The former Government’s proposed restrictions on water flow generated a flood of responses recently.
It proposed draft alterations to the Building Code, restricting flow rates to showers in new homes of more than 150 sq m and renovated bathrooms. In the face of mounting public pressure, Building and Construction Minister Shane Jones said the Government of the time would rethink imposing a restriction on water flow rates of six litres per minute.
However, there is much more at stake here than just shower pressure. Sustainable solutions need to look at the whole picture and address issues on a long-term basis. When examining water conservation we need to acknowledge that alongside the issue of the quantity of water we use in our homes, we also need to look at the amount of energy used to heat water, and the quality of the water we use.
The enthusiasm with which the public has defended its right to a long, hot shower shows that solutions to issues such as water conservation need to balance environmental objectives with lifestyle.
While some commentators have claimed they can quite happily live with a flow rate of six litres per minute, many would find this unsatisfactory.
A six litre per minute restriction may see people use just as much, if not more, water by taking longer showers — but shower quality would be reduced significantly.
Compulsory rating scheme
A more effective approach to regulation would be to compulsorily introduce the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) rating scheme as used in Australia. Similar to the Energy Star mark given to appliances in New Zealand, the WELS scheme would enable home owners to compare the water efficiency of different products such as showers, taps, toilets, dishwashers and washing machines.
The WELS label looks very similar to the Energy Star labels and clearly displays an efficiency rating out of six and a water consumption measurement.
For home owners, this scheme provides a much greater incentive to save water as they are able to actively choose products that will save money in energy and water bills.
The introduction of a WELS ratings scheme would complement the (voluntary) Home Energy Ratings Scheme (HERS) which provides home owners with the means to assess the energy efficiency of their home, encompassing the building itself and its room and water heating systems.
Like Energy Star labelling, the energy rating scheme will raise public awareness of home energy efficiency and allow home owners to make more informed choices about their energy consumption.
One issue that home owners particularly need to be made aware of is that heating the water in the household’s hot-water cylinder contributes up to 40% of a home’s monthly power bill.
This inefficiency can be easily redressed by installing a hot-water heat pump, a solar heating system or at the very least, by installing a good-quality, well-insulated hot-water cylinder.
While many home owners may be deterred by the costs of such solutions, in the long term they stand to benefit from significant power savings.
In the case of solar water heating for example, an average householder could save between $350 and $450 a year at current electricity prices, and the cost of installation may be offset by $1000 under the current Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority subsidy scheme.
While excessive regulation is not the answer to the environment issues we face, educating consumers and providing them with tools to assess the health, efficiency and sustainability of their homes is the key to enacting changes for the better.