Stop Flushing Money Down the Toilet
All you need to know about conserving water at your property.
By Paul Marks, eConserve
As most management personnel in the multifamily industry understands, water is one of the largest expenses at a property. According to Circle of Blue’s 2016 annual survey, the nation’s average price of water has “climbed 48 percent since 2010.” Aside from cost, those interested in reducing their carbon footprint also know that water conservation is a crucial way for your property to do its part in using our planet’s resources responsibly. Whether your motivation is financial, conscientious, or both, there are plenty of reasons to focus on using less water. Continue reading to discover the many ways water conservation can benefit you, along with practical steps to start saving on water in your multifamily properties.
Water conservation benefits you and your property in many ways, and they can all be boiled down to three main categories:
1. Conserving water makes residents happy (and happy residents make a happier you).
Residents who pay for water because you allocate the water bill see a nearly immediate savings when the property does its part to save more water. While saving your residents money might not seem like a big financial incentive at first, let’s look a little closer. Even when residents pay for water through allocation, the property still benefits in at least these three ways:
First, helping your residents save on water increases current resident satisfaction, which incentivizes them to stay at your property. Suan Tinsley, partner at DayRise Residential and past HAA president, explains, “It helps resident retention. Whenever the water [rate] is higher, [residents] don’t accept your explanation of telling them that water rates have increased. They think you’re trying to pass along common-area water. It has been a challenge to explain when there’s a spike in the water rate.” Circle of Blue’s survey of 30 major cities nationwide reveals that the price of water climbed an average of 5 percent last year, and is on a steady increase. Doing your part to help residents save on water not only makes them happier to live at your property, but can lead to future referrals. Word of mouth is low-cost advertising, so genuinely helping your residents feel excited about your property benefits everyone.
Second, lower water bills attract new residents. Quintina Willis, vice president at Capstone Real Estate Services, explains that future residents often ask about water prices when they are gathering information about area communities. “Residents have gotten savvy, and when they’re doing their decision-making calculations, have started adding the utility expenses to make their final budget decision,” Willis says. In addition to financial incentive, many modern residents are drawn to eco-friendly housing. Communities should advertise when they are transitioning to a water conservation program. “[There are] more opportunities out there for us as an industry to market as participating in the green initiative. There is a huge push to go green. [There are] a lot of residents who want to focus on their carbon footprint and who are on board with this mentality,” Willis reiterates.
Finally, conserving water can ultimately increase property profits – even when the resident foots the water bill. Residents often have a fixed living expenses budget. Willis explains that if properties can lower the water bills, they can eventually raise the rent. She says, “When people are making leasing renewal decisions, every dollar that you bill for water is a dollar that you can’t increase on rent.”
2. Water conservation increases your Net Operating Income.
Net Operating Income (NOI) reflects whether or not your property is actually making money (and if so, how much). Water conservation will benefit your property owners, managers and investors because, by lowering water costs, you will increase your property’s NOI.
Tinsley explains, “When we buy a property, we underwrite it based on historical data that the seller provides. When we write a budget based on that, if there’s a spike in the water rates, we go over budget, and we’re constantly explaining that to investors.” She says that though properties can be proactive by calling in the fall (when they write the next year’s budget) to get a projected increase, many times the increase ends up being more than predicted. “All of a sudden, you find out the percentage has grown,” she says. Tinsley explains that skyrocketing water rates are a national trend, and they have risen substantially even in Houston over the last decade. She goes on, “It’s not across the board, but … water rates have increased in our portfolio by up to 45 percent.” Water conservation, of course, gives a property a better shot at hitting its target budget.
When a property hits its target budget and raises its NOI, a couple of things happen. First, the property has more profit to either collect or reinvest. Second, when the NOI increases, the property’s value increases. It’s as simple as that.
Willis emphasizes that focusing on water conservation always saves money, saying, “Water is one of the largest expenses at a property, so anything you can do affects cash flow and value of the asset.”
