Moving Toward Water and Waste Performance Improvement

Facility managers are improving properties by tapping into new programs, technologies and vendor offerings that enhance waste and water management efficiency.

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Energy efficiency and management in real estate operations have long been facilitated by market signals, established assessment protocols, recognition opportunities, and a mature ecosystem of service and technology providers. Most, if not all, of these elements have historically been absent when it comes to similar management of water and waste resources.

In many markets, this is rapidly changing and more facility managers are taking steps to benchmark and improve their properties by tapping into new programs, technologies and vendor offerings to address waste and water management.

Baselining and Improvement Planning First Steps

Step 1: Collect data and set a baseline. As with energy efficiency planning, a typical starting point involves compiling historic performance data to establish a baseline and understand trends over time.

However, be prepared for less robust datasets and more complexity in normalizing data when it comes to water and waste, both of which can limit the availability of meaningful benchmarks for comparisons across facilities.

Even without the ability to benchmark across facilities, this initial performance data analysis is a critical aspect of understanding areas of opportunity and gauging the effectiveness of implemented measures.

Step 2: Assess opportunities for improvement. Once a baseline is established, a waste or water efficiency walk-through assessment can be used to generate a list of potential initiatives to improve performance.

In the realm of water efficiency, an assessment protocol might mimic the process that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends for energy efficiency audits, though focused on water-using equipment and operational procedures.

Waste assessments might include a physical sort of waste materials to characterize the amount and type of materials generated by facility operations and how well they are managed, paired with a walk-through of back-of-house and regularly occupied spaces to evaluate waste collection infrastructure, signage effectiveness, and the procedures and infrastructure for moving materials through the building. In particular, waste management improvement may seem daunting because of the importance of occupant behavior in achieving high performance.

In reality, the design of collection equipment and processes, along with procurement decisions and hauler arrangements, contribute significantly to optimizing waste management.

Step 3: Prioritize improvement opportunities. In terms of costs and savings, water and waste efficiency may not reach the same level of return on investment as energy efficiency improvements, though performance improvement measures can certainly generate financial benefits.

The assessment processes for both water and waste should involve establishing the capital or operational costs of each potential initiative, as well as the expected savings—similar to the financial analysis typical to energy audits.

Bundling efficiency planning and implementation across energy, water and waste impact areas is one way to put together a comprehensive building performance improvement plan, which can allow the overall costs and savings to be financially attractive even if individual tactics may not pencil out on their own.

Examples of Waste and Water Improvement Measures

Though each facility will have unique opportunities and challenges, you can look to at least a few strategies that make up a standard playbook.

For water savings, efficiency and performance in bathroom fixtures has come a long way in recent years. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA's) WaterSense label can help when sourcing low-flow fixtures that have been thoroughly tested to ensure they improve water efficiency.

Another area of opportunity worth considering is the newest generation of non-invasive sensor for sub-metering and leak detection technologies. Many products have recently arrived on the market that are easy to install and require only a sensor strapped around the exterior of water supply lines. They provide visibility into consumption patterns through cloud-based machine learning platforms, and can provide swift alerts when leak conditions are detected, which helps save on water bills while also protecting against water damage.

For waste management, common tactics for preventing waste outright and increasing recycling focus on the design of waste collection equipment as well as procurement practices. Single use plastics, for example, have low value on the recycling market and are difficult for building users to properly sort, given the complexity of plastic recycling rules from one building to the next. Switching to durable dishware and installing dishwashers on-site provides a strong waste prevention opportunity that can eliminate the need for disposable products, and generally saves money over time. Bottled water might be replaced with dispensers that provide carbonated or flavored water options.

Within office areas, switching away from deskside bins to convenient central collection points can improve recycling sorting, and likely will save custodial staff time dedicated to waste collection, while also saving money on the cost of liners for individual bin sets. Small back-of-house balers for cardboard and soft plastics can be useful to minimize the space needed to store materials before pickup, while also preventing contamination so the materials have a higher chance of being properly recycled.

In many locations, taking a fresh look at hauler options and providers might open more possibilities for recycling.

New Third-party Recognition Opportunities

Some buildings may find value in using a third-party framework for guiding water and waste improvements and gaining recognition for good outcomes. Specific to waste, a few newer options that might be of interest include the TRUE Zero Waste standard and the UL Zero Waste to Landfill standard, both of which recognize facilities that divert 90 percent or more of their waste away from landfills and incineration.

Another framework to consider is BIT Building, which recognizes buildings that adopt operations and maintenance best practices and make significant performance improvements in energy, water and waste, compared to their own historic baseline.

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