The word “retrofitting” can often send a shudder down the spine of owners or facility managers. The potentially high price tag, disruption…is it worth it, what’s the ROI and how long will it take to recoup the costs? Will my customers and tenants appreciate and benefit from it? Well, there is one area where it really is worth considering using the “r” word—water-saving commercial toilets. Not convinced? Let’s look at a few of the facts to see what the deal is; we think there are some commercial toilet retrofits that will leave you feeling flushed (groan).

The Cost of a Flush

According to the EPA, the highest portion of end water use for most commercial facilities goes to bathrooms and restrooms at up to 40% of the bill. (Restaurants are the exception with dishwashing being the highest portion and restrooms coming in second at 31% of total water use.) And keep in mind that many municipalities charge for discharge, or sewage, as well, which means reducing your water volume saves both water and sewage costs.

Imagine if you could cut water and sewage costs by 20% or more and reap other benefits at the same time!

Well, here’s the good news. Not only is it possible to save on this portion of your eye-watering bill–you may also qualify for financial incentives to do so. But before we get to that, let’s look at the current state of commercial water usage, how we got here, and why some business owners and facility managers are already making changes to their buildings’ water usage. 

Water Saving Toilets and the Big Picture on Commercial Water Use

We know from data compiled in the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) that the average water use by a large commercial building is 7.9 million gallons a year—that’s 22,000 gallons per day. In fact, according to this survey, in 2012 the total water used by 46,000 large buildings was 359 billion gallons of water!

This is a lot of water at a time when, in California, water demand already outstrips supply, and the prediction by many experts is that there will be a 40% supply gap by 2030.

How did we get here? Well, back in the 1980s toilets were using as much as 5gpf (gallons per flush)—this was also a time when people with mullets, mustaches, and shoulder pads were driving around in cars that got as little as 16 mpg. As time moved on, the fashion got ditched (thank goodness), and cars now get 35 mpg or more—but we still have many of the same toilets. Simply put, toilet technology was not developed at the same pace as car fuel economy, leaving many buildings with the equivalent of 16 mpg cars in bathrooms and restrooms.

ROI – Show Me the Money

These older toilets (pre-1994) use 3-5 times more water than new water-efficient toilets, and as we said before, water use for commercial bathrooms can be as much as 40% of a water bill, so it’s easy to see how replacing just a few toilets can make a huge difference in water use and costs.

As an example, if a large office building with 2,500 occupants replaced its inefficient toilets and urinals with newer High-Efficiency Toilets (HETs) and placed aerators on standard faucets it would reduce water usage by almost 3.9 million gallons a year and $36,000 in water costs!

One Star Flush Performance

It’s true, not all first-generation water-saving toilets got five-star reviews. Low flush v.1.0 left many of us scarred from a bad flush experience. So, for those of you who have been quietly mouthing that water-saving toilets just don’t work, do not worry, current high-efficiency toilets (HETs) are not your mother’s low-flush toilets.

In the early days of water-saving toilets in the 1990s, a time when phones were bricks, real bricks were being put into toilet water tanks to try and save water. And to comply with laws introduced in 1994 that called for all new installations of toilets to be 1.6 gpf or less, some manufacturers followed the brick principle and only modified the tank size with no further redesign. No wonder there was dissatisfaction.

Where Soybeans and Toilets Meet

It wasn’t until 2002 that real testing and performance standards began to be established. In this year a program called Maximum Performance (or MaP) Testing was created.

And this is where soybeans come in. Specifically, soybean paste (hopefully, this does not require any further description). MaP labs have been busy at work, perfecting flush performance using soybean paste and toilet paper to measure exact grams-to-water volume ratios and publishing their results for manufacturers.

This, together with new advancements in design and technology such as modification of bowl contours that improve flushing and pressure-assisted flushers means HETs are superior to the first-generation of water-saving toilets.

Water Saving Toilet Rebates Available

So now we know that HETs are going to work and save on water costs, let’s take a look at some of the incentives to help with the cost of replacing old toilets.

Here is a list of some of the commercial toilet rebates currently available:

  • California Water Service is offering rebates of up to $400 per unit for HET toilets and urinals for water districts across California.
  • Seattle Public Utilities in conjunction with the Saving Water Partnership are offering up to $100 per toilet for business, commercial, and multifamily buildings. Toilets have to be pre-2004 and replaced with new high-efficiency, high-performance toilets.
  • SoCal Water Smart offers rebates of $40 for toilets and $200 for urinals that are high efficiency. Covers many counties in Southern California.
  • In San Mateo County, the North Coast County Water District offers owners and managers of commercial buildings up to $60 per toilet for HET replacement.
  • Placer County Water Agency is also offering incentives for commercial buildings to replace toilets and half the amount of water used in each flush. They offer up to $50 to switch to waterless or low-flush urinals, and up to $50 for replacing toilets that flush 3 gallons per flush (gpf) with HET toilets that use 1.6 or 1.28 gpf.
  • In Florida, Conservation Pays is offering up to $100 per toilet for commercial buildings in counties across the state for replacement HETs that use 1.28 gallons per flush or less.
  • The City of Sacramento is offering up to $250 to replace pre-1992 toilets in commercial buildings with water-saving HETs that use 1.28 gpf or less.
  • San Luis Obispo – Offering up to $100 to replace existing fixtures with HETs and/or urinals.

And the Even Bigger Picture on Water Use

The fact is, the rise we see in water bills can only be reduced by less use. Conserving water now will help to lower water rates in the future by reducing the amount of money municipalities have to spend on bringing in more water. While cutting back on water can sound as groan-inducing as being told to go on yet another diet, cutting back on water use and mitigating the risk of water scarcity can become a competitive edge for your company. Water shortages from high water use have made many business owners aware that water scarcity, droughts, and water tables dropping means reducing their operational water footprint is a must.

Finding a Water Saving Retrofit Partner

Our facilities management teams have helped hundreds of commercial property managers upgrade toilets and find even more savings beyond rebates through our relationships with municipal water and wastewater agencies–in some cases covering the entire cost of retrofitting a building.

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