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 Rise of Water Service Companies


With water supply a major resource problem in areas scattered across the United States, private water service companies--following in the footsteps of energy service companies (ESCos)--are springing up to retrofit buildings for water savings. The companies investigate fluctuating water bills to detect and cap leaks. They operate largely on shared savings agreements, performing the retrofits for free and sharing the resulting water savings with property owners.

It's really a win-win situation for everyone, said Alan Parks, president of Miami-based American Water and Energy Savers, Incorporated. The only one who really loses is the water company.

Whether you call them WETCos or WASCos, water service companies in California, Arizona, Florida, Colorado, and Virginia are finding it easy to cut water costs by making adjustments in a housing unit. Sustaining the savings is a major part of the job, and these companies often maintain the buildings to assure a profit.

As consumers get better educated about water efficiency, WASCOs may slowly disappear, according to Andrew Jones of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). The enlightened water customer will realize that, given the capital, [he or she] could have done the same retrofit and taken 100% of the profits.

To maintain a competitive edge, some WETCos are luring customers with their expertise in testing the devices to find the ones which will save the most money. However, the array of water-saving equipment on the market includes many devices considered faulty or inefficient, said Dave Parsons of Virginia-based Water Management, Incorporated, which focuses on reducing water leaks in faucets, toilets, and showers. Parsons attributes the company's achievement of an average 32% water savings to regular testing of various water-saving devices.

We want to make sure that what we put in there actually ... achieves the end result, Parsons said. In a test of devices carried out by Water Management, only one out of five pieces of water-saving equipment actually worked. The bulk of devices exhibit constant-design failures, he said, which can devastate a company whose only revenues come from water savings. In Water Management's tests of several dozen low-flush toilets, only four or five proved to be adequate.

As for low-flow showerheads--a tough sell to tenants--carefully selecting the spray pattern of a shower can make a big difference, Parsons said. It's best to please the tenant, since they can easily remove the device and reduce the savings.

When Water Management takes on a client, the first thing they do is survey the consumption history throughout the year, Parsons said. Then they examine the building and the types of residents. Varying types of populations seem to use water differently, according to Parsons. We compare the property against the company's database, estimating what savings can be expected, and at what cost.

For example, the company recently took on a 448-unit development where the average consumption was 400 gallons per apartment per day. Water Management repaired all the leaking fixtures and installed efficient showerheads and faucet aerators. The retrofits brought consumption down to 250 gallons per unit per day, for an $80,000 annual reduction in water costs, of which the company gets half. Overall, the company had nearly 19,000 residential units under contract as of last February and had reduced consumption in these units from 252 gallons per unit per day, to 180 gallons per unit per day, for an average savings of 29%.

Miami-based American Water & Energy Savers has contracted with numerous apartment building owners, primarily in the Southern states. The company offers savings of 30%-52% on water and sewer bills. American Water is beginning to retrofit nursing homes, colleges, and even shopping centers as well. Instead of installing new low-flow toilets--which are expensive--American Water installs early closure devices which save up to one-third of the water in a flush. These toilet flappers are made of polyvinyl chloride, so they are longer-lived than rubber flappers; the rubber erodes quickly in tap water because of the chemicals used to treat the water, Parks said.

Another commonly installed water-saving solution for Southern climates is the installation of water-sensitive sprinkler systems that shut down when they sense moisture. After a storm, sprinklers won't come on until the soil has dried out.

For apartment buildings, conservation is the `Band-Aid,' but the long-term solution is sub-metering, Parks said. As soon as people are paying for what they use they immediately use less. Parks' staff installs and reads the meters in apartments and then bills individual renters before paying the property owner. Meters, which can be leased for three to five years, help WASCos carefully measure savings. But sub-metering isn't always possible, especially when there are multiple water pipes in each apartment.

As competitive as the industry is, WETCos are a transitional phenomenon, because they are implementing changes that are now being mandated by building codes around the country, according to RMI's Scott Chaplin. The new national plumbing code requires low-flush toilets, and efficient showerheads and faucets. RMI estimates that a house typically loses 5% of its indoor water through leaks. In California and other states, all new construction must be equipped with low-flush toilets.

Barbara Jordan, a water consultant, noted that consumers who regularly check and replace washers, can significantly reduce their water and electrical bills. She also said that as people become more astute in trying to save money they are buying more efficient appliances. But Jordan, who developed water-conservation programs for the cities of San Jose and Phoenix, believes there will always be room for new types of companies like WETCos to offer their services. The services change and we change with the services.

-- Linda Berlin

Linda Berlin is a freelance writer based in Stinson Beach, California.



Related Articles

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)
Pulling Utilities Together: Water-Energy Partnerships (Jones, Dyer, and Obst)
Remodeling Bathrooms: Let the Energy Savings Flow (Johnston)
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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