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July 2008

Liquid Assets
By: Janice Cha

If you're concerned about rising water bills and sewer charges—not to mention reports of drought in various areas of the country—start using the latest water-efficient equipment and technologies to your advantage.

We used to think that water would be an inexpensive and infinite resource, and indeed this used to be true throughout many parts of the United States.

But these days, we're running up against some hard truths: Water and sewer costs are rising quickly, water is increasingly limited, and without a constant supply of fresh, potable water, no restaurant can stay in business.

Even if your budgets aren't currently strained by water-related expenses, it's time for action. Watch the signs and take steps now to prepare for dry times. Those signs include drought reports and climate change data, the costly reality of aging water infrastructure, and legislative moves that impact rates and water use.

And while you're monitoring water availability and cost, there are several proactive moves you can make today. A growing selection of water-efficient equipment and technologies is on the market, and many are easy to adopt across multiple units.

H2 Uh-Oh
Dry times lie ahead for a number of areas, and we're not referring to the Prohibition. Just ask folks from Atlanta, who last fall watched nervously as Lake Lanier, their main source of drinking water, fell to historically low levels. Or residents of the tiny town of Orme, Tenn., who had to truck in water from another nearby town.

For a broader overview, let's start with a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor from the National Drought Mitigation Center of Lincoln, Neb. The Drought Monitor tracks drought conditions throughout the country and updates them weekly on a map.

As of May—when, presumably, water levels would have been at a higher point than later in the summer—the Drought Monitor indicated potential drinking water shortages in the upper Midwest (the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming), the north and south corners of California, the Southeast (stretching from Virginia to Alabama) and the southern half of Florida. The Drought Monitor also showed agricultural water shortages in an area stretching from the south border of Nebraska and spreading to encompass much of the Southwest.

Meteorologist Elwynn Taylor, a professor at Iowa State University, agrees with Drought Monitor data. Taylor, who keeps a close watch on world weather patterns, ocean surface temperatures and historical trends, has pegged the odds of a major agricultural drought in the Midwest this year at one in three, roughly twice the usual risk.

"The last major drought to hit the Midwest was in 1988, and they usually appear in 18- to 19-year cycles," Taylor notes. "What's more, they're often preceded by dry conditions in the Southeast, like we saw last year in Atlanta."

Pipes In Peril
Another piece of the water challenge lies under our feet in the form of infrastructure. Make that "leaking" infrastructure, to be exact.

"Many reservoirs, pipelines and water conveyances are in dire need of a major overhaul," says Charles Bohlig, supervisor at the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Oakland, Calif. Many of the underground water pipes in use today were put in place up to 100 years ago and are approaching the end of their expected life spans.

Can this be fixed? Sure, but at a steep price. A 2001 analysis of 20 major utility companies by the American Water Works Association estimates that we'll have to spend $250 billion over the next 30 years to replace worn-out pipes and fittings, or more than $8 billion a year.

Further, a January report from the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that we'll need $202.5 billion in nationwide capital investment to control wastewater pollution for the next 20 years. The report suggests we'll need $134.4 billion for wastewater treatment and collection, $54.8 billion for sewer overflow corrections and $9 billion for storm water management.

Paying The Water Piper
In all, that's about $550 billion we'll need to draw from taxpayers' pockets over the next 20 to 30 years to prop up our municipal water systems. In fact, we're already being tapped, through rate hikes and taxes, to pay for updating water supply infrastructure.

Nationwide, the cost of water is growing faster than inflation. For proof, take a look at national water and sewer rate increases, which have tended to outpace increases in the Consumer Price Index over the past decade. Data compiled by the AWWA show that '96-'97 saw water rate increases of 12.3%, sewer rate increases of 3.5% and a CPI rise of 4.7%. Fast forward to '05-'06, when water and sewer rates grew by 7.1% and 7.8% respectively, and the CPI rose by 7%.

At the state level, you can also expect rate changes, all of them upward. Take California, for example, one of the nation's largest water users thanks to its booming agricultural industry. The California State Assembly in April voted overwhelmingly to support a bill calling for tiered pricing for all customers. In other words, those using more water can expect to pay more.

A few particularly dry areas of California, such as Marin County, have used a tiered price structure for several years and charge some of the state's highest rates. That said, on May 1, Marin customers were still hit with a nearly 10% increase in water bills.

"This is a classic example of a county trying to discourage excess water use by charging more," Bohlig says. "That's what happens when you have limited resources and growing demand."

