The amount of water used by the average Melbourne household each year is the equivalent of five average-sized (52,000 litres) domestic swimming pools (around 240,000 litres per year).

It’s especially worth noting that approximately half the water supplied to urban areas in Australia, ends up as waste water according to a report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures prepared for the Water Services Association in 1998.

Each year the average household uses more than three swimming pools worth of water in the laundry, kitchen and bathroom, with another two swimming pools worth of water consumed outside the home in the garden.

The design, production and promotion of water conserving products combined with effective, behaviour changing consumer/community information programs can either eliminate or defer the need for the development of new water storages.

This is particularly well argued, reinforced and substantiated in the landmark text ‘Natural Capitalism’ by Hawken, Lovins and Lovins.

Just as design attention to energy efficiency has gradually improved in recent years (albeit slowly), we can expect to see advances in design for water efficiency and conservation.

Similarly, there is a growing list of water conserving products and technologies entering the marketplace. As with several other areas of environmental concern, it will be vital to demonstrate how design and related tools can help reduce water consumption without compromising on convenience, comfort or safety.

Clichéd slogans such as ‘doing more with less’ and ‘work smarter not harder’ hold great relevance in any discussion about water conservation, and the opportunity for designers to make a meaningful contribution.

From reduced consumption to sustainable consumption

With the corporatisation and privatisation of many water utilities in Australia, there has been a shift from pre-privatisation, essentially ‘free’ water through to current user-pays pricing accompanied in some cases by information and education to encourage water conservation.

The price of water however still remains too low to stimulate any serious reduction in use or increase in efficiency.

Given continuing droughts in many regions, low rainfall and reducing storages, the strategic and policy discussions around water resources have begun to consider ‘sustainable water consumption’ as opposed to just water efficiency or conservation.

Just as we are witnessing the evolution in manufacturing from pollution prevention and cleaner production, to sustainable production and extended producer responsibility, there are relevant parallels concerning the life cycle of water and its management.

There is now a growing recognition that intelligent solutions to most environmental issues (including water conservation), demands a more holistic and life cycle approach that moves beyond traditional engineering-oriented responses.

Understanding water efficient products

Water conserving products and practices need not compromise on convenience, comfort or safety. As new water conserving products continue to enter the Australian market, it is becoming easier to fit our homes, offices, whole buildings and gardens with devices that are affordable, aesthetically desirable, functionally efficient, safe, and economically beneficial during operation.

One of the easiest ways of saving potable water in the home is to install water conserving products and ensure that they are used efficiently.

Many major appliances, tapware products, toilet cisterns and commercial urinals now carry labels according to their water efficiency.

The Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) operates the National Water Conservation Labelling Scheme as a way of assisting consumers and specifiers, to make informed decisions based on reliable information.

This information is presented at the point of sale via rating labels displayed on appliances and other plumbing products. The label is displayed on the face of the clothes washer, or attached via a swing tag, and demonstrates that manufacturers and importers have ensured their product has been tested and complies with the Australian Standard in the respective category.

Rating labels have up to five “A”s prominently displayed. More “A”s means more water efficient. 

Key points to remember about all the product categories include:

• Always check for current ‘A’ water conservation rating labels, and purchase high ‘A’ rated appliances wherever possible and affordable.

• Unverified water conservation features and other self-declared environmental marketing claims should be treated cautiously if no standard or test information is provided. If in doubt request additional information from the retailers, supplier or manufacturer.

• Compare actual water consumption performance with similar models produced by other manufacturers as a means of benchmarking.

• Check to see if the product design or the manufacturer has received any awards or commendations directly related to water conservation or other environmental considerations.

• Check for credible affiliations and/or endorsements by research institutions, universities, government agencies, and community organisations.

• Balance functional requirements with price and performance... this should ultimately lead to the purchase of a water, energy and detergent efficient appliance.

• Use suitably qualified/trained professionals or tradespeople (eg plumbers) to install products and devices in accordance with relevant regulations, laws and codes of practice.

• Check all relevant regulations, laws, codes of practice and standards regarding the installation, use, maintenance, monitoring and overall system management.

Dishwashers and clothes washers

One of the more important product selection decisions involves the choice between traditional top loading machines versus the more water, energy and detergent efficient front-loading machines.

While top loaders are less expensive to buy, their running costs are higher due to the increased levels of water, energy and detergent required to do the same job as front loaders.

The water conserving benefits of a high ‘A’ rated front-loading clothes washer is significant, convincing and environmentally compatible.

While front loaders are the preferred product option when it comes to water conservation in the laundry, it should be noted that new technologies in recent top loaders are also resulting in more water efficient clothes washers.

