This article was originally published in the July/August 1993 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online July/August 1993




Pulling Utilities Together:
Water-Energy Partnerships


This article was written by Andrew Jones, Jim Dyer, and Jim Obst. Andrew Jones is a senior associate and Jim Dyer is the director, both in the Water Program at Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. Jim Obst is Senior Editor of Home Energy.

Water and energy utilities are beginning to cooperate in innovative efficiency projects, thereby extending the reach of their programs and cutting costs and hassles.

Install high-efficiency showerheads and faucets in the average U.S. house, and the water meter will report about 6,000 gallons of water saved in one year. Not bad. But the savings continue. If the house has an electric water heater, the electric meter will show about 600 kilowatt-hours savings; if it's a gas heater, the savings will be 30 therms. Upstream a pumping station and drinking water treatment plant have gobbled a little less electricity and chemicals because of the new devices in that house. Downstream a wastewater treatment plant has saved energy and treated the water to higher standards.

These opportunities are leading to unusual partnerships. Names such as the Southern California Water and Energy Conservation Partnership or the Seattle-area Home Water Savers Program announce partnerships of previously separate groups--water and energy utilities.

From Connecticut to Washington to California, management and staff of innovative water, wastewater, electrical, and gas utilities, both publicly and privately owned, are hammering out combined water and energy efficiency programs. They split program tasks: distribution, marketing, administration, product selection. And while there is an up-front capital cost in meetings, memos, and management, the payback can come quickly.

To establish a partnership, all parties must first recognize the benefits:

  • Program depth. When the capital investment is split, each utility's dollars go twice as far, reaching more homes than possible without a partnership. Acting separately, one utility might only undertake a few measures, skimming the cream off the top, making additional future measures less cost-effective.

  • Reduced hassle. Some utilities share a single plan for marketing, installation, evaluation, and advertising. They invent the wheel once.

  • Program resiliency. Like an investor with a diversified portfolio, a water efficiency program with broad support fares well when the economy is ailing. For example, when the San Diego Water County Authority exhausted its program funding for a short period, San Diego Gas and Electric covered its costs in the interim, to maintain program continuity and preserve the relationship with a private contractor.

  • Public relations. Innovative government programs always attract good press--and customer interest. As Suzan Hill of the Seattle Water Department put it, Our program sends an important message to our customers about the utilities: We can work together.


Bound For Efficiency

Utility partners do not literally exchange dollars as they divide program responsibility. Instead, they barter services such as marketing, fixture purchasing, and installation while capitalizing on the strengths of each partner. For example, private utilities can hire contractors without the bureaucratic mazes that stymie some public utilities. In Washington, Puget Power, a private utility, handled contract administration for their territory. In a similar way, the Seattle Water Department, a public agency, had more experience in committee processes, so they adopted the administrative tasks--typing minutes, planning agendas, sustaining the process. In Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District was particularly well-equipped for printing, so they handled that task.

Different utilities offer different skills, but also have different needs. Water utilities may need more extensive documentation of savings than the energy utilities--demand-side management of water is still a young field. In Washington, Seattle City Light needed to collect the old, inefficient fixtures that had been replaced, while Puget Power didn't. And many private utilities are comfortable with a more liberal marketing and advertising approach than public ones.

Successful partnerships design communication and flexibility into the relationship. Staffs plan frequent, short meetings and encourage a steady information flow through memos, sometimes on electronic mail. They create a precise structure with the nimbleness to make rapid adjustments. The Seattle consortium used a telemarketing line to provide program information specific to customers of certain utilities, (Press `one' if City Light provides your electricity) and maintained shared advertising.

An ideal partnership would involve more than just utilities. Local environmental groups could secure some of the saved water for environmental restoration or give the utilities credit for their project, noting reduced air pollution and other environmental advantages. Furthermore, local business groups have an incentive to support, participate in, and even help fund such a partnership, for money not spent on imported resources stays in town supporting the local economy.

Utilities contemplating a partnership should recognize that a fundamental key to success is a long-term commitment to water efficiency. Many efficiency improvements, such as the repair of leaks, require regular attention to ensure a steady supply of new water and energy savings. Such diligence should be spelled out in the original partnership agreement, lest the project be funded once and then forgotten.

