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The Plumbing vs. Management Dilemma

Reducing Water/Sewer Costs Without Losing Functionality

By: Frank Fixx, Master Plumber

“You cannot have a core of excellence in higher education if you don’t demonstrate a commitment to facilities. It is time to recognize that facilities provide the center piece around which all other functions of higher education take place.” 

Dr. Ernest L. Boyer, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

GETTING OFF THE DIME:  Today, the cost of water/sewer is proportionately one of the fastest growing business expenses in the United States. As water tables are being drawn down to critical levels all across the country, government leaders are learning the hard way that you can’t just legislate change; you can only bring it about through the use of pricing. The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, perhaps gives us the best example of this. With an aquifer almost totally depleted (and a perk rate of over 1,000 years to refill it) Albuquerque’s city fathers decided two years ago to mandate that by January, 2003, everyone living in the city had to replace their toilets with 1.6 gal low flow units.

The resistance to this program was tremendous.  Talk radio shows were filled with callers vowing to defend their property with firearms and to fight “being ordered by their local government to do anything that costs them money unnecessarily.”  The leaders of the Albuquerque renovation program were stunned and confused by the lack of cooperation.  “We are running out of water,” one project leader begged a detractor on a radio show, “What are you going to do when we have no water?”

“Maybe I’ll dig an outhouse!” the caller answered, “But no one is going to make me get rid of my perfectly good toilets!”

What was Albuquerque’s combined water/sewer rate at the time they were trying to force this mandate? As unbelievable as it may sound, the city’s rate was less than the national average, at the time, of $5.50 per thousand gallons. Is it any wonder that this type program, without a stick or carrot to produce incentive, failed to achieve its objective?  If, instead of demanding that everyone change out their toilets, the Albuquerque city fathers had quietly increased the water/sewer rates to match those of Boston, San Francisco and Sarasota Florida’s rates of around $12.00 per thousand gallons, the same callers who were ready to fight to keep their old toilets might have been calling in to find out where they could get the best deal on new 1.6 gal low flow fixtures.

At the Federal Water Conference held at Disney World in October, 2002, the common thread of accepted wisdom that most of the presenters referred to in their talks was “only pricing can produce conservation and that current water/sewer prices are way too cheap across the United States to produce substantially less consumption.” One Water District in Florida, for example, announced at the conference that they were planning to actually double water rates, every two years for the next 4 years (that would be $2.20 to $4.40 to $8.80).  Add in $3.00 to $5.00 sewer charges to that water costs and everyone in that District is going to be paying the current Sarasota rate of $12.00 per thousand gallons.

Will this bring about conservation?  You bet it will!  A $40.00 water/sewer bill ten years ago received very little attention. Today that same bill is $120.00 and causing some annoyance. When, in five or six years, your $350 to $400 water/sewer bill rivals your utility electric bill (or in many cases is greater than) it will get everyone’s undivided attention.

CONFLICTING OBJECTIVES:   As water/sewer rates rapidly increase across the country during the next several years, pressure will build on management to finds new ways to reduce consumption.  If it hasn’t already, business will begin to look at these runaway costs as totally unacceptable and will demand that management produce solutions. Good luck to those supervisors who continue to think that “Water/sewer is too small a percentage of the overall expense costs to worry about.”  Management is going to have to develop a “hands on” approach, become more involved, and certainly become a lot more knowledgeable about their plumbing systems than they are today.

Most facility supervisors and directors have never seen the inside of a commercial flush valve. They rely totally on their plumbing staffs to keep the systems maintained and operating in good order. They would no more make a plumbing system decision without their plumber’s input than they would make an electrical decision without their electrician’s input.  But caution should be the watch word here, for the main reason that the plumber’s objectives may be far different than those of management.

Except for repairing or preventing leaks, many plumbers do not have a burning desire to reduce water consumption. They should have, but they don’t.  I speak from experience. Plumbers feel this way with good reason. They look at any type of water use reduction as having a direct relationship towards increased maintenance requirements; in other words, reducing the water flow could create more work for the plumber.  In many cases this assumption would be correct.

The early 1.6 gal low flow toilets, brought on by passage of the 1993 Energy Act, were a disaster for one reason or another.  In their haste to comply with the order, many manufacturers produced flawed designs that failed to clear properly using such small amounts of water. The early fixtures were called “Four Flushers” and jokes about their poor performance were commonplace. Newly constructed facilities were required by law to have them installed so there was really no one to blame for their malfunctions except Congress. It bore the brunt of criticism and there was once even a bill before Congress to do away with the minimum flush 1.6 gal toilet.

