Month: April, 2016

21 Apr

Reacting to the Water Crises

Jeff Perlman aerators, water


Too much water in Houston, not enough water in California, and bad water in Flint. Water, often so easy to take for granted, has been in the news a lot lately, and the headlines are troubling. Changing climate, aging infrastructure, and rising costs are all driving water to the forefront of many people’s minds.

For those of us with small children, a paranoia can set in. I already filled the bottles and mailed back my free lead testing kit from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and am anxiously waiting for the results from my 91-year-old apartment building.  A less patient friend with similarly small children bought a lead-testing kit on Amazon and is now puzzling through the seemingly ambiguous results (“It’s like a poorly-designed pregnancy test!” she exclaimed).  She’s drinking only bottled water until she can get something more conclusive.  

Vital to life, and catastrophic when toxic or scarce, water is a big deal.  Plus, the cost keeps going up to cover the costs of fixing and maintaining the infrastructure.  

What Can You Do?

Delivering a sufficient supply of clean water to the residents of apartment buildings is one of the critical tasks for every landlord.  With such an overwhelming issue at hand, it can feel hard to know what to do.  In celebration of Earth Day, and the vital role that clean water plays on our blue-green planet, here are some water tips:

First, test your water.  Test kits are inexpensive and the potential impacts of water contaminants are drastic.  If your building has old pipes, be sure to test a few locations for lead, in case only some of the pipes are deteriorating.

Then, save water.  Flint’s water problems started with a decision to switch the city to a cheaper, lower quality water source.  A better way to lower costs is to stick with high quality water and reduce the amount we use.  

Low-flow Faucet Aerators and Showerheads

Faucet Aerators

By limiting the amount of water that comes out of your faucet or shower, low-flow faucet aerators and showerheads can save bucket loads of water and money. The best part is that they’re about as simple as it gets when it comes to installation (just unscrew the old and screw on the new).

But don’t just buy the cheapest thing you can find – there’s a big difference between properly “engineered flow” and a simple flow restrictor.  And always test out which ones work best at a particularly property before installing them. Resident buy-in is crucial – aerators and showerheads are as easy to screw off as they are to screw on.  Using quality devices that look and feel good will ensure that residents view the devices as an improvement and an amenity, and don’t circumvent the savings. Ongoing monitoring, strong communication and resident partnership are key.

High Efficiency Toilets

c/o New York Times
c/o New York Times

When it comes to wasting water, our toilets are some of the biggest offenders. Put it this way: when you flush a “regular” toilet, you could be using up to 7 gallons per flush (gpf)!  And unfortunately you can’t just believe what is printed on the tank – our engineers have measured toilets marked as “1.6 gpf” with flushes as high as 4 gallons! Today’s toilets can bring that rate down to 1.28 gallons per flush – a great investment in water conservation and cost savings.  But maintaining your equipment is critical, too – when valves and flappers wear out, precious fresh water goes straight down the sewer.

Heating System Leaks

Alex taking down boiler specs

It’s normal for steam heating systems to take in some fresh water over time, but when they take in a lot of this “makeup water” it is indicative of a larger problem – often a boiler or piping leak.  Excessive makeup water can also drastically shorten the life of a boiler by as much as half. That’ll really sink your sinking fund.   Luckily, measuring makeup water levels is simple, cost-effective and insightful, as long as you put a meter on the makeup water line and someone actually reads that meter.

And if a hot water heating system and requires you to add any water, that is a sign of a problem.



Saving irrigation water can take many forms, from planting only native plants that require no irrigation, to better controlling the irrigation you do use.  Many properties are guilty of overwatering – most obviously when sprinklers are running during a rainstorm.  This can be tackled by hooking a soil moisture sensor into your irrigation system, or, better, using a WaterSense irrigation system that is networked to weather data to adjust the watering cycles.

But whatever you do, you can’t set it and forget it – analyzing water data can give an indication of a problem, like a mis-set irrigation control, a broken pipe or damaged equipment.

Rainwater and Greywater Capture

Water tanks holding rain water sit on a concrete slab.

Rainwater and Greywater Capture are methods of reusing water that has either accumulated due to rain, or has already been used once (kitchen sinks, showers, etc.). Both can significantly contribute to efficient water usage in buildings. The simplest applications of rainwater and greywater are for irrigation.  Rainwater can also be used as makeup water, particularly in cooling towers. Greywater – because it requires additional piping – is more commonly used only in new construction projects.  Treated greywater can even be used to flush toilets instead of fresh water.


21 Apr

On the Brink of Collapse: Modern Day Easter Island

Kurt D'Angelo carbon, energy

Easter Island

Many people are familiar with the iconic stone head sculptures which are perched on the shores of a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. At first glance, they appear to be evidence of a glorious civilization and a statement the prosperity which defined its golden age. But beneath this façade there lies a dark tale of disastrous proportions…

The tragic story and plight of Easter Island parallels the most glaring problem facing modern day society: climate change. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond asserts that Easter Island is the “clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources.” Diamond aptly labeled this self-destructive behavior “ecocide”.