The following are other keys to success, gleaned from the experiences of program managers in several partnerships:

  • Share credit liberally. Be sure to put all logos and all names on press releases.

  • Keep staffs communicating. One consortium threw a party in a local bar to facilitate brainstorming.

  • As Maria Mariscal of the San Diego County Water Authority advises, Search until you find someone as equally committed to be a participant as you are, an individual at the other utility who will take ownership of the project.

  • Get upper management support. The partnership will work with broad support, but could fail if organizers are expected to work on it during their free time.

  • Focus on timing. It can take a year just to get the budget processes of two or more entities in sync, cautions Barbara Jordan of Jordan and Company in Walnut Creek, California.


Partnerships At Work

Though the following are not the only water and energy partnerships, they offer insights into what is possible.

San Diego Area Utilities

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) and San Diego County Water Authority have teamed up since 1990 to install high-efficiency showerheads door to door--13,800 in 1990 and 70,800 in 1991-92. SDG&E funded showerhead kits while the water authority paid for installation. As the program matured, the utilities expanded the retrofits to include other energy-saving devices, including 9,500 compact fluorescent lamps.

The City of San Diego also participated, installing showerheads in 1,250 mobile homes. Marsi Steirer, who headed the city participation in the partnership, reports estimated water savings of 16 gallons per day per mobile home. The cost to the city was $4.25 per household for labor.

Seattle-King County `Home Water Savers'

In 1992, the Seattle Water Department and its 27 wholesale purveyors, Puget Sound Power and Light, and Seattle City Light ran the country's largest collaborative residential water and energy saving program, with sponsorship also by the Washington Natural Gas and Metro (the regional sewer utility). They went door to door, providing conservation kits to over 300,000 single-family homes, multiplexes (2-4 units), and multifamily buildings (over four units) in Seattle and the nearby suburban areas. Each kit contained a high-efficiency showerhead, aerator, leak detection tablets, toilet flow-cycle diverter, Teflon tape, installation directions, printed information, and additional products for the asking. The program provided free installation for the elderly and disabled upon request.

For electric hot water customers, Puget Power and Seattle City Light paid for the products, distribution, and marketing. For customers with non-electric hot water, the Seattle Water Department (with support from the gas and sewer utilities) paid for all toilet retrofits, products, distribution, and marketing.

Bonneville Power Administration reimbursed 75% of Seattle City Light's costs and supported the program with assistance in purchasing, evaluation, and marketing. The program budget for all partners was approximately $3.2 million.

In the Seattle City Light service territory, reports the utility's evaluator, Debra Okumo, 1992 savings are expected to reach 380 kWh per single family residence among the 65,000 homes (where showerheads were self-installed), and 240 kWh per multifamily residence among 6,000 units (where direct installations were performed). The showerhead installation rate was 43% (52% minus 9% free ridership, considered high because of drought conditions).

Canvassers delivered 33,000 kits to Puget Power customers with electric water heaters, dropping off another 50,000 at gas water heater homes, according to Nora Williams, program coordinator for the utility. A recent phone survey of 500 customers confirmed a 56% installation rate. Williams explained the cost per home for the utilities was $11.20, compared to annual savings of $30. Calculated annual electric hot water savings should average 510 kWh per home.

The estimated water savings from the partnership, according to Kim Drury, conservation supervisor of the Seattle Water Department, is 2-3 million gallons per day (of an annual average demand of 176 million gallons per day), or 15 gallons per residence, to be validated by submetering by Bonneville Power Authority.

Southern California Water and Energy Conservation Partnership

Southern California Gas, Southern California Edison, Metropolitan Water District, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and Pasadena Water and Power Department have joined forces, launching a pilot project to install water-efficient toilet flappers in low-income homes. (A flapper is that device inside the toilet tank that, when pulled up, controls the release of water into the bowl.) However we felt installing ultra-low flush toilets was more effective than flappers, explains Edison's Dave Gardner, because the plumbing in low-income housing tends to be old and leaky. Flappers cannot deal with these more serious problems. So the program stopped installing new toilet flappers, opting for full toilet change-outs.

