In the growing plumbing industry, technological innovations over the past five to ten years have become an integral part of how plumbing professionals do business. Innovations such as smart pipes that let consumers know when there is a leak, tankless water heaters, and so on have transformed the industry for both consumers and industry professionals.

Change and innovation are a never-ending process. One segment where innovations can lead to savings in resources, money and health is plumbing. This has special significance since washrooms and toilets account for around 25 percent of residential water usage. In commercial washrooms, water usage rates zoom even higher. As a result, efficient plumbing systems are vital to ensure water and energy savings of at least 30 percent to 40 percent.

Such savings are indispensable in driving greater sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint. As per estimates of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), at least 20 percent of energy usage in homes is linked to hot water requirements. When considering energy and water-efficient pipes and fixtures, selecting the right material is crucial. Since specific plumbing materials can also impact the quality of water, this is a critical element in safeguarding human health.

Choosing the right material

Multiple materials are used in plumbing, including PVC, copper, galvanised steel and cross-linked high-density polyethylene (PEX). Though widely used earlier, PVC is falling out of favour as it contains phthalates, which have long-term health consequences, especially for infants. Additionally, with lead being used in PVC as a hardening agent in the manufacturing process, it has more disadvantages given that the danger of lead contamination on overall health is well-known. Conversely, for areas having high acid water, CPVC (chlorinated PVC) has better corrosion resistance.

While copper remains one of the more popular piping materials due to its durability and availability, it can corrode in water with high acid levels. Similarly, the once-common galvanised steel has lost its sheen because of its short life arising from faster corrosion.

PEX is a highly freeze-resistant, flexible plastic pipe requiring fewer fittings, which lead to less pressure loss. Its low corrosion and high durability emerge from its complex molecular structure. But PEX needs to be kept away from direct sunlight since ultraviolet radiation can gradually degrade it over time. Yet, PEX pipes are good for conserving energy and water since they have low thermal conductivity, unlike metal fixtures.

Despite their pros and cons, the most sustainable materials are environment-friendly plastics. In these pipes, the two main elements are polyethylene and polypropylene. Significantly, even the environment-conservationist NGO Greenpeace has recognised them as relatively ‘future-friendly’ piping material.

Once the proper piping material has been chosen, it is necessary to use sensor-based systems that ensure flow monitoring for remote controlling shut-off valves. Such sensors are programmed to act instantly as per the data received. If the water is too hot, the system will automatically cool it. If the flow is fast, the pumping rate will be reduced. If a leak arises, the system will stop the supply.

Preventing or repairing leaks well in advance is particularly essential because water contamination is one of the major reasons for higher morbidity and mortality rates worldwide, primarily from waterborne diseases. Although the initial investments in sensor-based systems are higher, the returns come soon in the form of lower water and energy consumption as well as better health of residents.

Dual piping and wastewater

As stated earlier, washrooms are the biggest water guzzlers in residential and commercial complexes. Therefore, apart from piping material, other eco-friendly plumbing solutions are much sought after. Such solutions are typically energy-efficient and promote recycling of water. Given that a single toilet flush can drain anywhere between 8 and 20 litres of water, a broad range of innovative plumbing solutions can conserve water. These include water-efficient true-flushometers with lower water usage by a minimum of 20 percent compared to traditional duel-flushing systems. Notwithstanding the water pressure in a pipeline, true-flushometers only dispense a consistent amount of water via each flush, and perform for a long time without any maintenance, up to 250,000 cycles.  

Since the main motive of next-generation plumbing lies in conserving water, dual piping systems are also good at this because they segregate water into potable and reclaimed. While potable water is mainly used for drinking, cooking and washing; reclaimed or recycled water is useful for flushing toilets as well as in gardening and irrigation. Reclaimed water refers to sewage water that is treated, eliminating the waste and harmful bacteria, making it suitable for landscaping.

Similarly, dual plumbing systems also segregate greywater. For any sustainable plumbing effort to be effective, the use of greywater is important. Greywater refers to comparatively clean wastewater flowing out of sinks, bathrooms, dishwashers, washing machines and kitchen appliances. Unlike sewage, greywater is devoid of any faecal contamination or other biological pollutants as it does not include toilet wastewater.

Consequently, greywater is safer to handle as well as easier in treating and reusing for watering gardens or flushing toilets. Nonetheless, greywater can only be used for watering plants if it does not contain toxic toiletries and personal care products, which are harmful to plants. However, such water can be used safely in flushing toilets. By reclaiming and reusing greywater, households can greatly curb overall water usage. Here, it is important that there should be a right selection of flushometer so that it can perform with reclaimed or greywater.

Finally, all households should use a simple solution for saving water – limiting the water pressure in pipes and faucets, thereby minimising the waste with every use. In moving towards more sustainable plumbing solutions and less water usage, it is clear that every drop counts in ensuring greater annual savings, which also includes lower energy use.