On the other hand, aggressive management who sought to be the first on their blocks to dramatically cut water/sewer cost by renovating their systems with the new 1.6 gallon fixtures paid a high price in the abuse and criticism they had to endure.  Much of this complaining was led by their own plumbers, who were now forced to carry plumber’s snakes and plungers with them most of the work day. It is important to note here that this tremendous backlash, as a result of renovating with these new fixtures, set the stage for where we are today, with the plumbers in total charge of what happens within their facilities.

CASE IN POINT:    During our years in the full service “turn key” performance contracting business we have discovered many buildings where the water use was excessive to the point of almost being criminal.  We once audited an entire school district where all the fixtures, including those 1.6 gallon low flow units in newly constructed facilities, were all being serviced with Sloan A-36-A Kits which produced a 4.5 gallon flush cycle.  Do you think those plumbers who are responsible for flushing a 1.6 gallon fixture with 4.5 gallons of water are concerned about savings water?  I don’t think so.

“I am looking for something to put more water down the tube, not less,” we had the head plumber of a new hospital recently tell us. This fellow, I’ll call him Charlie, had just successfully retrofitted all of the brand new 1.6 gallon low flow toilets in his facility with A-38-A (3.5 gallon) kits. Now, his toilets were using twice the water they were designed to use. We pointed out to Charlie what we thought was a tremendous waste of water, “Flushing 3.5 gallons through a 1.6 gallon fixture is pretty wasteful, don’t you think?” we asked.

“Can’t help that,” Charlie said with authority. “The nurses were all complaining that they couldn’t clean bed pans with 1.6 gallons. They wanted more water so I am keeping them happy. I don’t get paid to save water, I get paid to make everything work right and to keep everybody happy.”

We certainly couldn’t argue with Charlie wanting to keep everybody happy, but we wanted to offer our solution. We told him about using a 2.5 Conservacap, that when used with his 3.5 gallon kits would take 1 gal back out of the flush cycle.  “You can flush a bed pan with 2.5 gallons of water easily,” we told him. “And with the new 1.6 china it would be more than enough water to clear every time.”

Charlie wasn’t convinced, “Everything is working well right now,” he smiled. “I am not sure that I want to experiment around trying to fix something that ain’t broke.”  We pointed out that as the cost would be less than $6,000 and the savings could be as much as $70,000 annually it might be a worthwhile experiment. But the plumber obviously felt that he had no real incentive.  Our visit with management, after we left Charlie, was even more enlightening. When we suggested that a $6,000 investment in Conservacap could probably save the hospital at least $4,000 maybe even $6,000 per month, the Director of Facilities became confused.

“How can that be?” he asked. “We have brand new 1.6 low flow fixtures.”  He had no idea what was going on. We pointed out to him that his plumber had been forced to modify all of his fixtures to make the nurses happy. This is not an unusual case. It is our contention that there are thousands of buildings operating today with new 1.6 gallon low flow fixtures that actually have the A-38-A (3.5 gallon) kits installed in them. In some cases this is happening with management’s knowledge. In many other cases, management doesn’t have a clue.

MANAGEMENT’S PERSPECTIVE:  The best advice we can offer management is to seriously get involved in understanding your plumbing system and its requirements.  If you think that your facility has all new 1.6 gallon low flow toilet fixtures and that you are doing all you can do with your fixtures to reduce water/sewer costs, go check out your maintenance supply shed or closet and see what sort of flushometer repair kits are in inventory.  If you see all A-41-A (1.6 gallon) Kits, you are on the right tract. Buy your plumber lunch and tell him how much you appreciate his good work.

If, during your inventory inspection, you see a combination of A-41-A (1.6 gallon) and A-38-A (3.5 gallon) kits, be on guard. You don’t need to jump to conclusion here, there is a chance that the plumbers are still servicing most fixtures with the A-41-A (1.6 gallon) kits and just using the A-38-A when they have a special clearing problem that requires more water. It is still worth having a meeting with the plumber and asking him face to face, eye to eye, “Charlie, how many of our low flow fixtures are we operating with 3.5 gallon kits in them?”  If Charlie tells you that he is not sure, that could be a bad sign. The only answer that should be acceptable is “Hardly any of them, except for the few problem units that we have.” And he should be able to tell you where those units are located.

