Let water flow in bathroom faucets

Low-flow faucets are designed to reduce water and energy use. An industry group warns about making rules too strict.
Low-flow faucets are designed to reduce water and energy use. An industry group warns about making rules too strict. Sacramento Bee file

The California Energy Commission will make a crucial mistake if it ignores a potential threat to the health and safety of Californians in favor of a proposal from investor-owned utilities.

With good intentions to conserve water and energy, the commission is considering a new, unprecedented regulation that would lower the flow rate for residential bathroom faucets to a maximum of 1 gallon per minute at a pressure of 80 pounds per square inch, and a minimum of one-half gallon per minute at 20 psi.

This proposed regulation reads like plumbing gobbledygook, but it’s not. It’s potentially dangerous to public health and would undermine sanitation and water conservation.

Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, says that a growing body of evidence shows that low flow rates can increase the likelihood of pathogens growing in plumbing systems. “These concerns are not trivial,” he wrote to the commission. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently acknowledged that (such pathogens) are now the primary source of waterborne disease in the United States.”

Research has demonstrated that low flow is linked to an increased volume of stagnant water in pipes leading to the tap. This could provide ideal growth temperatures for waterborne pathogens, including ones that cause potentially fatal illnesses.

Further research has shown that low flows may not provide enough volume or turbulence to properly flush faucets, increasing sediment buildup and resulting in clogged bathroom pipes and higher plumbing expenses. In addition, low flows will increase the wait time for hot water.

The proposed regulation also undermines CALGreen building standards and the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program – two environmental initiatives that encourage consumers to purchase water-saving plumbing fixtures. Many faucets with the WaterSense label of approval would not perform as intended, discouraging consumers from buying them. Consumers have saved 757 billion gallons of water and $14.2 billion in water and energy bills since 2006 thanks to these products, according to the EPA.

The Plumbing Industry Leadership Coalition urges the Energy Commission to reject the proposal and move forward instead with a regulation that incorporates recommendations of its own staff, developed after consulting with stakeholders. This recommendation is a maximum flow rate of 1.5 gallons per minute at 60 psi and a minimum of 0.8 gallons per minute at 20 psi. Also advocating this proposal are the California Building Industry Association, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Inland Empire Utilities Agency and Metropolitan Water District of Orange County.

This proposal – in concert with other CEC staff recommendations for toilets, urinals and faucets – would result in savings of about 8.2 billion gallons of water, 24.6 million therms of natural gas and 169 gigawatt-hours the first year the standard goes into effect, according to the commission’s staff analysis. These water and energy use reductions equate to roughly $1.12 billion in savings to California businesses and individuals. In addition, the staff recommendations would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.9 million tons a year.

Serious unintended consequences can result when ill-advised plumbing regulations are adopted without fully considering their impact on public health, plumbing systems and water use. The staff approach demonstrates that significant water and energy savings can be achieved without compromising health and safety.

Barbara C. Higgens is a founder of the Plumbing Industry Leadership Coalition and CEO and executive director of Plumbing Manufacturers International.