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Strata apartments and the water trap

Owners of strata apartments who want to green their property are often hamstrung by a host of constraints that don’t assail owners of free standing property. Here we look at water use through the eyes of a new alliance designed to tackle waste and fairer metering, as City of Sydney announces new grants for water saving in strata property.

A new alliance of companies has developed a program to overcome the hurdles of reducing water wastage in strata-titled apartments.

Strata apartment owner corporations can save thousands of dollars a year through implementing water efficiency programs, however the hydraulic design and metering arrangements in many existing buildings can create extra hurdles.

Water Smart Strata involves three firms – Watersave Australia, BMT WBM and Skilltech. The firms have complementary skills in submetering supply and installation, water usage audits and analysis, leak detection and repair, low flow fixtures supply and installation, meter reading and project management.

Paul Marsh

Paul Marsh

Paul Marsh, chief executive of Watersave Australia, said the alliance had come about in response to issues identified by the individual firms while working with City of Sydney and Sydney Water on water-saving initiatives for the multi-residential sector.

These issues include the lack of individual metering for most apartments, as Sydney Water only made individual submetering a requirement of connecting to its system in September 2014. Further, Mr Marsh said that many apartments have multiple points of entry for water, which makes retrofitting individual submetering extremely difficult, particularly as they would generally need to be installed inside the apartment, which creates a privacy issue.

Because of this, in most strata buildings water is billed to each owner on the basis of lot entitlement, rather than on what they actually used. This, Mr Marsh said, creates an equity issue.

A spokesperson for the City of Sydney told The Fifth Estate that the lack of water metering of individual apartments was also a key challenge for building management and maintenance.

“Owners are only allowed to pass on water bills to tenants when consumption is metered. Apartment tenants therefore have limited incentive to reduce their consumption, report leaks or allow access for repairs and water efficiency upgrades,” the spokesperson said.

“Another key point is that improving water efficiency also reduces energy consumption, costs and carbon emissions considering that the largest demand of water in an apartment is for (hot) showers and baths.”

Under the new Sydney Water rules, which apply to all multi-residential projects within its service area, apartments must have a single point of entry for water with an individual submeter installed outside the apartment so it can be easily read.

This will make billing fairer, a Sydney Water spokesman said.

“All new buildings, those that had their building approvals since September 2014, must have individual unit meters but there is quite a lead time before any of these buildings are completed so it is too early to confirm the water savings that we expect to see.”

The Water Smart Strata package aims to overcome some of the hurdles for buildings functioning under the old regime of collective metering with a package of skills and services that starts with a water use audit and identification of any structural issues that can be remedied to save water.

“What we suggest to building management committees is to look at the overall water use of the base building. We take its typical Sydney Water bill, look at how many apartments and how many bedrooms there are and run it through an algorithm to show how it is performing against the water efficiency benchmark,” Mr Marsh said.

Generally, he said, buildings will be consuming water well above the benchmark, which is a clear sign there’s work to be done.

What causes excess water use?

Some of the structural issues that may cause excess water use Mr Marsh said could be remedied include leaks in top-up tanks for the airconditioning, broken float valves, irrigation not working efficiently, or the top-up facility and backwash outlet for pools set up in a way that wastes too much water.

This initial package of assessment, and quick-fix of common area issues can cost the body corporate very little and lead to substantial savings, as a float valve set at the wrong level in the air conditioning top up tank, for example, can dump 100 litres of water every minute. Marsh says it is the kind of flaw that no-one would even notice unless they actually went into the plant room and examined the tank.

For some apartment block committees, that might be as far as they want to take it. For those who want to go further, a more granular analysis is carried out with data logging technology installed at key metering points that uses remote telemetry to give readings every 15 minutes for a month.

This gives a 24-hour picture of water use, and it is the period between 2am and 4.30am when most people are asleep and not using water that shows up any major leaks or water wastage issues. The monthly picture also shows patterns of water use by home owners.

This can then lead to further improvements such as finding and fixing any identified leaks, and potentially retrofits of fixtures in apartments themselves, such as changing to low flow shower heads, installing aerators for taps and fixing any leaks.

“We can help the owners corporation develop the business case, and show them the dollar savings,” Mr Marsh said. Where owners corporations agree to access to individual apartments it is then possible for further work to be undertaken including potential installation of smart submetering, retrofits of water-efficient fixtures and fixing of leaks within apartments.

Because most apartments in a building will have a similar layout, an individual apartment audit is generally fairly fast, Mr Marsh said, and any items that are to be fixed or upgraded can be done then and there.

