This article was originally published in the July/August 1994 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 1994

The Big Flush: Saving Water in the Big Apple


The City of New York is dramatically changing the way it looks at water. In response to a growing shortage in water supply and shortfalls in treatment capacity, the city is implementing a number of bold water-saving steps, including requiring meter installation on all buildings, dramatically expanding its residential water audit program, and starting up the largest toilet rebate program in the nation to date.

Program planners faced some unique challenges when they set out to replace one-third of the toilets in New York City with water-saving models (1.6 gallons per flush). The sheer magnitude of the program is ambitious, to say the least; with a total budget of $270 million, for up to 1.5 million rebates, the program must contend with the advanced age of the city's housing stock and plumbing. The goal? A reduction of water use by 90 million gallons per day--about 7% of the city's total water consumption.

According to city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conservation director Warren Liebold, the ambitious conservation goals make economic sense, allowing the city to defer construction of expensive new pumping and treatment plants. We wanted to change lots of toilets, Liebold said. If you reduce consumption by a nominal amount, you've wasted your money. Since the 1970s, the city has been consuming water at amounts above its dependable yield, the level of consumption where supply would be reliable even in a dry year. Beginning in the '80s, Liebold said, we began to see drought watches and alerts every other year. To address that supply problem, the city would have to spend $800 million to $1 billion for a new pumping station on the Hudson River to add 20% to the average supply. On the wastewater side of the faucet, the treatment plants which serve most of the Bronx and Brooklyn and all of Manhattan, are currently operating at or above their permitted levels. Without conservation, added treatment capacity could run up a $1.8 billion tab. Water and sewer rates in New York City have risen 150% since 1985. The political, physical, and economic reality was that conservation was clearly the lowest-cost option, Liebold said.

Toilets are typically responsible for about 45% of the water consumed in an average home, stated a DEP press release dated April 21, 1994. At current water and sewer rates, a single apartment with two people that converts to water-saving toilets and showerheads is projected to save approximately $60-$70 on water and sewer charges. If more people live in the apartment, the savings will be proportionately larger.

In developing the program, the city studied rebate programs of water and energy utilities across the country to find out what rebate levels were most successful. The research revealed that for programs with high participation rates, the payback to the consumer was one year or less. The high rate of rebate also allows for more cost-effective replacement of old flushometer (tankless) toilets, and it makes the program more accessible to buildings housing low-income residents. We wanted to make sure that low-income buildings could do this with little or no outlay of cash, Liebold explains.

Anybody Need a Couple Million Toilets?

Options for disposing of the old toilets are still being explored. The city is working on getting the state Department of Transportation to approve crushing the toilets for use as road material. City officials may issue a request for bids on the toilets, and have been approached by exporters about shipping functional toilets to China. Liebold defends that idea from attack by the resource-conscious by saying that some form of toilet is better than none at all, in terms of sanitation.

When the toilet rebate applications were first sent out last March, the city received applications for almost 20,000 toilets within three days, including a backlog of requests. People really like the program, Liebold said. They can't believe that New York City government is doing something like this for them virtually free. Inspections are being performed on 20% of the toilets, mostly by the program contractor, although the city also carries out some in-house inspections. Discarded toilets are tallied at three New York City Department of Sanitation drop-off sites. As of late April over 622 building owners had requested applications to participate in the toilet rebate program, representing 2,135 buildings and 93,840 units.

One of the challenges faced by those planning and implementing the New York City program is the age of housing stock in the area, with an average vintage circa 1930-1940. Compared to Southern California, where toilets and homes are more likely to be children of the sixties or later (see Changing How Southern Californians Flush,HE, July/Aug '92, p.25), New York City plumbers deal with much older and fragile equipment.

The rebate is for up to the installed cost of the toilets, or a maximum of $240 per dwelling, whichever is greater. If there is a second or third toilet in the same home, the city will pay an additional $150 per toilet. One reason the city set the rebate cap so high was to allow for the replacement of old flushometer toilets, which account for about 30% of the toilets in the area. The new, more efficient replacement flushometers require higher water pressures, and may not work well during high-use periods in the summer, or on the upper floors of apartment buildings. Also, new flushometers cost a lot more than gravity toilets, but replacing the flushometers with gravity toilets is more costly, often requiring extensive re-piping and ripping open of walls.