It is therefore important to look out for high ‘A’ rated washers in both top and front-loading models.

For more comparative information about clothes washers, dishwashers and their respective performance, see CHOICE magazine’s web site at: www.choice.com.au

Showerheads, mixers and flow regulators

Water efficient or low-flow showerheads can make a positive contribution towards reducing water consumption in the bathroom. Together with other water efficient tapware (e.g. mixers) and flow regulators/ controllers, showerheads not only cut water consumption, they also help save energy.

Modern showerhead designs have overcome problems such as poor spray pattern, fine mists and generally inferior functional performance. Installing water efficient showerheads, mixers or flow regulators throughout the home is a relatively straightforward and cost-effective, water conservation measure.

In addition to specifically designed low flow showerheads, a diverse range of devices is available to reduce, regulate and control water flow:

• aerators and flow regulators can be used on mixers (single lever taps) 

• flow regulators and flow control discs can be used on showerheads

• flow control devices can be attached to pipes connected to traditional tap sets

• flow control regulators and long life tap seals can be used on external taps

An excellent fact sheet on flow reduction devices, their application and benefits is available through Queensland’s WaterWise program – a joint initiative of the Department of Natural Resources, local Governments and the water industry. For a series of excellent fact sheets on flow reduction and other water conservation topics refer to: www.dnr.qld.gov.au

Toilet cisterns, urinals and related technologies

One of the most important advances has been the dual flush toilet cistern. The amount of water used inside the home and in many commercial and institutional buildings is gradually declining as the take up rate of dual flush toilets, which are now mandatory, increases.

In 1985, eight percent of Victoria households had a dual flush toilet. This increased to sixty eight percent in 2000. Nationally, dual flush toilets save as much water as Adelaide and Perth use annually and this will improve as older systems continue to be replaced.

The Caroma and Fowler companies, both owned by GWA International, dominate the Australian market for ‘A’ rated dual flush, water conserving toilet cisterns and suites.

At a commercial and institutional level, electronic devices and innovation in sensor technologies are delivering significant water savings.

Plumbing magazine features on high efficiency continuous flow water heaters are now being replaced with stories on toilets and the role of infrared and microwave sensors that optimise flushing rates and control urinal valves – all in pursuit of maximising hygiene and minimising water consumption.

Driven in part by the need to improve hygiene standards, the design and development of sophisticated touch-free urinals, pans and taps has evolved considerably.

Implemented in airports, shopping centres, universities and sporting facilities, the touch-free technologies are becoming more prevalent as the hard data emerges in support of their water conservation attributes.

Some of the systems currently available and already in commercial use include:

• toilet pans and urinals that flush only after use instead of at regular intervals;

• taps that turn themselves on automatically when you put your hands under them;

• ceiling activated urinal flushing

The following web sites are an excellent source of information and products on composting toilet systems and alternative technologies focused on the responsible use of water, energy and materials:

Cornell University
www.cfe.cornell.edu

Going Solar – A Melbourne based retailer and distributor of composting toilet systems
www.goingsolar.com.au

Alternative Technology Association
www.ata.org.au

The following two case studies show how companies are designing and producing water conserving products for use in the home and beyond. These product profiles describe how they have researched, designed and developed new water efficient dishwashers, toilet cisterns and other water using appliances: 

Fisher & Paykel Dishwasher
www.environnment.gov.au/epg/environet/eecp/case_studies/fisher_dfe.html

Caroma Dual Flush Cistern
www.environnment.gov.au/epg/environet/eecp/case_studies/caroma_dfe.html

Water conservation is best achieved through a mix of design strategies, water conservation products and end-user education. Relying on any one direction will deliver some benefits but fail to fully exploit all the possibilities.

As has been demonstrated with advances in energy efficiency over the last decade, the importance of community information and education plays a critical role in realising significant savings and benefits, even in terms of effectively operating efficient appliances.

The issues are similar to helping facilitate a more sustainable pattern of water consumption in Australia, especially in urban centres.

The imperative is to integrate water efficient product design with water efficient building design, and back it up with successful end-user education about the importance of cultural practices when it comes to using and saving water.

The clearest possible message about the need to save water is likely to come through different pricing strategies that reward efficient water users and penalise profligate consumers.

A more meaningful approach to ‘user pays’ together with effective regulation to mandate water efficient product design would elevate Australia’s performance and status to where it should be.

In the absence of smart pricing, regulation and efficient products, we will continue to be a nation of profligate water consumers – especially in urban areas.  

Acknowledgement: Some sections of this article were originally featured in the BDP Environment Design Guide

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