Most would agree that the EPA’s WaterSense program has helped give water efficiency its well-deserved presence in green building. First, by clearly identifying and labeling water-efficient products and, as of November of last year, doing the same for single-family homes that are built to conserve water.

Really, the numbers speak for themselves: Since its inception in 2009, WaterSense estimates that it has helped consumers save a cumulative 125 billion gallons of water and more than $2 billion in water and energy bills. By the end of 2010, the use of WaterSense-labeled products led to reductions of 16.7 billion kWh of electricity and 6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

And while the proof is in the pudding, Jonah Schein, technical director, believes the WaterSense program is doing more than just providing quantifiable savings. Perhaps just as important, he feels it addresses several key issues that will help move us toward a more water-efficient future.

Considering Water in the Design Phase

According to Schein, the only way the industry is going make any real water-efficiency gains is for builders to consider water in the design phase. “We’re going to need to start treating the water-using systems of house as critical components of a home that are a part of the design phase, not as afterthoughts whose main driver is ease of installation,” he says. “These are resource- and cost-intensive systems, and we won’t be able to afford the current level of inefficiency in the future.”

Hot water is a prime example of a key element that is almost always neglected in home design, Schein says. “We’ve all gotten up in the morning to take a shower and you turn the water on and you wait, and you wait some more, and you wait, and you wait. That’s just an enormous waste of water and energy,” he explains. “Hot water is at least the second largest user of energy in the house—sometimes it’s even the first. The fact that we’re not addressing it is absurd.”

Schein feels most builders have also neglected to consider outdoor water usage, which accounts for about half of residential water use.

“These are things we have tried to put on builders’ radars with the WaterSense New Homes program,” Schein says. “You are going to have a really hard time meeting our criteria for hot water distribution if you don’t think about it at all. And you are going to have a really hard time meeting our landscape design requirements—meeting our irrigation system performance requirements—if it’s a complete afterthought.”

Consumer Education

Another important component, Schein says, is educating the homeowner. Earlier this month, WaterSense held its fourth annual Fix a Leak Week, a promotion that reminds Americans to annually check their plumbing fixtures and irrigation systems for leaks. The effort not only hopes to reduce the 1 trillion gallons of water that leak from U.S. homes each year, but also bring about consumer awareness that water is a valuable resource.

“We are trying to build this national ethic of water efficiency,” Schein says. “We spend how much as a country to maintain our infrastructure to pump to treat to deliver to homes, and it simply doesn’t have the weight of a resource that deserves to be conserved in our practices. That’s a challenge not just for builders and the building community, but for all of us—we need to start treating water like it matters.”

Making Water-Efficient Products Mainstream

Schein believes the last issue to tackle is getting more homeowners and builders to utilize the water-efficient technologies that are available today. “I think it’s happening now, but it needs to shift to be much more the norm,” he says. “When you look at our supply needs, our infrastructure, at where water and energy rates are heading, there’s just no way around that.”

The obstacle, he says, is the industry is still bearing the scars of the low-flow products of the 1990s and early 2000s that didn’t perform well. By establishing specifications and test protocols, Schein says the WaterSense program aims to reassure builders and homeowners that today’s water-efficient products are also high performing. “That is what the label is all about,” he says.

Paving the Way

As for the future, Schein says the program will continue to add product categories, which will offer builders and home buyers more ways to save water. Just recently, WaterSense added weather-based irrigation products to its list of specifications—its first product in the outdoor water category.

WaterSense also recently announced its intention to expand its New Homes program to dwellings in multifamily buildings, which Schein feels is an important step for hitting future water-efficiency goals. “Over the last several years, we’ve seen a noticeable trend toward multifamily projects in the building industry,” he says. “It’s simply where the growth is for builders right now. That’s going to be a very important development.”