Soapbox

Californians can save a lot of water by retrofitting wasteful older homes

Tom Wood of Nexus eWater demonstrates a water recycling system at a KB Homes prototype DoubleZero house in El Dorado Hills. The hyper-efficient homes produce as much electricity as they use and recycle drain water for landscaping.
Tom Wood of Nexus eWater demonstrates a water recycling system at a KB Homes prototype DoubleZero house in El Dorado Hills. The hyper-efficient homes produce as much electricity as they use and recycle drain water for landscaping. rbenton@sacbee.com

The reduction of water use in new homes has long been a focus of California’s homebuilding industry. In fact, our industry has been at the forefront of innovative designs to increase efficiencies.

But while new homes have been built and designed to reduce water consumption, not enough has been done in older homes.

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in March that promised nearly $700 million in immediate drought relief, the funds were earmarked mainly to address infrastructure improvements, ease emergency water shortages and provide assistance to farmworkers.

Some money was also set aside for a public awareness campaign on water conservation. The problem is that many homeowners in California are unaware that their houses are leaking tens of thousands of gallons of water, potentially offsetting any meaningful water conservation actions they may be taking.

The good news is the state has a golden opportunity to use the emergency drought funds available to retrofit older homes to comply with current building standards – potentially saving hundreds of billions of gallons a year.

That’s billions – with a “b.”

Of California’s existing 7.5 million single-family homes, more than half were constructed before 1980, which means they are equipped with outdated fixtures such as toilets and shower heads that can use up to three times more water than current models required under the new California green building standards code. The CALGreen standards were implemented four years ago, requiring a 20 percent reduction in indoor water use for new homes.

Prior to 1980, the average water use of a home was more than 92,000 gallons per year. Today, a new single-family, three-bedroom home with four occupants only uses 46,500 gallons per year – a nearly 50 percent reduction in indoor water use.

What likely will also come as a pleasant surprise is that effective indoor water-use retrofits do not necessarily come with an exorbitant price tag or invasive labor. Some of the most cost-effective retrofits are swapping out old shower heads, toilets and faucets. Replacing these fixtures with low-flow models can help cut water use in half; 70 percent of this reduction comes from the installation of low-flow shower heads and toilets, with washing machines contributing an additional 17 percent.

If every existing home in the state were to comply with CALGreen building standards, the state would save an equivalent of 8.7 percent of the reservoir capacity – more than 300 billion gallons of water annually.

And the cost to achieve those savings? On average, replacing a shower head will run $50, or that old water-hog toilet $250. That means a portion of the $700 million in state drought relief could go a long way in covering those costs, while producing significant water savings.

Thanks to Brown and the Legislature prioritizing drought relief funding, the state is well-equipped to consider a program that would give incentives to homeowners and help fund indoor water-reduction retrofits for homes built before 2005.

Though the drought funding bill was signed in March, more than 60 percent has not been allocated yet to specific water projects. With an additional $250 million in competitive grant money available next spring, it is the perfect time to consider creating a retrofit program that not only educates homeowners about what their indoor water use is, but significantly reduces water waste in older homes.

Because of California’s leadership, new homes are among the most water-efficient in the nation. Let’s now bring that same vision to the majority of California’s housing and make a lasting impact on all residential water use.

Dave Cogdill, a former state legislator, is CEO and president of the California Building Industry Association.

  Comments