Viewing Water Through A Restaurant Lens
So water is scarce in some parts of the country, and the costs of use and disposal are going up. Should you really be worried? Water and sewer charges, after all, are a small fraction of the overall cost of running a restaurant.

On the other hand, water is integral to just about every aspect of a foodservice operation. "A restaurant could manage to get by with no electricity, since they could always cook with gas," Bohlig says. "But without water, [a restaurant] would be& dead in the water, so to speak."

Since water is no longer a limitless resource, the big-picture message—especially for multiunit operators—is that it makes bottom-line sense to shift to a water-conservation mindset.

Smarter Choices, More Savings
Now let's take a look at how to design water savings into a new restaurant—or retrofit an existing unit—and what kinds of water-efficient equipment you can find on the market today.

Perhaps the biggest water-saving move starts at a restaurant's design phase in the form of meter sizing.

Restaurants have two kinds of water meters. One covers the fire suppression system, and its size is determined by local building codes. The other meter handles potable water for indoor and sometimes outdoor use. The larger its diameter, the more you'll be charged by water companies based on potential, maximum water use.

"Say you're designing a restaurant whose specs call for a 3" meter, which, with a flow rate of about 75 gals./min., is pretty big," Bohlig says. "This will cost you money upfront because you're asking the water company to be prepared to supply that much water at your peak times. You'll also be paying higher sewer rates."

"On the other hand, if you opt for water-efficient equipment throughout the specs, you should be able to reduce the meter to 2½" or even 2" and pay less as a result," Bohlig says. "The smaller the meter, the more cost-efficient your restaurant."

Water-Sipping Equipment
When you're hunting for water-sipping kitchen equipment—or at least non-guzzling pieces—some key areas to focus on include low-flow spray nozzles, disposers, hand sinks, refrigerators, ice machines, warewashers, steamers and water filtration systems.

The low-flow pre-rinse valve, a $50 piece of equipment, is a no-brainer when it comes to saving money on water and energy. Testing at the Food Service Technology Center has proven that a 1.6 gals./min. unit used three hours per day, 360 days per year, costs only about $1,400 per year for water, sewer and heating, based on California water rates. By contrast, the older 2.6 gals./min. unit will cost you up to $2,300/year to use, while sprayers with a 4- to 5-gals./min. flow, the standard for many years, will drain away some $4,000 per year from your bottom line.

Ask your local water utility about rebates for low-flow nozzles, or visit the Food Service Technology Center at for test results and models.

Waste disposal systems—disposers and pulpers, in particular—use varying amounts of water depending on the application and the size of the unit. Disposers typically consume anywhere from 3 to 8 gals./min., which translates to roughly 400 to 1,800 gals./day depending on use. Some disposers are equipped with flow control valves, which adjust the amount of water needed and limit excessive water use.

A simple water-saving option to combat employees' tendency to let disposers run continuously is a timed-run control option. With this, you hit the "on" button and the disposer operates for, say, 10 minutes and then shuts off on its own.

At least one supplier offers disposers that use load sensors to automatically increase the water flow during operation and decrease it when grinding is finished. Down the road, look for disposers with a 0.25 gal./min. downtime flow (compared to the 1 gal./min. or higher downtime flow of current models).

Pulpers use as much as 66% less water than disposers—with a flow rate of 2 to 6 gals./min. depending on size—since they recirculate much of the water and don't have to carry ground-up waste through sewer pipes.

Most disposer and pulper manufacturers offer water-use calculators on their Web sites.

And then there's the ubiquitous hand sink. An easy water-saving adjustment at your hand sinks would be to install aerators (about $1 apiece) on each faucet. The flow rate of a hand sink with an aerator is about 0.5 gals./min., compared to as much as 7 gals./min. without one.

When you're looking at new fixtures, consider those with hands-free sink controls. Not only are they more sanitary, they help prevent taps from being accidentally left on or used for cleaning or defrosting. The typical hands-free system uses an infrared sensor. Another system uses a spring-loaded foot pedal control. Hands-free sensors are also recommended for restrooms.
Warewashers have come a long way where water and energy efficiency are concerned. Only five years ago, the industry standard for water usage in rack conveyor machines was well over 2 gals./rack per cycle. Today, the average is closer to 1 gal./rack, with the most efficient models sipping less than 0.33 gal./rack. Coming soon, suppliers tell us, will be super-efficient 0.25 gal./rack warewashers with correspondingly reduced costs for water, detergent, water heating and sewer.

