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A Landlord's Approach to Water Conservation

Hello. My name is Jeff and I’ve been a landlord and restaurant owner since 1987. I became interested in saving water around 1999 when I started to get the "green bug"”.

Water wasn’t terribly expensive in the last millennium (except when I had a leak that I didn’t know about and I got the bill!) but enough so that it made sense to save what I could.

I hope that sharing my experience can help my conservation minded friends in their quest to save water, energy and money.

My purpose was to conserve water in my rental units but I started to experiment at home. After a short time I came up with a routine that I applied to each rental unit.

Meet & Greet

I like to share my conservation vision with as many people as possible, especially those who will be part of the program. Although going green was not as popular back in 1999 as it is today, rarely will anyone will argue with saving money.

I realized that if I explained to my tenants that their new upgrades would help keep their rent or utility bills down, they would gladly go along with the change.

It is important to note that water/sewer is often included in rent and some tenants consider this as a free utility. Of course it’s not since the rent is calculated by considering all of it’s parts – taxes, mortgage, insurance, maintenance and utilities.

While water/sewer is sometimes included in the rent, mostly because it is difficult or not practical to separate the water lines and install individual meters (submetering), the hot water heater is more often the tenant’s responsibility. Domestic hot water heaters are commonly electric or gas and make up a good part of the bill. Once I explain that the energy to heat water costs 3-5 times that of the water/sewer itself, most tenants begin to see that they do have something to save/gain by going along with the program.

Toilet – identify leaks

Start in the bathroom. This is a simple test to determine if water is leaking from the tank to the bowl. Lift the lid off the tank and drop in 1 leak detector dye tablet or some dark food coloring. Wait about 10-15 minutes for the dye to disburse throughout the water. While you are waiting ………..

Check out the shower

The shower is a very personal place and some folks can grow very attached to their showerhead. I like to do a before and after test; turn on the shower full blast and check out the flow quality, then switch out the existing showerhead for a lower flow model. If the tenant is watching, get their reaction. Make sure you check the existing flow rate, marked somewhere on the showerhead, so you can measure the savings.

The last thing you want is for someone to torpedo your conservation effort the minute you walk out the door. If you have chosen a good showerhead, this should become a positive. If the tenant doesn’t like it, find out why and: explain and educate again, try a different low flow model, install a tamperproof model or ask them to just try it for 2 weeks and if they don’t like it they can switch back to their old showerhead. The best time to install a new showerhead is when the unit turns over.

Some tenants will require a handheld showerhead model. Low flow models are available although they are not too common. Handhelds are a nice upgrade, offering added height for tall people, and are useful for washing kids and pets or if your tenant is handicapped.

Note on flow rate

The federal government passed the Energy Policy Act of 1994 which required caps on flow rates in gallons per minute (gpm) or gallons per flush (gpf).

Showerheads: 2.5 gpm Faucets: 2.2 gpm Toilets: 1.6 gpf Urinals: 1.0 gpf Commercial handwash sinks: .5 gpm Commercial kitchen dishwashing pre-rinse sinks: 1.6 gpm

Now, some 15 years later, these flow rates have become standard. However, there are plenty of older fixtures in use that flow at higher rates. Typical flow rates pre-1994 were 3-7 gpm or gpf.

Flow rates are unbiased measures. They are an easy way to compare product choices.

Tub

Now is a good time to make sure the tub spout is not leaking when the shower is on. If there is water coming out of the tub spout while the shower is on, repair or replace the tub spout or diverter.

Bathroom & Kitchen Sinks

I check for leaks at the faucet and underneath at the drain. While a leaking drain doesn’t increase the utility bill, it does cause water damage. The trap fittings loosen up over time or get knocked around so make sure all is well. If the faucet is leaking, repair or replace it. Drips add up quickly.

Next change the faucet aerator to a 1.5, 1.0 or .5 gpm flow rate. Aerators are so inexpensive and readily available that I always stock them and put them in my faucets everywhere. No one ever complained about a low flow rate in the bathroom. I use either 1.0 or .5 gpm.

In the kitchen, where filling pots and washing requires a higher flow rate, 1.5 or 1.0 gpm works best. If the tenant has a swivel sprayer and you replace it with a plain aerator, chances are it will be back on right after you leave. If they don’t have a swivel sprayer, now is a good time for a low cost upgrade. Tenants love upgrades.

Back to the can

So it’s been 10-15 minutes now and the dye tablet has turned the toilet water blue. Check the bowl. If it’s blue also, even just slightly, the flapper is probably leaking.

The flapper is the flexible seal that is attached to the chain that is attached the flush lever. When you flush, the flapper lifts up and the water in the tank moves to the bowl, and then down the drain. Depending on water quality and whether your tenant uses a toilet bowl cleaner in the tank, flappers may last from 2 to 7 years. I always stock flappers and other toilet parts because toilets are notorious for causing high water bills or overloaded septic systems.

Flappers are the most common cause of toilet leaks but there are other possible problems: fill valve, ball float, overflow tube, chain and handle. Look around and make sure everything is working correctly. If not, consider replacing the parts inside the tank. These parts are readily available at any retail or online hardware store.

Aside

I once purchased a bank owned property with a “failed septic system”. The bank estimated the repair at $20,000 and, since no one would buy this otherwise fine piece of real estate, I got it below market value. Guess what? Both toilets in the house had bad flappers that I fixed for under $10. The septic was just overloaded and after a few days was back to normal. How’s that for instant equity?!

Toilet retrofit devices – getting your old toilet to use less water.

Volume displacement – the brick or milk jug method – work great. Keep them clear of the flushing mechanisms. Also available now are pvc or vinyl bags, manufactured for this exact purpose, that are filled with water and hang from the side of the tank. AKA: toilet tank bank.

Toilet dams, unlike volume displacement devices, reduce the amount of water available per flush by holding a small amount of water out of use. The dams usually consist of two pieces of flexible plastic that are wedged into the tank on either side of the flush valve and act like dams. Water held back by the dams is not able to be used and thus saved each time the toilet is flushed.

The early-close flapper replaces the standard flapper valve and is designed to shut sooner, before all the water in the toilet tank can flow into the toilet bowl. Early-close flappers often are adjustable, in order to find a good balance between saving water and having the toilet bowl reliably cleared.

A toilet fill cycle diverter, is a simple plastic device that fits onto the end of the flexible hose and clips over the fill tube. By diverting some of the water that would normally fill the bowl to the tank, up to .5 gallon can be saved. This reduces the water in the bowl only and does not negatively affect flushing.

Toilet replacement – the most expensive fix – but only in up front costs. I consider the new low flow toilets I install an investment in efficiency. 1.6 gpf is really not necessary when 1.28 or 1.0 gpf models are available. The HETs (high efficiency toilets) can pay for themselves in less than 1 year depending on water/sewer rates. Less maintenance - look for a flapperless or pressure assist toilet to eliminate the problems associated with flapper toilets. I have had water/sewer bills in the hundreds and once over a thousand dollars from running toilets! Even if the tenant is supposed to be responsible for the water/sewer bill they are always reluctant and sometimes unable to pay for a cost spike.

Recap

I check for leaks regularly and fix them right away even if it is a just a minor leak. I compare flow rates of existing fixtures and switch to lower flow rates wherever possible.

I explain and educate tenants, building managers and everyone else who wants to listen. That’s my water conservation story - hope you liked it. Good luck on your conservation quest!

Jeff Porter jeff@usalandlord.com