One of the most difficult environments for water conservation is multi-family housing, because most units were built without water meters in each apartment or condominium. Ben Bahk's company AQUEES installs meters and offers a conservation program that can save a good deal of money.
Concerns over drought and water supply drive innovation. Ben Bahk is one of the innovators: He has taken the knowledge acquired over years in the water industry to identify ongoing problems – and possible solutions.
Bahk is co-founder and manager of strategic development at AQUEES Water Efficiency Solutions, a firm based in Bethesda, Md., that focuses on bringing water metering to large office buildings and apartments, also known as “submetering.” This is a notoriously difficult environment for water conservation, because tenants do not usually have individual water meters, so lack basic information about water use — which often results in water abuse.
Remarkably, few communities require submetering in such buildings. Yet installing the meters can save building owners a lot of money.
AQUEES usually couples the installation of submeters in each unit with a comprehensive water conservation program that includes new plumbing fixtures and customer education. Bahk strives for transparency and accountability and believes that people will use less water if they are made aware of exactly how much they are using and are asked to pay based on that amount.
Rising water rates, a longtime reality in the Eastern United States and a growing issue on the West Coast, aren’t going away any time soon. Bahk and his partner at AQUEES, Marek Wolek, offer a comprehensive solution for owners of multi-residential housing units. Their idea was awarded a $50,000 prize at the Village Capital Water U.S. 2015 funding competition in Albuquerque, N.M., in November.
Water Deeply: How big is the problem of unmetered buildings?
Ben Bahk: I’ve seen a study that said 85 percent of multi-residential units in our country are not submetered for water.
Many times in a multi-residential building scenario, whether you’re an owner or a renter, you really have no idea how much water you use; or you have no idea what your water bill is because it’s not done at that unit level. So really, there’s not a great incentive to save, to be efficient with your usage or to have efficient appliances.
All that changes when you submeter. Just as folks turn off the light when they leave if they know they pay for the electricity, they are going to become conscious about water usage when paying a monthly bill for it – especially given that rates are rising so rapidly in many parts of our country. The water bill is becoming a very significant factor in the monthly budget. In some places like Atlanta and Seattle, they have very high water costs and it’s a real driver for people’s awareness and willingness to become water efficient.
Water Deeply: Why weren't these kinds of buildings completely metered at the beginning?
Ben Bahk: Generally some of the newer buildings are being submetered. In Washington, D.C., where you have buildings that are sometimes hundreds of years old, they were not obviously submetered. Probably the reason for that is, in the past, water was very cheap. Now with water rates going up, there is more and more incentive and there are more and more reasons to submeter. In Washington, D.C., water and sewer rates combined essentially doubled in the last 10 years. I think that trend is going to continue.
Water Deeply: Should governments mandate submetering? Why?
Ben Bahk: We definitely think so. It introduces that equity and transparency that goes to the core principles of our country. Not to sound too flowery, but I think everybody for the most part is looking for equity and fairness, and submetering will do that. There have been studies that show metered buildings reduce usage by up to 20 percent in some cases.
Water Deeply: How does your company work?
Ben Bahk: Our customers at this point are property managers and property owners. When I say property, I’m talking specifically about large buildings, with a focus on multi-residential buildings.
The problem our clients face is rising water costs. That’s driven, to a large extent, by a need for water infrastructure upgrades. The water utilities who have the responsibility to upgrade, where do they get their money to do so? More often than not, they’re getting it from their ratepayers — their customers. When you couple that with inefficient water usage, you have a formula for rising water costs.
So that’s a problem we are trying to solve. How do we solve that? The backbone of our business is a strong belief in submetering water. That’s the notion that in a multi-residential building — let’s say a 100-unit apartment or condo — each unit should pay for exactly what they use. It’s true for electricity and gas, but typically it is not true for water. Submetering is a solution to that.
We couple that with two additional platforms. One is analytics. We provide information to our clients about water usage, about cost trends, we provide budget information to apartment managers — basically information that helps our client make informed decisions.
The final platform is the actual upgrade. When you think about a residential building, what are the points for water usage and how we can maximize efficiency? Typically one of the greatest usage points is the toilet. There are products out there that use about 1 gallon per flush, then you have the older toilets that can use up to 5 gallons per flush. You can see the huge difference. We run an upgrade program for multi-residential buildings where they can systematically swap out toilets, showerheads, aerators on faucets and so forth. The concept of submetering, analytics and the upgrades, it’s really the comprehensive package to maximize water efficiency.
Water Deeply: How do you convince building owners to invest in submetering?
Ben Bahk: When we talk with apartment owners, what they typically do is assign a portion of the rent they collect toward water fees. Based on some of the discussions I’ve had with these landlords and apartment owners, they say they lose money on that; their water bill exceeds the amount they allocate for water in the rent. Why is that? We talked about how there really is no incentive to save. Landlords are motivated by the idea that if they can get residents to pay for what they actually use, then they wouldn’t necessarily lose money.
Water Deeply: What are the hurdles in installing the meters on multi-unit dwellings?
Ben Bahk: For new developments it’s pretty straightforward. It becomes more problematic or difficult when you’re talking about retrofitting existing buildings because not every building is plumbed the same way. Going in and finding the pipes, finding the right place to put the meters can be challenging.
Water Deeply: How do owners/residents get the information on usage?
Ben Bahk: Typically the only interface that people have with their water consumption is their monthly water bill. What we are looking to do is by using these smart submeters, the data is taken to the cloud and we are able to provide a portal, an internet-based access to real-time data. That’s something we are working on. Currently what we do is provide a monthly billing service based on the meter reading. The current interface is the monthly bill so to speak, but we are working on a product we have in development software than enables us to provide owners and residents a real-time view of their current water usage. It’s really the notion of accountability and equity that come strongly into play here.
Water Deeply: Tell me about your recent prize of $50,000 in the Village Capital competition. How do you plan to use that money?
Ben Bahk: We’re a startup so this $50,000 is very valuable to us. So we want to try to make maximum usage but we want to spend a good part of it to develop products that drive our business. We have a couple of ideas for different things, but one of them is this software where we are able to provide residents or owners of units with a real-time view into their current water usage.
Water Deeply: You’re based on the East Coast. Are there any hurdles to implementing your technology in the West that you can see?
Ben Bahk: Interestingly enough, on the East Coast my general sense is that water and sewer rates combined are more expensive than on the West Coast. It’s a bit ironic. Typically the utilities have conservation programs. For example, I know the water utility company in Albuquerque; I looked on their website when we were there and they have toilet rebate programs. On the East Coast, we don’t see those.
Water utilities are in an interesting position because, while water conservation makes universal sense, in a way it’s going to affect their revenue and their ability to carry out what they need to do as well so they’re probably caught in an interesting dilemma themselves. It’s really interesting how, depending where you are, there are different factors that become important from a water utilities point of view.
Water Deeply: Do you think water rates are realistic in regions such as the West, which is facing considerable hurdles with drought and aging infrastructure?
Ben Bahk: I’m not an economist but my sense is that the current rates, the reason why they are going up, is the amount of work that needs to be done isn’t being properly financed by current rates. Without having the technical data or economic data to back that up, I think that’s very true common-sense wise.