Digging Into the Regulatory Process for Water Conservation
California’s bathrooms will begin taking water-efficiency up a notch. Showerheads will be required to use no more than 2 gallons per minute (gpm), down from the current limit of 2.5 gpm. And bathroom faucets are traveling down the same path starting in July, from 1.5 gpm to eventually 1.2 gpm.
That’s a lot of numbers, but here are a few more to highlight the impact of this change: By the time California homes have fully embraced these new fixtures, the annual savings will be on the order of 38 billion gallons of water - nearly 58,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or enough water for almost 290,000 California homes for a year.
Developing these new regulations required a huge amount of work by government, nonprofits, and the companies that manufacture plumbing fixtures. Connect the Drops signatory Kohler Co. helped to fine-tune the regulations, via the trade association Plumbing Manufacturers International, and shared some insights about
“California is a bellwether for other parts of the country,” said Rob Zimmerman, Kohler’s Senior Manager for Sustainability. “We need to think about how people use water in their homes, and we need smart policies, whether it’s building codes or water codes. We need to be thinking differently.”
Kohler has long worked on creating water-efficient products. “Showing how you can save water without sacrificing performance is central to our business,” explained Zimmerman. The company has been involved with the EPA’s WaterSense program since it began in 2006, and has won awards for creating and promoting water-saving products for consumers each of the past eight years.
When it comes to using regulations to promote more-efficient use of water, Kohler has seen best- and worst-case examples of how those regulations can be implemented, and understands why getting involved in policy discussions can help all parties.
“Our interest is, first of all, that the regulations have a positive impact,” Zimmerman said. “Also that they are implemented in such a way that it doesn’t disrupt existing supply chains, and that consumers either don’t know the difference or they are able to embrace it – that it doesn’t affect their experience with the product.”
Zimmerman cites the public’s experience with the first generation of low-flow toilets in the early 1990s as a case study in how not to implement regulations and the reason why Kohler decided to participate in crafting the new water-saving regulations.
In the case of the low flow toilets, a lack of time to develop high-quality products that also met the water-use limits mandated by the new regulation backfired and led to major public backlash.
“We’re still hearing stories about those low-flow toilets,” said Zimmerman.
That’s why Kohler and PMI worked with California regulators to adjust the timeline for the state’s new faucet and showerhead requirements. Low-flow showerheads were already on the market with good reliability, but low-flow faucets needed more time. So the California Energy Commission agreed to push back the faucet implementation by six months, giving plumbing manufacturers more time to perfect their products.
Six months of less-efficient water use does have an impact, especially considering the severity of California’s drought, but in the long run, taking the time to get the process right helps everyone. And getting it right, when industry, regulators, and environmental groups each have their own priorities, requires building bridges.
“If you can get everyone at the table to look at this from a long-term perspective, you’ll see that, when you buy a plumbing fixture it’s going to be in your home for 20-30 years,” Zimmerman said. “So let’s get it right so people will be more trusting of the next water-efficiency innovation that comes out.”
That long-term perspective is particularly important when you consider that regulations implemented in California often become de facto standards nationwide. Kohler is based in Wisconsin, where there is enough freshwater available for everyone’s needs; but if you walk into a home-improvement store there, the only toilets available are low-flow toilets—though fine-tuned and higher-performing from the original models produced 20 years ago.
Moving forward, Zimmerman and Kohler are closely monitoring the drought in California and noting the ways that new regulations can lead to business opportunities, while also making the state more sustainable. They particularly note two looming challenges ahead: investment in water and wastewater infrastructure and shortages in skilled labor to maintain that infrastructure—and urge all parties to work together to craft winning solutions.
“The biggest idea is that when you can get industry, regulators, and environmental groups together at the table in the spirit of solving problems, we can solve problems,” Zimmerman said. “Most consumers, especially in California, don’t understand the nuances of this, they only know there’s a problem and they’re counting on us to come up with the answers in a way that doesn’t grossly inconvenience them. I believe we can solve the problem, we just have to be smart about it and work together.”