New technology of note in the vast world of warewashers includes heat and water reclamation and filtration. Reclamation lets you use heat emitted by the machine to preheat incoming water, while helping reduce the heat released into the room. It also lets you reuse water multiple times, especially in conveyor and flight-type units. Filtration, meanwhile, takes the water being reused and strains out suspended solids for better performance.

When you're researching new warewashers, your first stop should be the commercial foodservice section of the Energy Star Web site, If you've got a specific maker or model in mind, you can also review performance numbers on the NSF Int'l. Web site,

Ice machines, especially older water-cooled models, can be huge water wasters. A typical 500-lb.-capacity machine could send about 150 gals. of condenser cooling water down the drain while producing 100 lbs. of ice. And remember, you're paying twice for that 150 gals.—once to buy the water and then again to send it to the sewer. Plus, the older the unit, the less efficient it becomes and the more water it consumes. "You'll probably see that reflected on your water bill," says an engineer for one ice machine supplier.

In applications where recirculated water is used for cooling, however, the machine still uses 150 gals. to cool the condenser during ice production, but that water is used over and over again.

A remote air-cooled ice machine could be your best bet, water- and energy-wise. Such a unit uses no water for the condenser, and heat is dissipated outdoors so there's no additional load on your HVAC system.

For an unbiased comparison of ice machine performance and efficiency, visit the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute's online ice machine directory,

Steamers are one of the most water-intensive appliances found in kitchens. A typical six-pan boiler-style, pressureless steamer consumes 30 to 40 gals./hour. Some models still in service flush a staggering 100 gals./hour down the drain, according to one steamer supplier. Newer designs that limit the amount of condensate cooling water may use half as much water as traditional models. Models that automatically switch to standby at the end of the cook time also save water.

Connectionless units, by comparison, sip water by generating steam in a reservoir within the cooking compartment. Water is added in the morning and drained at the end of the day. The condensate is recirculated back to the reservoir instead of to a floor drain. A typical three- to six-pan connectionless steamer consumes only about 1 to 2 gals./hour at peak capacity.

But don't rule out boiler-based steamers. Several new models now on the market offer impressive water and energy savings thanks to significant redesigns.

Water filtration systems should be specified carefully. Filtration systems typically allow you to use 100% of the water that goes through them, but one type using reverse osmosis can send as many as 3 to 4 gals. down the drain for every gallon of finished water. That's because the RO process produces a high volume of contaminant-laden discharge water that can't be recovered. Thus RO systems should be used only where necessary.

"You should only invest in an RO system if your water has high levels of dissolved solids, such as well water," says one filtration system manufacturer. "People often make the mistake of choosing RO when it's not needed. The first step is to have your water tested so you can choose the ideal filtration system for your location."

Water Utilities Step Up
If you live in an area where water is becoming an issue, your first step should be to contact your local water utility.

In south Florida, where water conservation has been a priority for the past 15 years, both the South Florida Water Management District and the Southwest Florida WMD have programs and rebates for restaurant operators. For example, rebates are available for low-flow nozzles, water audits and tabletop signage indicating that water will be served only on request. In the West, the Southern Nevada Water Authority offers a Water Upon Request program for restaurants. San Antonio supplies rebates for low-flow spray valves, air-cooled ice machines and low-flow toilets.

And in California, where EBMUD in May imposed mandatory rationing in the Oakland area and proposed significant water rate hikes, water conservation programs abound. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California runs a robust rebate program called "Save Water, Save a Buck" to help companies install toilets, urinals, pre-rinse spray nozzles, connectionless steamers, efficient-irrigation modifications and more.

Fix The Leaks, Pocket Some Cash
If you want to find leaks, head for a restaurant. And if you want to save money, hunt down and fix those leaks.

An insignificant-looking trickle from a faucet, leaking at a rate of about 0.01 gal./min., could potentially dribble away 50,000 gals./year. If you fixed the leak, you'd save about $350 for water and $500 for water heating.

And that's the leak you can see. Hidden leaks lurk in direct-plumbed equipment such as ice machines, steamers and toilets, where excess water flows invisibly down the drain.

"I've had customers get hit with a $1,000 increase in their monthly water bill after an internal valve in their ice machine sprung a leak," says Scott Hester, principal at service company Refrigerated Specialist, Dallas-Fort Worth. "It was the same as if they'd left a hose running full blast for a month." The only defense against these leaks is a good preventive maintenance schedule, Hester adds.