If, during your inventory inspection, all you find are A-38-A (3.5 gallon) kits or worse yet, like the School District, we mentioned earlier, all you find are A-36-A (4.5 gallon) kits, you might want to ask, “Charlie, how long have you been with our organization, not counting today?”  The obvious problem here is that Charlie has no interest whatsoever in helping your organization reduce water/sewer costs and you have very little chance of instilling that desire in him.  Now, if you like the guy a lot (some plumbers, like myself, are very lovable) then you might want to make the effort. Ask him to show you how a flush valve works and explain to him that you have got to find a way to reduce water/sewer costs and you are counting on him to help you achieve your goals.  Remember, a plumber’s life is a lonely one. We get very little respect from management, and we feel it.  I always equate it to the old Matt Dillon lead-in on the radio program version of Gun Smoke:

“Marshall (Plumber) is a chancy job. You’re the last man people want to be around and yet the first one they call on when there’s trouble. Being Marshall (Plumber) makes a man watchful and little lonely…”   William Conrad (as Matt Dillon)

THE PLUMBER’S PERSPECTIVE:  Any good plumber, worth his salt, should have a genuine interest in reducing water use. After all, if he can’t do it, who will.  I have no patience with those in my profession who take the easy (and lazy) way out of applying more water to reduce maintenance headaches.  This is unprofessional and totally unacceptable.

The 1.6 gallon low flow fixture is here to stay. When designed and incorporated into new construction they generally work extremely well and do an excellent job conserving water. Plumbers should really welcome these products with open arms as some of the new piston driven flushometers require little or absolutely no maintenance.  On the other hand, using 1.6 gallon low flow fixtures to renovate an existing system requires more thought and consideration.

Today, all plumbers have legitimate concerns about how well some of our older systems will handle substantially less fluid flows through them. There is no question that a 4 inch waste line installed thirty or forty years ago, probably no longer has the same carry capacity that it once did.  In these situations, we are justified in having concerns about going to all new 1.6 gal fixtures. There are hundreds of documented cases where facilities have had to replace sewer lines to accommodate a renovation to new low flow fixtures, after the fact. This can be very expensive in older high-rise buildings where long lateral lines, accompanied by right angle turns, seem to continually stop up when fluid flow is reduced by two-thirds.

THE CONSERVACAP PITCH:   One of the reasons I helped to develop Conservacap was to provide an acceptable interim step (between 3.5 gallons and 1.6 gallons) that would allow plumbers to solve these dilemmas without having to replace existing sewer systems and without wasting the water that a return to an A-38-A (3.5 gallon) kit would cause. Today, I always explain to plumbers that we developed Conservacap on a functionality basis, not a water saving criteria.  In other words, the emphasis was on making sure that the fixture cleared, not on how much water could we save.  As a performance contractor, our company could NOT afford or allow call-backs. The cap had to do its job, and the savings were secondary. This is why our 2.75 Conservacap only saves ¾ of a gallon per flush instead of a full gallon. We wanted and needed that extra ¼ gallon cushion in the flushing cycle.

A Conservacap renovation is guaranteed first to create NO maintenance problems, which is why it has become so popular.  Unlike a total fixture replacement, Conservacap is affordable, easy and quick to install and can obtain ½ the savings of a total fixture change out with just a fraction of the cost.



Domestic Water Management

Fixture Renovation or Replacement?

By: Frank Fixx, Master Plumber

“To get a feeling for the extravagancies of the United States, all one really has to do is study how we handle our drinking water in this country. We collect it, filter it, chlorinate it, and yes, even fluoridate it, and then we put about 8 ounces of urine in a couple gallons of it and flush it down the drain.”            John M. Belcher,  Greenleaf Energy Management Conference, October, 1998 

Today, with water/sewer costs rising rapidly across the country, many Facility Managers are taking a sharp pencil to the problem in order to find the best solutions to reduce costs. The passage of the National Energy Act (NEA) in 1994 made it mandatory for all new toilet fixtures to NOT use more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf).  While this dramatic drop in water use (from an existing standard use of 3.5 gallons to 5 gallons per flush) has worked fairly well in most new construction projects, it has had some serious consequences when the new low flow fixtures are used to replace those in older facilities.