Metering New York City

The program is an outgrowth of the city's relatively recent initiative to bill water customers based on consumption. Basing water bills on actual use may not seem like a novel idea in most parts of the country, but until recently, most homes and apartments in New York City were billed based a formula that relied on the number of apartments and/or fixtures in a building--not actual consumption. In 1985, the city passed a law requiring installation of meters with building renovations, and in 1988 the city began the Universal Metering Program, with contractors beginning the mandatory installation of water meters in city homes. All properties in the city are required to be metered by 1998.

Metering promotes conservation, by rewarding property owners with smaller bills if they use less water and allows for a more equitable distribution of costs to all users of the water system. Yet landlords have resisted the move toward water metering. (Landlords sued, challenging the city's authority to install water meters but the city ultimately prevailed). Landlords argue that they have no control over water consumption in their buildings. Liebold noted that if landlords could directly pass along water and sewer costs, they might not be as resistant. Even so, owners in fact do have considerable control over water consumption in their buildings, Liebold contended.

Increased water and sewer rates and meter-based billing pose a challenge for the city, because low-income buildings tend to have higher population densities and thus use more water, than higher-income buildings, even if they have low-flow fixtures and tight plumbing systems. More often than not, fixtures in low-income housing are leaky. Approximately half of the buildings in the city are now metered, but roughly 85% of the multifamily buildings are not. For the most part, landlords have resigned themselves to the fact that their buildings will be metered. Meanwhile, the city is trying to make it easier for them.

Landlords are offered a conservation carrot for participating in the city's water saving efforts. Once meters are installed, landlords can be billed at a flat rate for a one-year grace period. If they take conservation actions, their grace period can be extended. Also, households and buildings participating in the city's audit program are eligible for a bill cap--$750 per unit per year for single-family homes and the first unit in any building; the cap is $500 for every unit thereafter. To qualify for the bill cap, building owners must replace at least 70% of the building's toilets, participate in the residential water survey program, and send the building superintendent to a three-hour water conservation training program conducted by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The workshop covers the city's water conservation programs and trains participants to find and repair leaks. The bill cap offers landlords protection against the tenant from hell who recklessly wastes a lot of water. It also protects landlords in situations where 15 people are living in one apartment, Liebold said.

The Audit Program

New York City's water audit program started in 1991 and has since expanded to serve apartment buildings as well as the one- to three-family homes originally targeted. In the program's first phase, from 1991 to mid-1993, 12,000 one- to three-family homes were audited. The city's current contract with the energy and water services company, VIEWtech provides for more than 90,000 audits through 1994. We go in and identify leaks, and give the owner a unit-by-unit list of leaks, with energy and water savings calculations, said VIEWtech program manager Cathy Mousseau. More than 20,000 audits have been performed since November 1993, averaging 1,500-2,000 per week.

The audit service includes a careful leak inspection, in which auditors use a vial or bag to actually quantify faucet leaks, and categorize toilet leaks based on how quickly blue dye placed in the tank shows up in the bowl. They also perform a flow test on showerheads and offer to install more-efficient ones. Customers are given a choice of three showerheads--an aerating head, a non-aerating one, and a hand-held one. (About 60% of 426 respondents in a post-installation mail-in customer satisfaction survey said they liked their new showerheads more than their old ones, while 15% said they were about the same.)

Auditors also install flow-restricting faucet aerators and toilet tank displacements bags. In addition to saving water, the city is also gathering useful information about the existing building stock through the program, Liebold said.

The process has given Mousseau some insights into the demographics of the city as well. In the Bronx, a lot of people are home in the afternoon, she said. In Brooklyn, they're never home, and in Manhattan, they're never home and they don't want you bothering them for anything.

-- Abba Anderson



Related Articles

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)
Pulling Utilities Together: Water-Energy Partnerships (Jones, Dyer, and Obst)
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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