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Blog: Water Conservation for Commercial Properties

Low-flow toilets. Flow restrictors. Timely leak repair. Most property managers are aware of these methods for reducing water consumption on commercial properties; but while they are effective, there is no reason to limit your water conservation efforts to these methods alone. 

Nearly every commercial building presents substantial “beyond the basics” water-saving opportunities. Let’s take a look at some additional ways for savvy property managers to reduce water expenses for commercial properties.

Metering and submetering 

First things first: It’s hard to save water effectively if you don’t know how much water you’re using. The EPA recommends tracking and monitoring all of your water, including a separate meter for each water source. It also recommends installing separate submeters for each water-use application within your building—domestic water, HVAC systems, cooling-tower supply lines, pools and water features, irrigation and other areas. 

That way you can pinpoint exactly what’s happening where in your building, whether it’s savings due to improvements you’ve made or a problem that needs to be addressed. For more information on this topic, see the EPA report, WaterSense at Work: Best Management Practices for Commercial and Industrial Facilities

In the kitchen

A commercial kitchen offers many opportunities for water conservation; most of them have been reported in detail in other places. However, if your building has a cooling tower, you should know about one hidden water-saving opportunity that few property managers are aware of: addressing airborne kitchen grease. 

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine how controlling kitchen grease could save water. The secret, says Holly Elmore, founder and CEO of the nonprofit sustainability consultancy Elemental Impact, is to follow the flow. 

“Commercial kitchens are required to have exhaust systems because of fire hazards,” she says. “The grease gets sucked into the duct system, and it gets everywhere—it collects on baffle filters, goes through the exhaust system and even deposits on the roof, which can lead to roof damage. A lot of it ends up in the air, where it can impact EPA air-quality ratings for particulates and ground ozone.” 

All of this grease buildup requires frequent and aggressive cleaning. Many establishments consume a great deal of water to clean their metal exhaust fan baffle filters each night, in addition to monthly or quarterly cleanings of the entire exhaust system at an average of 350 gallons of water per cleaning. Large quantities of toxic chemicals are typically used as well. 

Elmore advocates the use of a pre-filter in front of the baffle filters, which collects 99 percent of the grease and significantly reduces the necessity for cleaning. Such a system has been installed in the Atlanta airport as part of its sustainable food court initiative. “They did it to protect against roof damage, but it will save each restaurant over $700,000 per year in cleaning costs, including water and labor,” Elmore says.

Water recycling

Finding ways to reuse water that would otherwise go down the drain is an excellent way to reduce your water bill. Graywater systems, which reuse water from sinks and laundry for non-potable uses such as toilet flushing and irrigation, are now in use across the country in commercial buildings such as the Margot and Harold Schiff Residences apartment building in Chicago.  

However, many commercial buildings offer ample water-recycling opportunities beyond graywater, says Edward J. Brady, CEM, ARCSA, water efficiency program manager at Healthy Buildings. “You can harvest the condensate dripping from air handler unit coils. This is absolutely pure water that typically just goes down the drain.” This water is especially well suited for reuse as cooling-tower make-up water, he adds, because it doesn’t contain minerals or particulate and can reduce blowdown, thus conserving even more water. 

Savings can be substantial. One small, $28,000 air handling unit condensate system installed in a building in Florida saved almost $15,000 per year for a sub-two-year payback. Similar ROIs have been achieved even in the dry climate of California.

Effluent from below-grade dewatering systems can sometimes be used again. Its usefulness depends on water quality, but if it is clean enough, it can be filtered and used for landscape irrigation.  

Swimming pools and water features

Swimming pools and outdoor water features lose a lot of water to evaporation, especially in hot, dry climates. Much of this water can be retained through the use of a liquid pool cover, Brady says. “It’s a non-toxic, oil-based product that floats on the surface of the water and keeps it from evaporating,” he adds. “You can’t even see it, but it cuts evaporation by 70 percent. It also cuts humidity, which leads to air-handling savings.”

In conclusion

The above ideas are just a sampling of innovative water conservation methods for your commercial building. There are numerous other solutions out there, many of which may also save significant amounts of energy, waste, labor and/or property maintenance costs. Perhaps you are already using some of them. What is your favorite way to save water on your commercial property?


Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer with expertise in areas including construction, small business management and sustainability (www.thegreeninkwell.com).

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