the restaurants in the world. So restaurant owners really do fear getting hit with a catastrophic water event.”
The initial part of the pilot program actually kicked off last November when Pushard and the local executive director of the chamber of commerce went door to door to 31 restaurants to conduct water-usage audits.
“We had a good mix of new and old, family owned and chains,” Pushard adds. “Everything from steak houses to breakfast restaurants in the overall 31.”
The effort involved examining toilets, sinks, icemakers, pre-rinse sprayers and dishwashers — with checks for leaks and replacing anything would save water. For example, just adding faucet aerators — 130 at the 31 restaurants — added up to a savings of 450,000 gallons per year.
One item that might have seemed up to date were the toilets. A toilet retrofit program back in the 2000s helped with low-flow and ultralow-flow toilets. The 31 Santa Fe restaurants audited included two eateries with 0.8-gallon tanks, 20 percent with the 1.6-gallon toilets and the majority at 1.3 gallons, Pushard said.
But even here, Pushard says he discovered 20 percent of the toilets had leaks.
The worst part of the initial finding represented the best part of the solution. Only two of the 31 restaurants were metered.
“While commercial water use accounts for a large amount of overall water use,” Schmid says, “it’s also kind of a black hole since it’s a high-use industry without a lot of understanding of where that usage is occurring.”
A lot of the restaurants were in strip malls, for example, with no submeters.
“You can have a restaurant, a laundromat and a financial advisor at one strip mall location and they’re all paying the same amount for water since one meter determines it for everybody,” Schmid adds.
One of the biggest advantages with the Phyn devices is that they act as a submeter.
“Restaurants need some type of meter so they can understand how much water they're using,” Pushard says. “If we're going to put together a water conservation program, we have to give them some way of monitoring their water use. This unit fits that perfectly because now they can actually see how much water they are using and do something about it.”
While the data is still being compiled, Pushard expects the city to quickly develop additional water conservation measures, such as cash rebates for plumbing fixtures and even more aggressive action based on just how much water overall a restaurant can save day by day. The city also plans to extend this program to hotels before the year’s end.
We should also note that the Phyn program is a direct result of another project of Pushard’s, namely, the Next Generation Water Summit. He’s organized the annual public event for the past three years. The three-day conference takes place every June at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.
He says the summit is designed to bring together the building and development community, water re-use professionals, water policymakers and other interested individuals to share best practices and learn about water conservation and water re-use techniques that can reduce the water footprint in the growing Southwest.
Past summits have featured notable key speakers including Ed Marzia, founder of the 2030 Building Challenge; Mary Ann Dickinson, executive director of the Alliance of Water Efficiency; Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School of Sustainability at the University of Michigan; and U.S. Senator Tom Udall.
“Water is a precious and a finite resource in the Southwest,” Pushard adds. “Stopping wasteful water practices like silent leaks just makes good sense. Regulations, incentives and outreach are all important, but so incorporating the adoption of leading water saving technologies that work makes good economic and environmental sense in our part of the world.”