Apartments can be great water savers – instead of wasters

Everyone’s talking about water again this week.

Sydney Water has announced level one restrictions, high-security water pricing in the Murray region has reached around $175,000 for an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of the stuff and some towns in Barnaby Joyce’s New England electorate face the very real prospect of running out in the coming months.

But these issues are literally a drop in the harbour compared to the big picture of how climate change, poor planning, increasing densification, market distortions and other factors are sending supplies of Adam’s ale dangerously low.

The Sydney Water level one restrictions that kick in on June 1 impose a range of limits on outdoor water use, including bans on old-school sprinklers and washing down hardstand areas with a hose.

What the restrictions do not address is the water use inside homes. It’s something of a vexing issue, as behaviour change in older multi-residential dwellings can only rely on a moral argument to encourage water-efficiency without individual metering for many apartments. There is no carrot of potential bill savings.

There are thousands of people in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Adelaide who live in apartments where the water bill is calculated as a percentage of one bill for the single potable water supply point entering the property.

So, the household that saves as much water as they can because they have taken onboard sustainability messaging is likely to pay the same amount for water as the household where long showers and leaving taps running while brushing the teeth are a daily event.

In the case of investor-owned properties, owners cannot charge water use to tenants without individual dwelling metering unless a special condition is added to the lease.

Given the seriousness of the water woes in our capital cities, it would seem to make sense to look at retrofitting individual meters to every dwelling in strata buildings as part of a long-term water supply security strategy.

“As we face water shortages across the state, businesses and individuals must be accountable for their water usage,” Karen Stiles, executive officer of the Owners Corporation Network told The Fifth Estate.

“The simplest way to do this is a user pays system. The Owners Corporation Network supports individual water meters in apartment buildings, including older single meter buildings where feasible. Because what’s measured can be managed.”

Only some water authorities have introduced rules around submetering for individual dwellings in new developments.

A spokeswoman for Victoria’s South East Water says the government utility has required all multi-residential buildings in its service area to be fitted with separate meters for each self-contained dwelling since 1995.

There are some exceptions, such as student apartments, serviced apartments and hotels, she says.

“Our customers living in an older development that don’t have separate meters can apply for a separate meter through our PropertyConnect website.

“While it’s not possible for all older developments to be retrofitted with separate meters, we do our best to accommodate these requests on a case by case basis, and we can discuss this in detail with customers.”

Sydney Water put rules in place in 2014 requiring individually metering in all new multiunit developments.

Currently, there are just over 44,000 individual meters on units in Sydney Water’s area of operations.

“The rationale for introducing this rule was to improve the equity of people’s water bills rather than to drive water efficiency,” a spokesperson for Sydney Water told The Fifth Estate.

“It is difficult to draw conclusions regarding increased water efficiency in individually metered units because it is difficult to establish a comparison point; there are no buildings that changed from one meter for multiple units to meters for individual units.”

There are several other factors Sydney Water says influence water efficiency such as the standards for fittings at the time the building was constructed, the age of the pipework and any associated maintenance issues, and whether the development has a swimming pool.

“We haven’t actively sought feedback directly on this rule change from residential customers, however, we know there are benefits to customers in terms of being notified of dramatic increases in consumption and being billed on their actual use.”

The Sydney Water WaterFix program has been kicking some goals. The spokesperson says a recent example, Cassia Garden Residential Apartments in George Street, Sydney is the “new benchmark for water and cost savings” of the program.

The 138-unit block saw a water saving of over 35 million litres, which resulted in a yearly saving on combined water bills of over $74,000.

A tale of one strata’s water efficiency fixes

Chief executive and founder of Wattblock, Brent Clark, lives in a strata apartment building that is around 20 years old in Chatswood. It has only one single meter for the water entering the building and 40 apartments, and neither the cold potable supply nor the hot water supply are individually metered.

He says the strata committee decided to participate in the WaterFix program with support from Willoughby Council.

The first step was to install monitoring of the head tap that connected the property to the water supply. It showed that over a couple of weeks, the water usage never dropped to zero. This indicates a leak, Clark explains.

The consultants also told the strata body that fixing the leaks could deliver savings of around $6000 a year for the owners’ corporation.

The leaks were not easy to track down. An acoustic water monitoring group was called in to find leaks behind the building’s concrete walls.

Two major leaks were found, one behind a wall inside an apartment living area where leaking water was entering the dwellings carpets. Fixing it required breaking through the wall.

Another was found behind tiles in a bathroom, which again required breaking into the wall to fix it.

There were also two common area taps where leaks were found and fixed, and in a couple of apartments the isolation valve that can switch off the individual dwelling’s water supply were also leaking and subsequently fixed.

Another issue was a leaking toilet system found in an empty apartment owned by an offshore owner.

Overall, the program of auditing, identify faults and fixing them has delivered a financial gain in water bill savings, Clark says.

The potential to install sub-metering for both hot and cold water for each dwelling was also investigated, he says.

However, due to lack of sufficient existing isolation points on each floor, the cost would be around $60,000.

Clark says there are also concerns the meters would not work effectively within the building as they use in-building radio communication to send usage data.

However, another initiative the owner’s corporation undertook was installing a smart irrigation system. These types of systems can still be used during the Sydney Water level one restrictions.

The $159 B-Hyve unit from a standard consumer hardware supplier was installed under one of the outdoor irrigation taps. It uses one of the resident’s WiFi networks to communicate with the nearest weather station at Artarmon, and then adjusts the irrigation program to suit the weather predictions.

Clark and other owners can also connect via an app on their phones to set up the irrigation schedule and monitor its operation.

