Toward Green Bath Design: One Drop at a Time

Today, there is nearly an unlimited amount of information available about “greening the bathroom” – the movement, the philosophy, and recently, more concepts and products that will help us create eco-friendly spaces.

After the whole-house issues relating to manufacturing and practices, and concern for the number and size of bathrooms in a home, the biggest focus in the bath is obviously on conserving water.

While this column won’t make you an expert, it will list a few of the many options and opportunities that you, as a bath designer, have to reduce, reuse and rethink water use in this important space.

The Issue

As we come to terms with the concept of clean water as a finite resource, the statistics of its use in our homes are staggering, and the bathroom is a big part of the story. Although sources vary, according to the EPA, the average person in the U.S. uses 90 gallons of water per day (see www.EPA.gov/safewater). Of that water, only two gallons is for drinking or cooking. Most of the drinkable water is used otherwise by the household – bathing, showering, washing clothes, dishes and cars, watering the lawn or gardens, etc. (see www.awwa.org).

Direct waste from leakage is significant, with leaky faucets wasting up to 2,000 gallons in a year, and worse, a leaky toilet wasting 200 gallons a day. In addition, we have to appreciate the energy needed to heat that water.

Shower & Tub Area

An average bathtub, if there is such a thing, uses about 70 gallons of water per bath, and a five-minute shower uses 10-25 gallons, according to the EPA (www.epa.gov/owm/water-efficiency/water/simple.http). I’d venture a guess that this is not based on the super-sized luxury showers or soaking tubs that are so coveted today, nor the leisurely showers that exceed that five minute description. It may seem unlikely that we can make a dent in the amount of water used, and the energy used to heat it, but here are a couple of things we can do in terms of design and product.

To begin with, we must look at the number of fittings, the volume of each and the options we provide for controlling which fittings will be actuated at the
same time.

I recently worked on two master baths where we planned a combination of independent controls and diverters for the various options. In the first case, a shower for two, the options were either or both main showerheads (and nothing else), the rain shower head alone, or the hand-held spray, again alone.

In the second case, the options, exclusive of each other, were to activate the master showerhead, or the body sprays, or the hand-held spray. The choices were made by the clients to limit overall amounts of water being used at one time, helping to save water, and for those on wells, helping with water pressure.

As for products, aerators are much improved (see www.SustainableSolutions.com), increasing pressure and reducing the amount of water coming out of those body sprays or shower heads. And, according to green bath authority Dominic Mincieli, of the Van Nuys, CA-based Hirsch Supply, retrofits that truly work are now available.

Along the lines of rethinking water use in the shower, Kohler has a body spa that functions with multiple jets which can be operated independently, using and actually recirculating approximately 37 gallons of water. Interesting to watch are the growing numbers of in-line heaters or heaters designed as an accessory to the pump in a jetted tub, as witnessed at the recent Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS), to maintain heat in the tub during a bath so as to avoid the need for additional water to maintain the temperature.

There also seems to be great interest in further development of gray water systems that, for example, collect bath water to be redistributed to the gardens or other places.

Vanity Area

On the one hand, typical use of water at the vanity sink may seem minimal, but consider the statistics: A leaky faucet dripping at the rate of one drop per second can waste as much as 2,700 gallons of water in a year. While this is less about design than awareness and education, the problem can be dramatically improved if we strive to be diligent about these fittings.

On the product design page, we have so many more interesting options in terms of motion-activated faucets with sensor controls. This responds to the benefits of not letting the water run unnecessarily, which, when you think about an average of two gallons per minute, can really add up quickly.

Water Closet

The water closet is the area where water conservation can be dramatically improved on, and has been by manufacturers, so we have much to choose from. Remember that leaky toilet, wasting 200 gallons of water a day?

Additionally, although they are supposed to be gone as of 1992, the older model toilets that use at least 3.5 gallons to flush still exist. After two major industry and government mandated efforts to reduce the water used, the current state of the art uses less than 1.3 gallons per flush, which adds up to about $1,000 a year in savings for the average family of four.

At the recent K/BIS in Las Vegas, we saw wonderful applications of technology on toilets to make this a success, with everything from pressure assist to dual flush, and beyond water savings, to quiet close, built-in wash and dry features, odor and bacteria ventilation systems and more.

Waterless urinals for residential use are another addition, reducing water use in this area. The options have certainly changed and we must expand our thinking and our design with them.

Conserving water in the bathroom is a place to start in the greening of the space. There are growing options in design, construction and products to address these issues, and many sources for help as we attempt a new, more environmentally friendly approach (see www.USGBC.org).

Like other major changes in the design/build field, there will be recognition for some who embrace the new concepts and design with them (LEED Homes certification is a good example of this), and, if necessary, there will be mandates for those who resist the changes.

Making this an opportunity for better design can limit the need for mandates. It’s up to us, designers and specifiers in the field, to begin the process. With that in mind, I encourage you to rethink your bath designs with green in mind.
In my next column, I will address some design ideas for greening the kitchen.

Read past columns on Planning & Design by Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, and send us your comments about this story and others by logging onto Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Web site at www.kitchenbathdesign.com.

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