The primary concern today when replacing plumbing fixtures, with new low flow units, is not whether the fixtures themselves will function properly, but whether an older sewer system will continue to clear effectively when two-thirds of the fluid flow is removed from the sewage component.  While the first fixtures to meet the NEA’s requirement of 1.6 gpf were less than reliable and often failed to clear with a single flush, manufacturers eventually remedied this problem with new and better designs.

Unfortunately, there is no such easy fix for older sewer systems.  A waste line that is twenty to fifty years old (or older) no longer has the same “carry capacity” that it once did, when installed as shiny new pipes.  For this reason, the older the system, the less inclined we are to recommend Replacement as a viable alternative for reducing water/sewer costs.

Just to clarify our terminology, Replacement means removing the entire old fixture and replacing it with a new one.  Renovation means keeping the old fixture and rebuilding the flush valve (using Conservacap) to make it flush more effectively with less water.  By producing a new flush cycle of 2.75 gallons, Renovation provides an interim step between the old 3.5 gallons and the new 1.6 gallon flush cycle.  Renovation saves about 50% as much water as Replacement (but this remaining 50% can be very important to older sewer systems).  Also, Renovation can be done for a fraction of the Replacement cost (usually less than 5%), and be accomplished with a minimum of confusion and downtimes for restrooms.   A Conservacap Renovation usually produces a Return On Investment of from 100 to 400 percent, which is why we often refer to it as “The Low Cost Solution For Reducing Water/Sewer Costs.”

There are however situations when the need to modernize makes Replacement an absolute must.  Older fixtures that are stained, chipped and cracked are unsightly and in most cases no longer have a useful life.  Unfortunately, “older fixtures” usually mean “older sewer systems.”  For this reason, we think it is always a good idea when budgeting for total fixture replacement, in older facilities, to include a substantial contingency figure for sewer improvements. These funds may be used for something as simple as replacing long lateral lines or enlarging right angle turns.

Over the years our company has been concerned about installing new 1.6 gpf low flow fixtures in older high rise buildings that have questionable sewer systems.  We have successfully installed different makes of renovated flush valves on older china fixtures. Such was the case of the BellSouth Tower in Atlanta. This twenty year old, 45 story building had over 600 Coyne-Delaney flush valves which were expensive to maintain and used a tremendous amount of water. The China fixtures, on the other hand, were in excellent condition.  Our staff replaced the Coyne-Delaney flush valves with new Sloan valves that were retrofitted with Conservacap to use only 2.75 gallons per flush instead of the previous 4.5 gallons required by the old fixtures.  Despite the added expense of replacing entire flush valves, the water savings produced by this renovation paid back the entire installation costs in less than 3 years, and the facility staff was relieved of a tremendous maintenance burden. (Please review the case study BellSouth Office Tower at www.conservacap.com )

On several occasions we have been chastised by our environmental friends for not saving as much water with Renovation as we could with Replacement.  What these well meaning people don’t understand is that the use of water is not like the use of electricity, where the light is either on or off.  Water use is directly tied to functionality.  If the shower doesn’t remove the shampoo from your hair or the tap doesn’t fill up your teapot without requiring more of your valuable time, you are not going to be interested in the savings produced.  Likewise, if a toilet doesn’t clear the bowl with a single flush and a sewer system doesn’t continue to function well after a conversion, someone has made a mistake, and it just may be an expensive one to correct.



                                                                                               WATER RENOVATIONS

By Frank Fixx

The Problem: 

The National Energy Act (NEA), signed by President George P. Bush, in 1993, was supposed to dramatically reduce the amount of water consumed in the United States each year by putting new use limits on showers, faucets and toilets.  While the NEA has had a very positive effect in new construction and most of the older showers and sink faucets have today been renovated to meet the new code requirements, there is still a great deal of excess water running through older toilets.

The problem has been cost. A shower-head and a faucet moderator are both inexpensive, easily installed components that begin saving water immediately. Because their costs are minimal, and the water savings substantial, the Return on Investment (ROI) is exceptional (in many cases 100% or better)

On the other hand, replacing a commercial flushometer toilet or urinal with a new 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) low flow fixture is a much more expensive proposition.  Costs can range from $350 up to $550 depending on how extensive the remodeling requirements might be.  When these flushometer fixtures were developed back in the 1930’s, water was cheap and plentiful.  Because there were no constraints on the amount of water a fixture could use, a tremendous amount of excess was built into the flush cycle.