3. Water conservation is the right thing to do for the environment.
There’s no doubt about it: Taking concrete steps to conserve water at your property is eco-friendly. We know that our Earth’s fresh water supplies are not endless, and it takes power and energy to purify or desalinate water so that it is palatable for drinking. Why not do your part to conserve the fresh water supplies that we do have? Besides saving you and your residents money, especially in hard times such as droughts, taking measures to reduce your water usage is the responsible thing to do.
Water shortages increase expenses over time and, especially in dry regions, cause problems for the entire environment — the land, the people and regional infrastructure. Many communities, realizing that being eco-friendly is more than just a buzzword, have transitioned into water conservation programs simply because they believe it is important ethically. “It’s just the right thing to do,” says Tinsley. “We have a shortage of water. I know that sounds very simple, but … you have to look at being green in your operations, and that’s one way to do it.”
So what can you do to conserve water at your property?
First, fix all drips and leaks. Make yourself and your maintenance staff aware of weaknesses in your current plumbing. This means that you check every single unit on your property for drips and leaks. “We do constant checks,” says Tinsley. Educate maintenance workers – and even residents – on the urgency of fixing each and every dripping fixture or appliance. Drips often go unreported since they seem small, but they literally send money down the drain.
Second, replace or retrofit the toilets. At 1.6 gallons per flush (in a standard toilet model), replacing or retrofitting toilets creates the most impact in terms of water savings. When choosing whether to replace or retrofit, it is important to do your research about what will work best for your community.
Advances in the industry mean that toilet conversions can happen much more quickly, and at a lower cost, than ever before. Willis says it’s “painless,” explaining that installation rates have gone down in recent years. She notes that conversions and installations are also more cost-effective because some companies work with properties to create shared-savings payment plans. “There are providers who split the reduction of savings,” she reports. This is a win-win scenario for property owners, because rather than having an upfront cost, they simply pay back these service providers through the savings over a period of several months. Tinsley states that her company is “in negotiations about retrofitting quite a few of our properties.”
Third, transition to water-efficient showerheads and aerators. For those who have fixed drips and leaks and changed to water-efficient toilets, there are a couple more small changes that can boost water savings.
Switching to water-efficient showerheads optimizes the rest of each unit’s water flow. Keep in mind that when it comes to low-flow conservation, residents are often most sensitive about showerheads. It is very possible to find a showerhead that uses water more efficiently; but, as Willis says, “It still needs to have the right amount of pressure. It has to be something that the resident is not going to be upset about.”
In addition to fixing leaky faucets, it is recommended that you replace standard aerators with high-efficiency faucet aerators.
Fourth, after replacing or retrofitting, schedule routine checks for each unit. Whether you hire an outside company to do it or add it to your maintenance workers’ list of things to do, it is important to check each unit regularly, continuing to fix all drips and leaks. Leaking bathtubs, dripping sinks, running toilets – all of these small water losses create waste and rack up your costs.
Fixing leaks might not only involve physical malfunctions, but “leaks” of using water when it is unnecessary. While you cannot mandate how your residents use water inside their units, it is possible to fix the issue of wasted water in common areas. Consider turning sprinklers off when it rains, or designing smart landscaping that does not require intense watering. Willis suggests utilizing technology for this: “Some companies have their irrigation systems connected to a weather-forecasting model, so it only triggers the irrigation when we need it. Smarter technology. It’s an automated process.”
In the end, no matter which routes you take, it is clear that water conservation is a benefit to all: properties, residents and the environment. Conserving water cuts costs for everyone. “Not only is it a green thing to do,” concludes Tinsley, “it’s a huge part of [alleviating] our expense increase.”
Paul Marks, CAS – “The Water Guy” is the national director of strategic accounts with eConserve, a nationally recognized water conservation firm that implements shared savings programs in the multifamily industry. He has over 15 years of experience offering water conservation solutions to multifamily properties, and was the Houston Apartment Association’s Ambassador of the Year in both 2015 and 2016. Visit www.econservellc.com for more information on eConserve. Paul can be reached at email@example.com.