ECOBROWNSTONE: The Art of Brownstone Greenovation -
Water Conservation -- A Holistic Approach That Saves Water and Energy
Noreen Adler
Founder and President, Ecobrownstone

Noreen is Founder and President of Ecobrownstone.  She has been a resident of brownstone Brooklyn (Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens) for over two decades and has planned, designed and managed a wide range of renovation and real estate development projects in Brooklyn and elsewhere. As a developer she is a member of the NYC Committee evaluating the LEED for Homes Guidelines for application in New York.  She also has a personal passion for sculptural relief ceramic tiles and murals which she has designed and fabricated at her studio on the Gowanus Canal. 

By Noreen Adler
Published on 05/29/2008

Depleting potable water supplies due to over-development, global warming, and industrial and agricultural pollution are leading to water shortages.  In addition, wasted water in NYC flows into the already overtaxed sewer system.  This article describes the many measures you can implement to conserve water when renovating your brownstone, and smaller scale, high impact changes that can be made without major renovations. 

Identifying the Problem

.  .  .

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink. . . .

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The human race has managed to hang an albatross around its neck – the prospect of depleting potable water supplies due to over-development, global warming, and industrial and agricultural pollution. The solution involves not only reversing the trends toward the depletion and pollution of clean water sources in our natural environment, but also involves a fundamental shift in mainstream attitudes towards the view that potable water is a precious resource to be used sparingly and wisely. We don’t want to find ourselves, like that ancient mariner of old, adrift in a harsh climate with nothing to drink.

Identifying the problem

Wasting potable water. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the mean per capita indoor daily water use in today’s homes is slightly over 64 gallons (256 gallons a day for a family of four) – enough to fill a standard bathtub 3 times per person. If you have a landscaped garden with an irrigation system your water use may increase by 37%.  Of that use, the toilet and clothes washer make up the largest portions being at 26% and 22% respectively, with faucets (17%), showers (16%) and leaks (14%) at almost the same level.  Dishwashers account for a negligible 1%, and baths and other uses are 1% each. Implementing water conservation measures can reduce usage to fewer than 45 gallons a day.

At 168 Clinton St., our case study green brownstone renovation (see our 168 Clinton St. blog) we measured that, in order for the hot water being heated in the cellar to reach the shower on the top/5th floor, we ran through 4 gallons of water before the hot water reached the tap (when the temperature was 45° outdoors). Now if this occurs twice a day, once in the morning for showers and once at night for children’s baths, then 8 gallons daily, 56 gallons weekly, and 2,912 gallons annually of potable water are swirling down the drain -- that’s enough drinking water to serve the needs of a family of four, each of whom drinks 8 glasses of water a day, for 4 years, and that’s not even counting all the other daily water usage that can lead to waste. Inefficient hot water delivery systems endemic to brownstones puts them way above the national average of 14% wasted water that passes through a typical household. 

Overtaxing sewer systems. There are also larger environmental issues at stake because wasted water taxes sewer systems. NYC (and many cities) does not have separate storm water and waste water sewer systems and drains, rather the rain water flows into the waste water sewer. Waste water sewer lines are typically smaller in diameter than storm water sewer lines, storm water lines being larger to accommodate rain inundations that are irrelevant for waste sewer purposes. In Brooklyn in particular this is a serious issue because, due to the very high water table, one inch of rain causes the shared sewer to overflow, and this water is a mixture of rain and waste water -- I always marveled how, on my street in Park Slope which was at the top of the slope on a park block, water would simply flow down the street like a stream, gushing along the curb and cascading in (dare I say lovely) wavy ripples across the asphalt. Also, with a shared sewer system the rain water, which does not need to be treated, is being channeled to the sewage treatment plant unnecessarily. The sewage treatment plants are not designed for the inundating volumes of water that rush in during a heavy storm and the proverbial floodgates must be opened, allowing mixed rain and untreated waste water to flow into the harbor because there is nowhere else for it to go. Water conservation measures are essential; they can keep water out of the sewer system.  

Water Conservation Measures
Building-wide changes when renovating. Our Article Water Heating - Understanding Water-Saving and Energy-Saving Measures explores the application of the different mechanisms for making a hot water delivery system more efficient so that hot water reaches fixtures quickly avoiding the water waste that comes from letting the water run to get hot, and we will be evaluating each of them for use in 168 Clinton so check our 168 Clinton St. blog or subscribe to an RSS feed.

If you are embarking on a major renovation that will enable you to run additional piping, install a graywater reuse system if you can do so under your building code, which is not yet approved in NYC. It is only a matter to time, however, before NYC turns its attention to home water conservation measures, in which case it makes sense to design and run the piping for a gray water reuse system so that it is ready to hook up to the required filters and what-not once the technology is approved by the Building Code.  Check back for upcoming articles on graywater. 

If you really want to go green you can consider a no-flush urinal like the Waterless no-flush urinal. They generally work by interposing a filter cartridge of liquid in the drain; the liquid is lighter than urine so the urine passes through it and the filter liquid stays on top, forming a seal that keeps out sewer gases. The liquid itself is scented. The manufacturers state that the liquid filter cartridge should be changed after 1500 uses (1500 uses would save about 4,500 gallons of water). These have primary application in commercial spaces so the designs are typically institutional looking. One concern is that the manufacturer typically states that the user should stick to its daily cleaning routine, and to not use water to clean it, which raises some concern in my mind about the maintenance issues and practicality of using this type of unit in a home.

Simple changes when not renovating. There are many simple things you can do around the house to reduce your use of potable water.

• Install low-flow faucets and showerheads, a relatively easy and inexpensive fix that can have a big impact. Fixtures manufactured after 1994 are required, by federal regulation, to have flow-rates that do not exceed 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) at a pressure of 80 pounds per square inch (psi), and faucets cannot have flow-rates that exceed 2.2 gpm (be sure the water pressure is set between 20 and 80 psi or else your fixture will not work well). Product advancements for sink faucets, such as the use of aerators and laminar flow fixtures, can reduce faucet flow to between 0.5 and 1 gpm without a noticeable drop in the perception of the amount of water being supplied through the fixture.
• Stop leaks (faucets, toilets, sprinklers).
• Replace toilets that date before 1992 with models that use 1.6 gallons or less. A family of four can save 14,000 to 25,000 gallons of water annually with this simple change. OR, get a dual flush toilet or dual-flush adapter for existing toilets.
• Replace old clothes washers and dishwashers with an Energy Star® model which typically uses 35% - 50% less water and 50% less energy to run. Self-heating dishwashers and clothes washers also save energy because less hot water used from a central hot water heater means less energy consumed to heat water. Also, efficient clothes washers spin-dry your clothes more effectively so your clothes dryer doesn’t have to run as long, thus saving energy during drying as well.
• Replace a landscaping plan with a Xeriscaping plan -- use drought resistant plants or plants that do not require supplemental irrigation and take measures to reduce water loss though evaporation. Also, avoid overwatering by changing your irrigation settings as the weather changes and install a rain shutoff device, soil moisture sensor or humidity sensor to help control irrigation flow.
• Install a rainwater harvesting and reuse system for irrigation.
• Install an under-sink gray water diversion to toilets. I must note that they are not yet approved by the NYC building code.

Change your behavior: Try to stay aware of this precious resource disappearing and turn off the water while brushing your teeth or shaving and always wash laundry and dishes with full loads. When washing dishes by hand, fill up the sink and turn off the water. Take shorter showers or shower with a friend. Fill up a pitcher of water to keep in the refrigerator rather than running the tap waiting for the water to get cold.

Under-sink grey water systems. I will start by noting that as of the date of this writing, these systems are not yet approved in the NYC Building Code. These are systems that redirect the sink water to the toilet so that he user does not use potable water to flush the toilet. One system developed by Aqus™ can be retrofitted under a bathroom sink, is powered by gravity and a small 5 gallon tank, and has a back-up valve system to allow fresh water to flow into the toilet if there is not enough stored sink-water for flushing. The filter must be changed and chlorine tablets (for cleaning) must be replaced every year.

Irrigation Special Considerations
Landscaping is good thing because it eliminates hardscapes and, in so doing, reduces the strain on the sewer system from storm water runoff and reduces the heat island effect. Irrigation systems to keep your landscaping alive and healthy, however, can result in tremendous water waste if not designed and used properly. If you have a brownstone back garden, deck or rooftop garden, chances are you have a double-digit increase in your water consumption in the watering months. Some experts estimate that more than 50 percent of landscape water use goes to waste due to evaporation or runoff from the irrigation system running when the ground is already wet. Refer to our article Navigating Green Building Guidelines Part I: LEED® for Homes Guidelines  to use the LEED for Homes as a guide to how to design an efficient irrigation system. There are simple things you can to reduce your use of potable water in the garden.

• Drip irrigation systems use between 20 to 50 percent less water than conventional in-ground sprinkler systems. They are also much more efficient than conventional sprinklers because no water is lost to wind, runoff, and evaporation.

• Harvest rainwater – It’s relatively easy and inexpensive to attach a rain barrel to the end of a gutter downspout. You can even hook it up to a drip irrigation system. Check out the Rain Barrel Guide  for information on choosing and using a rain barrel.

• If you have extensive landscaping in your garden that uses irrigation, get a controller with a moisture sensor or weather-based technology. These state-of-the-art irrigation controllers, called Smart, ET or Evapotransporation controllers, can conserve water by not watering when it has, or will, rain and can zone your landscaping so that you can selectively program it to water less those areas that contain plants that need less water. On the whole, however, plant drought-resistant plants. See the New York City Park’s Dept. website for a guide to drought-resistant plants for NYC. Do not use misting systems because a substantial amount of water in the mist is lost to evaporation. Generally, water in the early morning or late afternoon when the water won’t be subject to quick evaporation from the sun.

Check back for our upcoming article on green roofs.

Out of sight is out of mind. If you don’t see your water bills then you are divorced from the measure of your use. As a responsible measure to reduce both energy and water consumption it's time to get away from the habit of a perceived free ride – in other words, tenants should have direct responsibility for paying for the water they use in the same way they pay for their cooking gas and electricity. If you are renovating a multi-family market rate building then, as part of your energy overhaul, separate water feed lines and meters can be installed for each tenant who in turn will be billed directly by the city for what he or she uses – of course, the market would expect that the rent be adjusted downward. It is only fair that, in doing so, building owners would need to supply their tenants with the means to save water through low flow fixtures, appliances and efficient hot water delivery systems, and reduce rents to account for the cost shifting. Seeing the bills is the quickest way to equate action with consequence and will incentivize conservation. Taking this step for rent- controlled or rent-stabilized housing requires a change in policy at the NYC level. See Noreen's blog on Personal Accountability for Conservation.