The system has been cost-effective, efficient and simple, so further investment is planned to add the smart system to other outdoor irrigation taps on the property.

On the big picture of strata around the country, Clark says that policing tenants and their water use is a major issue.

He says in one high rise where Wattblock were investigating overcrowding, a group of tenants had chosen to use the hot water shower running for prolonged periods as a way of heating the apartment – as while they got charged for electricity use, they were not charged for hot water use.

Behaviour change is the only thing that will change these types of scenarios, he says.

“As we have more tenants [in apartments], what is the incentive for tenants to save water when the owner is the one paying?”

Even leaking taps might not be addressed by tenants reporting them to the property manager to have them repaired.

There is simply a problematic legacy of apartments built under a building code that allowed properties to be delivered without proper metering on cold and hot water for individual apartments.

Could NABERS ratings be a fix?

Clark says NABERS for apartments could be one way to change the picture. It has benchmarks for water as well as for energy, and Clark says it should be made mandatory for all apartment buildings six storeys or over.

Then potential buyers would be able to make decisions to purchase [or not] based on a rating for both energy efficiency and water efficiency.

Buyers would know that if a building has “all these tragic issues” as shown by a low rating, that their strata levies will be higher.

Mandatory NABERS ratings for water use of apartment buildings becomes even more compelling when considering millions more people are expected to be living in apartments in the coming years.

Currently there are around 2.1 million apartment dwellers nation-wide, but by the time the population hits 50 million, around half of us are expected to call multi-res home.

Clark says we need to prepare now for that future.

Let’s talk about negalitres

Perhaps we need to get people onboard with “negalitres” just as the energy efficiency sector has garnered traction around the concept of “negawatts”.

Certainly, it would seem cheaper to invest in generating negalitres – increased savings – compared to investing in raising the wall of Warragamba Dam and destroying new areas of habitat.

To get the community excited about negalitres, we may need to help people get a picture of what water savings look like.

In the same way people generally can’t tell what a kilowatt of electricity looks like, Clark says they are often unable to picture a megalitre of water.

Clark notes that in the energy efficiency space, it is this inability to visualise units of energy or emissions that led to comparisons like cars off the road or trees planted to equate to carbon savings.

When we talk about water, the two measures often used are the volume of Sydney Harbour or Olympic swimming pools.

The Bureau of Meteorology defines an Olympic swimming pool quantity of water as being around 2.5 megalitres – that’s 2,500,000 litres.

What that looks like is this: Sydney’s water use, while currently averaging around 200L per person, per day over an average year, escalates during peak heat events. In December 2016, during the heatwave, it spiked to 2171 megalitres – the equivalent of 868 Olympic-sized swimming pools [according to Sydney Water figures].

So, when we talk about water savings, maybe we should be summoning up mental images of the Olympic pool so familiar to just about every Australian.

“Save a pool!” has a certain ring about it, dontcha think?

Choice requires data

Adam Lovell chief executive of the Water Services Association of Australia told The Fifth Estate that lack of individual metering for apartments has always been an issue, and the move by some water suppliers to move to mandating metering for individual apartments as really important.

That is not only for the potential efficiency gains, but also because the market for all things has moved towards an “era of choice”.

“And to have choice, you need to have control.”

That means knowing how much water you are using, so you can control it and exercise choice, he explains.

“Most people want to know how much they are using,” he says.

For many, this is also because they want to help the environment. Lovell believes the potential cost savings are actually secondary to that.

Consumers show choice through moves like shorter showers or choosing appliances with better water efficiency ratings.

Lovell says analysis has shown pricing doesn’t really affect indoor water use. Demand indoors is “pretty inelastic” in response to price signals, while outdoor use offers more scope for cost benefits from water saving.

“The story here is about choice – when we have water meters we know how much we are using.”

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  1. I got offended when I spent time working out how to save water in my unit by using a weight to reduce my toilet flush time/water – which might save me $6 a year

    and then read that Coca-Cola gets Sydney Water supplied to it as a discount rate of something like $1 per Megalitre (an Olympic Swimming Pool contains 2.5ML)

    hmmm – when I pay something like $2.30/kL and Coca-Coca pays something like 0.04 cents/kL – in other words I as a careful retail consumer pay something like 5750 times as much for the same water – that doesn’t feel fair.

    Adding to the offence is the knowledge that Coca-Cola then sells that water – with caramelised sugar/whatever added – back to Sydney retail consumers at say $1 a litre, then their profit for resale of our public water is – oh – only like a MILLION times !!! – now That’s Offensive to me … !

  2. When will Water Authorities learn or understand that GAS HOT WATER SYSTEMS installed in apartment buildings are using so much cold water it is sinful. The systems are placed on balconies, a long way from the point of use such as the shower, laundry or kitchen. By the time the water heats to enable the user to wash ‘a carrot’ or their hands, many Litres of water go down the drain awaiting warm/hot water to enable use. Running the system until hot water reaches its desired destination does not allow for the practicalities of saving the cold water in a bucket. a. An older person cannot carry buckets of water to a storage area
    b. It is completely impractical to think that someone old or young would or could carry endless buckets of cold water to the garden below. This is a major matter NEVER mentioned. I am truly aware of this area of tremendous water waste now that I live in an apartment. AWFUL!

  3. Totally agree that individual water meters for apartments can save water, and save users money. Taggle Systems supply and install Strata water meters, with remote monitoring and can provide alarms for both leaks inside apartments and high consumption.
    Typically we find that 10% of all users have a leak when the system is first installed, and 2.5% of all users develop a leak at any one time.
    Check out SBS’s investiagtion into our sytem below, this includes feedback from our install at Miramar in Sydney.

    Get in touch: