Rising to the Challenge

July 1, 2015
Hotels conserve water through participation in fixture replacement programs

About the author: Amy McIntosh is associate editor for WQP. McIntosh can be reached at [email protected].

Hotels account for approximately 15% of the total water use of commercial and institutional facilities in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Older hotels with outdated technology in their irrigation systems, kitchens, mechanical systems and guest rooms have the potential to cut water use in half by retrofitting fixtures with water-efficient models.

To encourage water efficiency in these facilities, EPA kicked off the WaterSense H2Otel Challenge in February 2014. Although the WaterSense program has existed since 2006, the challenge is the first EPA program dedicated to water conservation in a commercial setting.

Interested participants can sign up for the free challenge online by providing contact information for a designated hotel employee responsible for implementing the conservation program and collecting and using EPA-provided resources. 

“When they sign the pledge, we’re asking them to assess, change and track, or ACT,” said Tara O’Hare, WaterSense commercial outreach lead for EPA. “We’re asking them to assess their water use, change something using our best management practices—whether that’s a fixture or implementing a water-saving practice—and then track their water use.”

The terms of the program are akin to a “choose your own adventure challenge,” according to O’Hare. EPA provides technical resources and webinars on implementing water-saving programs, as well as tools for tracking water use. Participants are not required to submit data to EPA, but are encouraged to track their results to visualize savings. 

Continuing Education

One of the largest resources available to participants is the WaterSense at Work guidebook, which contains more than 30 best management practices covering multiple types of water use within a facility. 

“It walks [people] through each technology, things they can do to change the way that they’re using it now and also what they can do if they want to replace or retrofit that technology,” O’Hare said. The document also is the basis for a webinar series available to those who sign up for the challenge.

Participants in the H2Otel Challenge also have access to the Excel-based Water Use and Savings Evaluation Tool, as well as water assessment worksheets, designed to assist in tracking water savings.

“We were hoping our WaterSense partners, such as local governments, water utilities, energy utilities and nonprofits, could take the information and use it with hotels in their areas,” O’Hare said. “We didn’t want to be too prescriptive, but we wanted to give [partners] the opportunity to do a local challenge between hotels within a city, within a region or within a portfolio of hotel companies. We tried to leave it open and flexible, so it can be as much as challenging each other to a percent reduction or it could be as simple as signing up and learning how to track water use.” 

Currently there are approximately 820 hotels participating in the challenge, and O’Hare hopes to see that number rise. A recent Recruiting Rally saw WaterSense promotional partners competing to recruit the most hotels in a four-month period. The winner received free technical assistance from EPA.  

“We’re going to continue giving the partners—especially the utility and local government partners—information to help them recruit and work with [hotels] as much as they can,” O’Hare said. “Even if they aren’t focused on hotels, they can use the same information for other building types. We wrote these technical materials to be used for multiple audiences so the utilities have that many more resources for working with other businesses.”

Saving Water in San Antonio

An example of a successful utility-implemented conservation program is the San Antonio Water System’s (SAWS) WaterSaver Hotel program. Following the success of a residential toilet replacement program, the utility moved on to the commercial sector. Tourism is San Antonio’s second largest industry, and the downtown area is rife with decades-old hotels, so a hotel water conservation program seemed like a logical choice.

The WaterSaver Hotel program existed for nearly five years, ending in 2014, and in that time approximately 200 qualifying hotels in the city replaced outdated fixtures with WaterSense-labeled products. Hotels that participated in the program can apply the WaterSaver Hotel moniker to their facilities.

SAWS provided turnkey replacement of fixtures, including toilets, showerheads and faucet aerators, covering supply and installation costs. Facilities that replaced irrigation systems and laundry facilities received rebates based on projected savings. 

“We were investing in a project that gained us water savings. We could then be more efficient with our system and have more customers on our system without actually purchasing additional water,” said Brandon Leister, conservation planner for SAWS. “That was the big benefit for us.”

The Hilton Palacio del Rio was the first to participate in the program. Built in 1968, the 470-room facility is the oldest luxury hotel downtown. In 2007, hotel management worked with SAWS to replace inefficient guest room fixtures, which accounted for approximately 30% of the facility’s water use. 

Hotel guests frequently experienced clogged toilets, so hotel management was concerned about replacing the high-flow toilets with low-flow models. After testing the new toilets, however, the team decided to replace 525 5-gal-per-flush (gpf) toilets with 1.28-gpf WaterSense-labeled models. It also replaced 479 showerheads and 616 faucet aerators with more efficient models. These changes, combined with replacement of the hotel’s single-pass-cooled ice machines with air-cooled models, led to water savings of approximately 49%, or 26 million gal per year. 

As an added bonus, the new toilets have larger trapways that reduce clogging. “Not only were they getting the water savings, they weren’t having a dedicated maintenance guy walking around for eight hours with a plunger in his hand,” Leister said.

Taking Action

For hotels looking to implement water conservation programs, O’Hare recommends first examining outdoor water use. “In some areas, outdoor water use can be as much as 50% of the overall water use for a commercial building,” she said. She recommended implementing weather-based irrigation controllers, soil moisture sensors or drip irrigation. “That’s a big bang for their buck if they have a large outdoor area.” Other key areas to examine include the heating and cooling systems, and guest room fixtures. 

Managers concerned about conserving water at the expense of guest satisfaction should do extensive research before retrofitting technology, according to Leister. The replacement showerheads SAWS installed reduced output by 50%, but guests gave them higher ratings than older models.  

Reaching out to local utilities also can be beneficial for hotels looking to conserve. According to Leister, these programs are valuable for both parties.

“I would advise hotel owners who are interested in doing this to find out if their local utility offers any incentives to change out the fixtures,” Leister said. “Typically it is a win-win for everyone. Water conservation is becoming a national issue that everyone is facing, and utilities are trying to figure out how to best manage the water that they have. A lot of times, conserved water is the cheapest source of water they can deal with.” 

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About the Author

Amy McIntosh

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