According to Gardner, replacing an old toilet that uses 3.5 gallons per flush with a one that uses 1.6 gallons per flush might save 177 kWh a year by decreasing electricity needed to pump water. Water savings average 16,425 gallons per year (or 45 gallons per day), or about 10% of the average annual water use for a single family house. The partnership retrofitted toilets in about 11,360 single-family homes during 1991-92.

Now the electric utility is helping fund the toilet replacement program, to begin this summer. The partnership, which now includes ten area utilities, is considering a program to encourage the use of horizontal-axis washing machines which are both energy- and water-efficient. The partnership has simultaneously been running an education campaign.

Northeast Utilities, Connecticut

Connecticut Light and Power Company has teamed up with three water utilities--Connecticut-American Water Company, Connecticut Water Company, and Metropolitan District Commission--to promote residential water and electric efficiency.

In a pilot program, contractors visited 1,100 homes to install resource-efficient hardware, including water heater and pipe wraps, high-efficiency showerheads, faucet aerators, compact fluorescent lamps, and other devices. Beyond the hardware distribution, the maintenance component of the retrofit included cleaning refrigerator coils.

The cost of the site visit for the installation of the measures was about $45 per customer, explains Bruce Wall, at the time chief administrator of the partnership for Northeast Utilities. If the customer had an electric water heater, the electric company paid for the visit. If the customer had something other than an electric water heater, the fees were split. If the customer got only water conservation devices, the water company paid for the visit.

Energy savings ranged from 1% for those who received only one compact fluorescent to 13% for those receiving the full package of energy and water conservation measures, says Wall. While these estimates are based on results from other conservation programs, the partnership's measures haven't been fully evaluated yet.

Wall estimates that the water companies should have seen a 12-15% reduction in customer water usage. But according Daisy Chavez, administrator of customer services for the Metropolitan District Commission, the partnership resulted in a much lower 4% water savings. The utility used billing data for the 1,000 installations to determine savings. With an average water bill of $160-200 per home in one year, savings were at most $8 per year. Chavez believes that customers increased their water use once they recognized the effectiveness of the conservation devices. Because we shared the cost of installation, the cost-effectiveness shot up, she adds.

Sacramento Alliance for the Conservation of Water and Energy Together

The City of Sacramento, the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District constitute this partnership. They are still in the planning stages which include:

  • Determining energy use in pumping and treating water in the Sacramento area

  • Identifying cost-effective water efficiency measures

  • Quantifying potential energy and water savings


Some Advice

To sum up, based on experiences so far, partnerships can succeed--that is, save water and energy more cost-effectively than by individual utility efforts--by following certain guidelines.

  • If a participating utility has a particular strength, it should be put to work.

  • The partnership should adopt the style of organization best suited to its needs, but that structure should be flexible.

  • Non-utility players such as environmental and business interests can enhance the fortunes of a partnership.

  • Longevity of savings depends on longevity of the services provided, particularly on the water side.


The energy and perseverance needed to set up a partnership shouldn't be minimized. Nevertheless, cooperation between utilities is not an isolated occurrence. Instead, water and energy partnerships are one example of a powerful trend--away from compartmentalized thinking and toward a whole-system approach that emphasizes interconnections.




Related Articles

Duct Fixing in America (Penn)
Duke Power's Success (Vigil)
Infiltration: Just ACH50 Divided by 20? (Meier)
Managing Large-Scale Duct Programs (Downey)
New Group Hunts Bad Ducts (Obst)
Recycling Refrigerators: Whose Responsibility? (Nelson)
Shade Trees as a Demand-Side Resource (McPherson and Simpson)
SMUD's Refrigerator Graveyard--Conditions of the Deceased (Bos)
Steps to Successful Lighting Programs (Fernstrom)
Wisconsin's 'Orphan' Solar Program (DeLaune, Bircher, Lane)
Big Flush, The: Saving Water in the Big Apple (Anderson)
Everything I Know about Energy-Efficient Showerheads I Learned in the Field (Warwick and Hickman)
Graywater: An Option For Household Water Reuse (Bennett)
Low-Flow Showerheads, Family Strife, and Cold Feet (Meier)
Remodeling Bathrooms: Let the Energy Savings Flow (Johnston)
The Rise of Water Service Companies (Berlin)
Savings and Showers: It's All in the Head (Proctor, Gavelis, and Miller)
Xeriscape: Winning the Turf War Over Water (Iwata)

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