Even today, Sloan and Zurn, the two major producers of flushometer fixtures in the United States, provide internal working parts (called repair kits) that produce a use factor of from 3.5 gallons to 4.5 gallons per flush.  This is certainly a good deal more water per flush than the NEA’s mandated 1.6 gallons.

In addition to the cost hurtle there are some other obstacles that need to be addressed before changing out flushometer fixtures.  Many older buildings and campuses with partially corroded and clogged pipe systems require more water just to function on a gravity basis.  There are all kinds of scary examples of what happens when you take two-thirds of the fluid make up out of older sewer systems.  Both historic city halls of Miami Beach and Albuquerque had to jack hammer up the floors and redo the piping to make 1.6 low-flow fixtures work in their buildings.

Because manufacturers have made all these repair kits interchangeable, (i.e., the 1.6 gpf, 3.5 gpf, and 4.5 gpf kits all fit in the same fixture) there has been some confusion on the part of both plumbers and management.  This has led to the installation of 1.6 gpf low-flow kits in old fixtures (which won’t work at all because of the china design) and the installation of the 3.5 and 4.5 gpf kits in new low flow fixtures.  It is very common today to find an entire system of 1.6 gpf low-flow fixtures using 4 to 5 gallons of water per flush.

How can management tell?  By simply flushing toilets and timing the flush cycle.  Using average water pressure (50-80 PSI) the average flushometer will utilize about a half of gallon of water per second.  This means that a 1.6 gpf fixture should flush for only about 3 seconds while a 3.5 gpf fixture would run about 7 seconds and a 4.5 gpf fixture would operate about 9 to 10 seconds.  We have seen entire office buildings, hospitals and schools with new 1.6 gpf low-flow fixtures installed flushing a full 10 seconds in every fixture, using 4.5 gallons of water in every flush.  Don’t let that be your building.

The Solution:

When the developers of CONSERVACAP began manufacturing the product five years ago, they thought that they had just a four to five year window of opportunity to market the inexpensive water saving device.

“We couldn’t have been more wrong,” says Jim Smathers, one of the primary designers.  “I now think people will be buying this cap and retrofitting their old fixtures ten years from now.  Our sales have never been better.”

Conservacap is a replacement cap that fits into most pre-1993 Sloan and Zurn Flushometer Toilets and Urinals.  According to Smathers, the cap, once installed, reduces the amount of water used in a flush cycle by almost a third without affecting the functionality of the fixtures in any way.

“When we were beta-testing this cap, the goal was NOT to see how much water we could save, but to see how much water was needed to maintain perfect fixture functionality,” Smathers remembers. “Our emphasis has always been on total fixture performance.  That is why today, installers never have to worry about call-backs to solve a CONSERVACAP problem.  Believe me, the cap sells itself on its own performance.”

When asked about comparing the less than a gallon of water savings per flush with CONSERVACAP to the almost two gallons of water savings with a new 1.6 gpf low-flow fixture change-out, Smathers is quick to point out that CONSERVACAP does not compete with new fixture change-outs.

“If you have the money to buy new fixtures and your sewer system can handle the two-thirds reduction in fluid, new fixtures are definitely the way to go,” he says.  “It is all about saving the most water. Fixture change-outs do that. CONSERVACAP just offers a low cost solution for folks who want to save water right now but don’t have the capital to replace fixtures.  Because the cap renovation is relatively inexpensive and the pay back is usually less than a year, most of the time the cost can come right out of the average maintenance budget.”

Norm Poli has a Michigan-based company called J. Norman & Company which is one of the few National Distributors for CONSERVACAP.  He feels that CONSERVACAP also offers a viable alternative for facilities with older systems where plumbers have legitimate concerns about dramatically reducing the amount of fluid in their systems.

“A four-inch sewer pipe that is fifty years old probably doesn’t have a four inch carry today. That is certainly something to consider before changing out fixtures,” Poli says.  “Plus, isn’t it all really about Return on Investment?  A new fixture might save you two gallons per flush but it costs $400 installed.  CONSERVACAP saves you about a gallon per flush, but look at the cost difference.  You can buy the cap, a new repair kit (with all new working parts) and pay somebody to put it in for about $40.00.  That is one-half the savings for about a tenth of the cost.  You do the math!”

According to Poli, quite a few people have already done the math.  The Michigan Prison System and major colleges such as Southern Illinois University and the University of Colorado have already made sizeable investments in CONSERVACAP, doing their own in-house renovation projects.  In addition, several Energy Service Companies have already begun to use the product as part of their overall energy management programs.



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