“The data shows that 60 per cent of water in apartments is used in showers and that there has been an average 20 per cent reduction in water use where a retrofit has been done. That is a huge saving,” Mr Marsh said.

Finance available

The alliance has put together a finance package that allows strata corporations to spread the cost of all works over a three-to-five-year period.

Mr Marsh said there is growing interest in the Water Smart Strata offering outside Sydney, with requests from the Hunter, and also interest from Victorian water retailers.

“Everyone is interested because of inequity issues in the use of water,” he said.

City of Sydney grants

The City of Sydney has launched a program of grants for strata apartments that do not currently have submetering on irrigation or pools, with grants up to $5000 for 50 per cent of the cost of installation, and also proportional funds of up to $10,000 per building for the installation of water efficient showers and flow regulators for taps inside apartments.

According to data in the City’s water efficiency plan developed by the Institute of Sustainable Futures in 2012, consumption by multi-residential apartments comprised 38 per cent of water use in the City of Sydney, with up to 90 per cent of this water used inside apartments. Low-flow showerheads and fixing leaks have been identified as the most significant and cost-effective options for reducing water use.

And because the apartment sector has the highest consumption of any sector in the city, efficiency measures are regarded as key to achieving overall water consumption targets of 10 per cent reduction by 2030 based on 2006 levels, a City of Sydney spokesperson told The Fifth Estate.

“We believe that the apartment sector of new and existing apartment buildings can reduce their potable water consumption by seven per cent cost effectively by 2030 from 2006. This is despite an expected growth in residential population of 62 per cent over the same period,” the spokesperson said.

Sydney Water’s WaterFix program

Sydney strata residents can also save water and reduce bills through Sydney Water’s WaterFix plumbing service.

The service includes an audit of plumbing fixtures, repairs to leaks in taps and toilets, replacement of taps, installation of water efficient showerheads [costs from $55 for the showerhead], installation of four-star dual-flush toilets [from $385], and installation of flow control devices to make existing taps, toilets and showers more water efficient.

For a single dwelling, the service cost starts at $132, which includes a $99 call out fee and a tap leak repair of $33. However, a Sydney Water spokesperson said that for strata buildings, significant savings can be passed on where bulk appointments are scheduled within a property on the same day.

Case study – Parkridge Apartments

Green Strata case studies such as Parkridge Apartments demonstrate rapid payback and substantial financial gains from water efficiency for owners and the body corporate. Parkridge was built in 1981, and had common metering for 120 apartments. The owners’ corporation participated in a pilot of Sydney Water’s Hi-rise program in 2010.

An initial audit revealed the bulk of water was being used within apartments, so the owners corporation voted to undertake the WaterFix program for any apartment that had not previously undertaken retrofits of water-efficient fixtures.

This was done in 2011 at the body corporate’s expense because while just over half of the apartments had already been retrofitted through individuals undertaking WaterFix or through individual initiative, the water bill for all apartments was being paid out of administrative funds, so any upgrade to inefficient apartments still benefitted every owner.

A rate of $22 an apartment for reducing toilet flush volumes, installing lower-flow shower fittings and installing flow regulators in basin taps and kitchen sink taps was negotiated with Sydney Water. Average daily consumption dropped to 59.9 kilolitres a day following the retrofit – a reduction of 15 kL a day compared to pre-retrofit. At the time, water charges were $2.103 a kL, so the water saving equated to a saving of $11,526 a year, giving a payback for the project of 1.3 months.

The new pricing of the WaterFix program would have cost the body corporate $196 a bathroom, however, this would still give a payback period of only 11.6 months.

Additionally, the owner’s corporation believes there has been a saving on energy costs, as an energy audit revealed that pumping water from ground level to a central holding tank on the roof and then to the hot water service and individual apartments accounted for 12 per cent of the common property energy usage. Reduction in water use therefore also reduces the need for pumping, however the dollar value of that saving has not been quantified.

What to look for in water efficiency if buying off-the-plan

Marsh says that if people are buying off-the-plan apartments, there are some key things they should look at in terms of ensuring the new abode won’t have huge water bills. They include low-flow five-star rated fixtures such as toilets and appliances such as dishwashers, also aerators on taps and dual-flush toilets.

Most people, he says, will probably only consider what’s in their own apartment, however, and not consider the structure of the building and common areas and amenities and what their level of water-efficiency might be.

The Fifth Estate has heard from other sources that it’s definitely worth finding out, as the water bills of common area items such as garden irrigation, airconditioning, pools, saunas, spas, gymnasiums and end-of-trip facilities all add to the body corporate fees paid by every owner.

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