To get an idea of how many gallons per day your leaks might be sending down drains, visit the American Water Works Association WaterWiser Drip Calculator at

What Will Your CFO Want To Know?
"No one ever gets rewarded for conserving water," says East Bay Municipal Utility District Supervisor Charles Bohlig. "You have to be ready to prove to your CFO exactly how much your measures are saving the company."

Have your accounting department thoroughly track water usage, Bohlig says. "That way, if there's an uptick in the water bill, you can quickly determine if it's due to a process change or a leak."

Paying close attention can pay off. At one chain restaurant, for example, water use stayed steady for three years. In year four, however, usage suddenly shot up to 3,500 gals. per day more than previous summers.

What changed? The manager had hired a new, seemingly less expensive landscaper. The water bills went straight to the corporate office, so if they hadn't been paying attention, no one would have known what was happening until many thousands of gallons later.

More Sure-Fire Water Savers
Plenty of excess water can go down the drain with activities you may think less about: cleaning floors and patios, watering plant and flower beds, and flushing toilets. Here are a few products designed to stem the flow.

A self-cleaning floor by Sani-Floor replaces rubber mats along the cookline. The system consists of non-slip gratings set above a shallow trough draining directly into a grease separator. Every hour, a 2-sec. burst of high-intensity water sweeps debris down into the strainer, cleaning the work area and surroundings. Analysis of water-use levels at four California restaurants, including Dave & Buster's, shows that the system uses about 70% less water than is required for washing rubber mats.

For patios, sidewalks and areas where dry sweeping isn't enough, try a water-powered broom instead. This hose-powered device, made by Watermiser, looks like a push-broom. Instead of bristles, an array of nozzles transforms a stream of water into a high-intensity cleaning blast. The Waterbroom can cut wash-down time in half, and uses a fraction of the water sprayed out by hoses and nozzles, the company says.

Outdoors, "smart" irrigation controllers practically eliminate water waste by monitoring information about site conditions, including sun exposure, soil, rain, wind, slope and plant type. Based on those factors, the device applies enough water to keep plants healthy. The Orange County, Calif., Municipal Water District offers online information about smart timers, including a list of makes, models and rebates.

In bathrooms, low-flow toilets save plenty of water. Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education at the Food Service Technology Center, recommends 1-pint urinals over the waterless version. The low-flow units have a much lower cost to operate and relatively low maintenance, while the waterless units require consistent maintenance and attention. For toilets, the 1.1-gal. pressure-assist type provides a simple, effective flush every time and is well-suited to the rigors of commercial restrooms.

Taco Bell Moves Away From Steam
When a chain puts its mind to improving cooking operations, both water- and energy-saving benefits can result.

Take Taco Bell, for example. The Irvine, Calif., subsidiary of Yum! Brands is in the process of rolling out a new Grill-to-Order cooking platform to its 5,600 U.S. stores. The switch will reduce chainwide water use by some 300 million gals. per year, or about 150 gals. of water per store per day.

The water savings come from replacing a steam table (used for holding taco meat and cheese sauce) and an open steam cabinet (used to heat tortillas) with a dry hot well and a griddle.

"We were aiming for better food quality and to avoid maintenance costs associated with steam equipment," says Rick Winfree, senior director of engineering. "[We found that] the water and energy savings reduced our utility costs. The switch also eliminates the steam and vapor going into the restaurant, so it'll save us money on HVAC as well."

Taco Bell partnered with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric's Food Service Technology Center to measure the overall savings generated by the system.

Click Here For Water Savings
Ready to surf for water-saving equipment and ideas? Start by dipping into these online resources.

EPA's Water Sense
The Environmental Protection Agency's Water Sense site provides practical information about faucets, high-efficiency toilets, and smart irrigation control products. Equipment manufacturers can find information about earning the WaterSense label.

Food Service Technology Center/PG&E
The FSTC offers you one-stop shopping where water-efficient equipment is concerned. The site includes a list of California equipment rebates, water-use calculators, equipment test results and much more.

WaterSmart Innovations Conference & Expo
The first-ever WaterSmart Innovations Conference and Exposition will showcase water-efficient information, technology and services. The conference will take place Oct. 8-10 at the South Point Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas.

Water Saving Case Studies And Checklist
The Southwest Florida Water Management District offers water-saving case studies from a restaurant, hotel, school and hospital, plus a comprehensive checklist for water-saving steps.

Water Saving Products
Two sites—the California Urban Water Conservation Council and Save Water-Save A Buck, created by Southern California water agencies—make a great starting point for researching water-sipping commercial products.

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