Widespread deforestation, unsustainable farming practices and overhunting exhausted vital resources and the population began to die out, along with the island’s plant and animal life. A civil war emerged as tribes fought over remaining resources. Internal conflict and violence turned into anarchy.

By the time Easter Island’s people realized the trajectory of destruction, it was too late. At its peak, the island civilization supported a prosperous society of up to 30,000 people but by the time European explorers visited the island, the population had dwindled to a mere 700 people.

Tragedy of the Commons: Can We Learn From The Past?

The collapse of the Easter Island civilization can be described by a socio-economic phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons”.

“The phrase tragedy of the commons, first described by biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968, describes how shared environmental resources are overused and eventually depleted. He compared shared resources to a common grazing pasture; in this scenario, everyone with rights to the pasture grazes as many animals as possible, acting in self-interest for the greatest short-term personal gain. Eventually, they use up all the grass in the pasture; the shared resource is depleted and no longer useful.”

This same failure model applies to the carbon culture of today and the global climate change crisis. Today’s shared “resource” is the atmosphere, and we are exhausting it, just as the people of Easter Island did centuries ago to their terrain. The consequences of global self-interest become more and more real everyday.

Climate Change

Earth’s Climate: A Shared Resource

Our abuse of the climate is a global problem which transcends physical borders. At the heart of climate change is our thirst for fossil fuels and the resulting production of CO2 emissions, which pollute and diminish the shared atmosphere.

The people of Easter Island cut down acres of trees, stripped the soil of nutrients and hunted animal species to extinction. Today, we proceed to ravage the Earth for carbon-rich fossil fuels and spew their gaseous by-products into the atmosphere to bolster gross domestic product (GDP) and increase our (perceived) standard of living without any real consideration for the impact on the climate.

Self-interest motivates nations and individuals to skirt responsibility. Sustaining our current way of life (i.e. refusing to prioritize climate action) is simply too difficult, and often very profitable for those with the power to enact change. There is a resistance to any change that is perceived to be disruptive and painful, but as we’ve learned from Easter Island, without any disruptive preventative action or sweeping reforms, the demise of human civilization becomes a much more plausible scenario.

President Obama’s science and technology advisor, offered his thoughts on the future global climate landscape at the recent 2015 UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris:

“It is absolutely essential, if we want to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change, that we turn this problem around starting now” – John Holdren

The consensus is overwhelming. It’s time to slam on the brakes of this freight train. It’s time to right this ship.

Carbon Efficiency: Fortune Of The Commons

The United States is positioned to lead the effort to curb climate change, though meaningful progress is slow. The TRUE cost of energy should account for the cost of the commodity itself and the cost of the environmental impact. Making carbon as visible and explicit as possible is essential to educate end users on their contribution to climate change. Although reducing carbon emissions can be accomplished in many ways, I propose a solution which applies to the building sector.

We all receive monthly utility bills which show energy usage, whether it be electricity, natural gas, oil, etc. Why not have an additional line item for carbon emissions with an associated fee? The end user would effectively be penalized proportionally to the size of their carbon footprint. The calculations of converting the energy usage to carbon emission equivalent are not terribly difficult.

The city of Boulder in Colorado has already implemented a “Climate Action Plan Tax”:

2016-04-20 17_17_08-Image Viewer
Sample utility bill with Carbon Tax

Historically, energy costs have been the main driver for energy efficiency efforts. As the costs of fuel and electricity have increased in the past, so has the push for renewables and energy conservation. But what happens when energy is cheap? The natural tendency is for people to revert back to their original consumer habits. Buy a bigger car. Run the air conditioner longer. Forgo putting solar panels on the roof.

Insulated from the price volatility of the fossil fuel markets, a carbon tax would effectively act as an unwavering financial penalty. In general, the pounds of carbon per kilowatt-hour of electricity or pounds of carbon per therm of natural gas or pounds of carbon per gallon of fuel oil are not dependent upon the monetary cost of the fossil fuel commodity. Thus during times of cheap energy costs, carbon would likely become a main driver for energy efficiency decisions.

Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about energy efficiency in terms of carbon efficiency.

EnergyScoreCard showing carbon emissions

Just as people respond to incentives, people respond to disincentives, possibly even more so. A carbon fee (assuming it is large enough) would provide constant feedback to end users about their contribution to climate change and would hopefully have a positive impact on their consumption behavior. The initial step for reducing carbon emissions and avoiding excessive carbon fees would be to use less fossil fuel by implementing energy conservation efforts. But ultimately a transition to carbon free energy would need to occur. The timing of that transition depends upon the progressive structure of the carbon tax (how much the tax rate increases each year) as well as the maturity and affordability of renewable technologies.

Regardless of the specifics, it would be in the users’ best interest to reduce the size of their carbon footprint and consequently save money. Thus, the “tragedy of the commons” becomes the “fortune of the commons”.

The very real tragedy of Easter Island offers us valuable insight into human behavior and self-interest as a motive. It offers us tangible evidence of the consequences associated with resource exploitation and environmental destruction. It gives us a jarring glimpse of what could be our very own fate. But most importantly it serves as a call to action to change our ways before it’s too late.