Wall Street knows it, and so should you: Water is our most valuable natural resource. “Water investments return about 36% annually on average, while oil and gas return 26%,” according to Charles Bohlig, water conservation representative for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Oakland, Calif. “Water is extremely valuable, but we waste tons of it every day.”
Speaking to a room full of operator spec/buyers and suppliers, Bohlig promoted the value of water conservation when he spoke during last spring’s MUFES meeting, sponsored by FER. “In commercial venues, you pay the highest rates for water and waste waster disposal, and those costs are increasing at a rate that outpaces the consumer price index two to one.”
Your first step in water awareness should be to review your restaurants’ water bills, Bohlig said. “The bills will tell you right off the bat that your meters are working right, that you might have leaks, or that certain stores use more water than counterparts, which could indicate a procedural problem,” he explained. Analysis of yearly water bills will also give you a good idea of when and where usage is highest, framing an opportunity for a targeted conservation plan.
Ways To Save
Fortunately, a slew of great water saving technologies has emerged in foodservice equipment. In just the past couple of years, for example, makers of commercial warewashers have perfected designs that take water usage well below one gallon per rack. On conveyors, most do it through the use of what’s called an auxiliary rinse or dual rinse. Essentially, the 180°F water required in the final rinse to sanitize dishes is captured and reused immediately before the final rinse. Rinsing with this still very hot water (170°F to 175°F) gets dishes close to 180°F so that the final rinse takes less time and water to reach code temp.
New nozzle designs, power washes and other technologies reduce water usage as well in the newer models of conveyor, door-type and undercounter washers. “By opting for new water-saving models, you can reduce your warewashing water use by as much as 50%,” said Bohlig.
Oversizing Ice Machines
Ice machines present another opportunity for water savings. “The big mistake operators make in ice machines is buying a unit that’s too small or just the size they need for their operation,” Bohlig said. “They’d be better off going with a larger production model for several key reasons.”
First, ice machines run on an economy of scale; the larger the machines, the more efficiently they run.
Second, if an operation has a machine that “overproduces,” the operator can put the machine on a timer. “Ice machines only operate on or off, they don’t idle.” So, Bohlig reasoned, you could set the machine to be on during off-peak hours, when water rates are cheaper, and then turn the unit off during peak hours. “If the production capacity is large enough, the machine will hold plenty of ice for you throughout the day,” he explained.
Other advice regarding ice machines: Air-cooled remote units are more water efficient than self-contained air-cooled ones and far more efficient than water cooled, although water cooled are the most efficient when it comes to energy. “The only time water cooled makes sense to me is in a closed-loop water environment like you see in casinos, where water is continually recycled,” Bohlig said. “Otherwise, some water-cooled models can use up to 60 gallons an hour.”
Finally, equip all ice machines with water filters; scale buildup is an efficiency killer.
Need Steam? Avoid A Boiler
When it comes to steaming you can use two gallons of water an hour or 40, depending on whether you opt for a boilerless or boiler-equipped unit. And truth be told, unless you need to steam a ton of food in a really short amount of time, the boilerless steamers available on the market will more than fulfill your steam needs.
“You save so much in water and energy costs with boilerless steamers that a unit can pay for itself in a year,” said Bohlig. Additionally, if you use boiler-equipped steamers, the hot steam you drain out has to be followed with a cold water chaser by law—more water and cash down the drain.
Bohlig recommended that employees read operation manuals, too. In one case study, the night staffers, who had read the steamer manual, flipped a switch that set the steamer on a timed idle mode and lowered energy use when the steamer wasn’t needed. The day crew didn’t know about the switch, so the steamer cranked all day, in use or not. The energy cost difference turned out to be $2,500 a year.
Spray Valve Savvy
Bohlig also reviewed the latest legislation related to pre-rinse spray valves. As of January 2006, all new facilities and those replacing pre-rinse spray valves are required by law to install low-flow spray valves with ratings of 1.6 gallons per minute or better.
“A lot of water districts are giving away these spray valves because the water conservation is so dramatic,” said Bohlig. In an average scenario, he said, a low-flow spray valve rated at 1.6 gallons per minute used three hours a day will cost $1,650 in water, heat, sewer, etc. A 4.0-gallon-per-minute spray valve, thousands of which are still installed across the country, costs about $4,130. The difference saved with low-flow: $2,480, and that’s per spray valve.
“There’s just no excuse not to replace every spray valve with a low-flow version,” Bohlig asserted.
And there are water savings to be found in the restroom, too. In use in Europe and Asia for more than a decade, dual-flush-option toilets let customers use a little (0.8 gallon) or more (1.6 gallons) water per flush depending on need. Pressure-assist toilets use a pressure vessel inside the tank to create a combination of water line pressure and compressed air to flush. “I’ll admit, the loud ‘whoosh’ takes a little getting used to,” Bohlig said. “But it’s not as loud as an airline toilet by any means.”
Finally, new High-Efficiency Toilets, or HETs, are coming on strong—in fact there’s legislation pending in California to require HETs. Any commode that uses less than 1.28 gallons per flush is considered an HET; today’s standard toilets use 1.6 gallons per flush. Believe it or not, some older establishments with grandfather clauses still have toilets that use up to 3.5 gallons per flush.
Turning from the toilet to the sink, if your hand sinks are not equipped with aerators, they should be, said Bohlig. They bring water flow down from 1.5 gallons per minute to 0.5. On average that will save you about $285 per sink per year—just for screwing in a little screen device. The savings add up.
Bohlig went on to say that the biggest mistake operators make when it comes to setting outdoor sprinkler systems is to follow the rule of “set it and forget it.” “Landscaping is one of the costliest sources of water usage, and you don’t make any money off it,” he said. “But more often than not, your guys set the timer in July or August and that’s the watering schedule for the rest of the year.” A better bet: Invest in a weather-based irrigation controller. It uses your base schedule together with weather data to operate an efficient irrigation plan.
Another mistake: Not checking the sprinkler heads. “I’ve seen it a lot—a lawn mower lops off a sprinkler head by mistake. At 2 a.m. when the sprinkler system’s going, you’ve got a fountain spewing from the damaged head,” he said. “But at that hour, no one sees it.” Managers need to stay more connected to the landscaper and landscaping. “And again, find your water bills and really take a hard look,” he advised. “That’s where you’ll see these problems.”
Put all these water saving scenarios together, and you’ve got a compelling financial reason to pay attention to the water you’re using in all your stores.