An interview with Benjamin H. Grumbles, Assistant Administrator for Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Supply House Times:The EPA has stated that if every home in the United States installed WaterSense-labeled faucets or faucet aerators in the bathrooms, we would save 60 billion gallons of water annually - saving households more than $350 million in water bills and about $600 million in energy costs to heat the water. Has the EPA set any goals for realizing at least some of those savings? How will progress be measured?
Ben Grumbles:EPA agrees strongly on the need for measures and mileposts to gauge progress. While we have not set specific goals for market penetration of WaterSense-labeled products, we are working with partners to collect annual data on products sold, rebates given through utility programs, and other applicable metrics. Also in January 2007, the president signed an executive order (E.O. 13423) calling for water conservation by federal agencies. The water conservation goal is a 2% reduction annually through the end of fiscal year 2015 or 16% by the end of fiscal year 2015.

Q: Where does plumbing rank among sectors measured by the EPA in terms of water usage?
Grumbles: Plumbing is one of the most important sectors. Depending on the region of the country, consumers use about 70% of their water indoors; toilets - the largest water users inside the home - account for 30% of a home’s indoor water use.

Q: What do you feel are the simplest water savings to achieve in the average home, and how can the EPA best work with the plumbing industry to help achieve them?
Grumbles: In addition to specifying WaterSense-labeled products, plumbers can help consumers save water in simple, everyday ways:

  • Check for toilet leaks - a leaking toilet, especially an older one, can waste up to 200 gallons per day.
  • Repair dripping faucets and showerheads - a drip rate of one drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons per year.
  • Replace old washing machines with high-efficiency, ENERGY STAR-labeled models, which use up to 50% less water and electricity.

    Q: Will EPA request water agencies to discontinue their own specific requirements and to use WaterSense for their rebate program?
    Grumbles: No, but as the water efficiency movement grows and WaterSense products increase, utilities and communities will take steps to revise existing programs. WaterSense is a voluntary program designed to create a consistent, national brand based on independent testing and certification to EPA’s efficiency and performance criteria. Utilities set rebate program criteria based on a variety of factors, often to address specific local or regional water-related issues, and they can consider WaterSense-labeled products as part of that decision-making process. The bottom line for us and the overarching principle of WaterSense is: Give consumers good information and they will make good choices.

    Q: Showerheads are among the products for which WaterSense is attempting to develop a high-efficiency specification. Within the industry, many feel this is a futile quest, because low-flow showerheads typically lead to people taking longer showers and thereby defeating the purpose of flow restrictions. Do you feel there is a common sense solution to this problem?
    Grumbles: Yes, but it will take time to get the best, proven technology in place and incorporate the wide range of perspectives and attitudes. WaterSense reviews input from all interested parties and considers all available information in developing its product specifications. In the case of showers, this includes existing research by Aquacraft Inc., which has shown that shower duration stayed relatively constant after high-efficiency showerheads were installed.

    EPA is working with the industry through the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Joint Harmonization Task Group to develop the criteria for a high-efficiency showerhead specification. This work is focused on developing performance measures to ensure that high-efficiency showerheads labeled by WaterSense perform as well or better than conventional models.

    Q: What is the EPA doing to publicize the WaterSense program to consumers and encourage them to purchase WaterSense-labeled products?
    Grumbles: We began with outreach to partners in the utility, government, NGO, manufacturer, retailer, distributor and irrigation communities. We have a national Web site that promotes water efficiency and lists WaterSense-labeled products. EPA also conducts media outreach and places public service announcements geared toward consumers. Our focus now is to build new partnerships, such as with the plumbing and supply industry. Who is in a better position of trust and face-to-face contact with consumers than America’s plumbers and home improvement professionals?

    Q: How well do you think the public is taking to the WaterSense concept?
    Grumbles: In my 20 years in government service and water policy, I have not seen as much interest in water policy as today. Communities across the country, encompassing manufacturers and everyone else involved in some way in the water challenge, are recognizing the importance of water efficiency. With the WaterSense program, we’re seeing the number of partners grow substantially, and I believe it is building to something comparable to the ENERGY STAR program.

    Q: How is the EPA working with other government agencies and organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to ultimately agree on and reference a single set of product standards for the different water initiatives out there?
    Grumbles: This is a priority and it needs to stay a priority. EPA is working with existing green building programs (e.g., USGBC LEED-Home, NAHB Green Building Guidelines, DOE Building America, Masco’s Environments for Living) to promote consistent approaches for achieving water efficiency. The current draft versions of LEED-Homes and NAHB’s Green Building Guidelines both reference WaterSense-labeled products. EPA is working with the Department of Energy to develop guidance for agencies to meet the goals.

    Q: Garbage disposals are a plumbing product that consumes a lot of water, but is not listed on the WaterSense Web site as subject to any standards. Is this a purposeful omission, or just something the EPA hasn’t gotten around to yet?
    Grumbles: As we launched the program in 2006, we focused on some of the most obvious areas where we could make the greatest difference - toilet and irrigation systems. WaterSense evaluates many aspects when considering products for inclusion in the program, including potential water savings, availability of existing performance standards, ability to differentiate products based on water use and general level of stakeholder support. At this time, WaterSense is not considering garbage disposals for further evaluation.

    Q: Garbage disposals help reduce landfills. This raises the issue of tradeoffs between saving water and realizing other environmental goals. Does WaterSense take such tradeoffs into consideration in developing its standards?
    Grumbles: When developing product specifications, EPA considers the body of research available, conducts its own research and reviews public comments on the environmental impacts of proposed criteria during the development process. Consideration is given to life-cycle impacts of labeled products, including increased production of solid waste, recycling and disposal of old products, and the energy and water resources that go into manufacturing the products.

    Q: What are the reasons the EPA’s ENERGY STAR program has been successful, and how will those strategies be included in the WaterSense program?
    Grumbles: ENERGY STAR has a strong partnership with the Department of Energy, detailed research and review, strategic and effective marketing, and a proven and growing track record of success that speaks to the American public. WaterSense and ENERGY STAR are both voluntary, public-private partnership programs that work toward market enhancement and public recognition through the labeling of products and the participation of a variety of partners across the country.

    Q: Certain states have taken so far unsuccessful initiatives to lower the federal 1.6 gallons per flush standard for toilets sold in their states. Plumbing manufacturers prefer to work with federal authorities in developing water-usage standards to avoid having to deal with a hodge-podge of state laws. Do you agree that federal standards ought to take precedence over state regulations governing plumbing products?
    Grumbles: EPA has provided a voluntary specification that is applicable nationally, but WaterSense does not comment on individual state activities.

    Q: What is in store for the WaterSense program in the future? Will it expand to cover commercial and industrial plumbing products?
    Grumbles: Water efficiency is the wave of the future. We look forward to continuing our research and evaluation of products, including those found in commercial lavatories, kitchens and other non-residential settings to help protect our nation’s water supply for future generations. EPA’s water office is taking national action beyond its WaterSense program to promote water efficiency. For example, our Water Efficiency Leader (WEL) program recognizes national examples of water efficiency in use across the country.

    For more information on the WaterSense program, visit