How to Improve Water Conservation at Work

Business Sustainability

Embarking on your sustainability journey can be quite exciting.

Showing off your solar panels and LED lights is actually quite cool. Coming up with innovative ways to divert waste from the landfill will also interest and engage others.

But talking about your new 1.28 gpf high-efficiency toilets? Unless you’re talking to a sustainability geek like me, you’ll find that most people will quickly lose interest.

Yet water conservation is also an important component that can’t be ignored as you’re building a sustainable business.

The Need for Water Conservation

Energy efficiency and waste reduction get much of the attention when it comes to business sustainability, while the use of water in business is often overlooked.

However, water scarcity has emerged as a critical issue that is already affecting millions of people worldwide, and it must be addressed by businesses that want to be sustainable.

The issues around water scarcity come down to basic supply and demand. As the population increases, more people need water; at the same time, pollution and droughts are decreasing the available water supply.

According to the U.N., “Water scarcity is among the main problems to be faced by many societies and the World in the 21st century.”

This is not an abstract issue. Here in California we’ve certainly felt the effects of a historic drought. And Cape Town, South Africa may have the dubious distinction of being the first major city to run out of water.

On occasion, I’ve run into business professionals who insist that their business is sustainable and that their toilets don’t matter. Yet how can a business that ignores water conservation and knowingly wastes a scarce resource claim to be sustainable? I don’t believe that it can.

Toilets and Water Consumption

With the reality of water scarcity as context, we can more clearly appreciate need for high-efficiency toilets. We need to conserve water, and your toilets are a good place to start!

According to the EPA, sanitary fixtures and equipment (e.g., toilets and urinals) can account for up to almost 40% of an office building’s water consumption!

Although the federal standard for toilets has been 1.6 gallons of water per flush (gpf) since 1994, older toilets can use up to 3.5 gpf. If you’re in a building that was built or had the restrooms renovated any time after that, you have low-flow toilets.

However, if your business is in an older building that has not upgraded its toilets, you may still be using an unnecessary two gallons of water with every flush. You would be surprised at how many businesses with sustainable values are housed in buildings with old, inefficient toilets.

This wastes both water and money because you (or your landlord) are paying for that water. While the price of water may not be much right now, that will most likely change as this resource becomes more scarce and we learn to value it properly.

How to Tell If Your Toilet is 1.6 gpf

There are a few ways to tell if your toilets are 1.6 gpf, listed here from most effective to least effective:

  • Check the toilet between the seat and the tank. Close to the hinge, look for a “1.6 gpf” stamp.  (No one ever notices this until they look for it!)
  • Check inside the tank. Remove the lid to the tank and see if the “1.6 gpf” stamp is inside.
  • Check outside the bowl. Look for a “1.6 gpf ” stamp.
  • Count how long it takes for the bowl to empty and refill after you flush. Begin counting when you flush; if it takes more than five seconds for the toilet bowl to refill, you most likely have an older toilet. A 1.6 gpf toilet should take five seconds to refill, and a 1.28 gpf toilet should take three seconds to refill.
  • Look inside the tank to see how large it is. If it looks like you could fit two one-gallon jugs of milk side-by-side, you probably have an older toilet.

This should take just a few minutes but will let you know if your toilets are low-flow or not. Someday in the future, we may not need to worry about this, as we will most likely transition to waterless urinals and composting toilets, but until then, check your toilets.

Next Steps

If you have an older toilet, it’s time for an upgrade! Fortunately, many water utilities offer rebates to help you offset the cost of a new toilet. These rebates typically range from $50-100 if you’re upgrading from a 3.5 gpf to a 1.28 gpf toilet but be sure to read the rebate requirements first to make sure that the toilet you buy will qualify.

If you’re going to upgrade your toilet, look for the EPA Water Sense label. Toilets and other products with this label are 20% more efficient than average products in the same category.

If you’re still not sure about your toilet, or if you have other areas of water impact such as landscaping or manufacturing, contact your local water utility to find out about additional water conservation options. Many utilities have information on their websites about water conservation, and some may even offer free water surveys, where they will help you to assess your water usage and identify opportunities for reduction.