In a typical office high-rise, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the three largest uses of water are restrooms, heating and cooling, and landscaping. For years, water service costs have risen at a rate well above the consumer price index, and they’re expected to continue to increase in order to offset costs associated with replacement of aging municipal water supply systems.

While energy conservation has been the big focus in commercial real estate, best practices in water conservation are becoming just as prevalent.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge has decided to reframe its energy-efficiency program by now including water-conservation goals as well. Currently, more than 250 organizations have partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the Better Buildings Challenge, working to achieve 20-percent energy savings and then sharing the strategies they’re successfully using to improve performance. In addition to reducing energy usage, participants will now be asked to reduce water usage as well, and report back on the methods that work. And this is just one example of how water conservation is coming to light.

Simple Adjustments, Significant Savings

Built in 1961, South Tryon Square is a 236,697-square-foot, 15-story building in Charlotte, NC, that underwent a total renovation in 1999. It also features a nearby 11-story parking garage for its technology, real estate, legal, and staffing consultant tenants.

American Realty Advisors took over asset management responsibilities for the tower in 2012 with a goal of implementing more green building practices.

“Today, the building’s office waste is deposited into an onsite trash compactor to reduce the amount of scheduled trash pickups per week, as well as to reduce the amount of space consumed in the landfills,” says David Hubbs, senior portfolio manager at American Realty Advisors. An annual electronic recycling event is held for tenants, offering them the opportunity to get rid of computers and phones so they can be reclaimed, recycled, and kept out of the landfill.

American Realty Advisors also selected a janitorial vendor that uses green cleaning products to mitigate environmental impact, and invested in an energy management system to manage, control, and monitor the building’s HVAC systems.

As part of its focus on green practices, Hubbs says the team also wanted to incorporate Envision Charlotte’s “Smart Water Now” movement, which tracks and reports water usage in Uptown Charlotte buildings. (Envision Charlotte develops energy, water, waste, and air programs to conserve the city’s resources and reduce operating costs.) These Uptown Charlotte buildings, including South Tryon Square, use a total of 238 million gallons of water each year. American Realty Advisors wanted to help reduce that number.

“The need for water conservation is a growing concern across the country,” says American Realty Advisors Chairman & CEO Stanley Iezman. “Forty states expect water shortages in the next decade. Commercial properties account for nearly 12 percent of total U.S. water consumption. It’s essential for asset managers to go beyond talking about sustainability, and instead find new ways to actually move the needle when it comes to water use reduction.”

American Realty Advisors first evaluated the building’s total water usage, costs, and wastewater. It then worked with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department to identify the water-conservation techniques that have been successful in the Charlotte area, and tailored them to fit South Tryon Square’s unique needs. As a result, investments were made in:

  • Low-flow water fixtures to replace all existing faucets and toilets throughout the building
  • Automated water faucets and soap dispensers in each restroom

The team also plans to replace 28 flush valves from 1.0 to 0.5 gallon flush valves in 2016 to further improve water conservation.

As South Tryon Square proved, it doesn’t take state-of-the-art technology or grandiose ideas to make a big difference in water usage. By addressing the basics first, American Realty Advisors experienced 27-percent annual water savings for South Tryon Square – not only decreasing operating expenses, but also successfully reducing the property’s impact on the environment. The reductions equate to saving 1.4 million gallons of water each year.

Hubbs says that the tower’s water-conservation efforts rely on tenant acceptance and buy-in – and wouldn’t have been successful if the tenants didn’t fully support the mission. “We felt that tenant education would be most helpful in promoting our sustainability efforts at the property,” he explains. “So we implemented a ‘Green Tenant’ gift program this year, which includes a potted plant and note that explains our commitment to being ecologically responsible. These gifts are delivered on anniversaries and to new tenants, welcoming them to the building.”

American Realty Advisors also communicates regularly with tenants about the green building practices being implemented, and the environmental impacts they have.

201 S. Tryon

American Realty Advisors experienced 27-percent annual water savings for South Tryon Square with simple investments in water-conserving systems. Photo: American Realty Advisors

Water Conservation Best Practices: Where to Start

To start improving your own water-conservation efforts, Hubbs recommends contacting the local utility company for advice on how you can best implement conservation techniques for your property.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also offers helpful recommendations for water conservation best practices in commercial buildings, many of which were put into practice at South Tryon Square:

  • Ensure that cooling towers are in good condition, operated properly, and well maintained to minimize their water usage
  • Properly insulate hot water pipes so tenants don’t have to run the faucets as long to get hot water.
  • For landscaping irrigation and toilet flushing, use graywater or rainwater instead of drinking water if permissible
  • Install aerators for faucets
  • Install high-efficiency toilet and urinal flush valves

Low-flow or waterless fixtures are often go-to investments to decrease water usage, but Jeffrey Salay, principal, Building Energy Services Section Head, at GHT Limited, shares a few words of caution: “You want to be very careful to make sure you have enough water flow going into the systems to keep the pipes flushed out so you don’t have any buildup of dissolved solids or anything else getting stuck.”

Not only can this lead to high maintenance costs, but it can also cause performance problems with your restrooms. “Get a plan in place first to make sure the entire system actually operates properly before you invest in low-flow fixtures for the entire building.”

Implementing leak detection methods is another way to reduce water usage. According to the Energy Resource Center, one drop per second from a leaky faucet could equate 2,700 gallons a year. Although you can encourage tenants and occupants to report any drips or leaks they find in restrooms, kitchen areas, etc., there are some leaks that may go unnoticed.

In cases like these, submetering technology can help detect running or dripping water or valve leaks that are adding to your water bill. By comparing water usage in submetered areas, you can pinpoint the location and cause of the leak.

When individual multifamily housing units are submetered, tenants who suspect a leak can pinpoint it themselves before calling in a maintenance request. After turning off all faucets and appliances, they can take a look at the meter. If the dial is moving, the tenant can assume there’s a leak and then notify maintenance. This can also help catch potential problems early, preventing water damage from leaks that go unnoticed for days or weeks.

Digital in-line meters can also be installed directly into a high-rise’s piping system to obtain accurate, real-time flow readings.

And even though the focus of these efforts is water conservation, many water-saving efforts also offer an opportunity to save energy. “In a commercial building, depending on the use and type of building, domestic hot water can consume about 10 to 15 percent of building’s total energy usage,” says Goran Ostojic, managing principal at Integral Group. When less hot water is used, less water must be heated – and that conserves energy.

Leah Grout-Garris

Leah Garris An award winning editor, Leah spent over eight years in senior editorial positions at both BUILDINGS magazine and ARCHI-TECH magazine. Her work has been incorporated into training and educational programs around the country. She is a graduate of University of Iowa. She is Editor at Large for High Rise Facilities.