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Industrial, Commercial & Institutional Water Conservation

Commercial businesses, corporate offices, manufacturing plants, restaurants, universities, hospitals all need water. How can they improve efficiency? Facilities managers and those responsible for institutional sustain can learn more here about water use audits and best practices for more efficient indoor and outdoor water use.

Table of Contents

Conduct a Water Use Audit

By conducting a water audit, an organization will gain a clear and verifiable understanding of current water use and where conservation efforts can be most effectively applied. The components of the audit will depend on the nature of the business, industry or organization.

End Uses of Water in Various Types of Commercial and Institutional Facilities

WS commercial chart usage

Source: (EPA WaterSense)

For manufacturers, the Massachusetts Office of Technical Assistance and Technology (OTA) has produced these guidelines for industrial water conservation audits and programs: Overview of Water Conservation Techniques and Resources for Massachusetts Industries

For most other ICI organizations, the greatest use of water is for heating and cooling, as well as sanitary use and landscaping. Knowing how much water is currently used daily or even monthly provides a benchmark against which to gauge the effectiveness of a water conservation program. 

Upon completion of your facility water audit, you will have the data necessary to identify appropriate water conservation opportunities and assess your system for potential leaks and repairs. You will also have an initial benchmark for measuring the effectiveness of your efforts. 

Indoor Water Use

For most businesses and institutions, indoor water use accounts for a significant portion — 70% or more — of daily water use. Below are effective steps any organization can take to reduce indoor water use and associated costs.

water use in office buildings

Source: EPA WaterSense

Start by fixing leaks

If your water meter continues to run when your organization is not operating, or if it continues to run at a day rate at night when usage is down, chances are there is a leak somewhere. Work with your local municipal water department or a private commercial water services provider to identify leaks and repair them.  

Upgrade sanitary fixtures, equipment, and appliances

Restrooms: During renovations, remodels or new construction projects, be sure to install EPA WaterSense-labeled toilets and urinals. Also replace showerheads and faucets with more efficient WaterSense-labeled models and use faucet aerators when appropriate. For a comprehensive review of water conservation best practices for restrooms, see Section 3 of  WaterSense at Work.

Kitchens: A water conservation plan should identify periodic equipment upgrades as existing equipment wears out or goes off-lease. For example, replace commercial kitchen dishwashers, steam cookers and dipper wells with ENERGY STAR® qualified models, which use less water.  If your pre-rinse spray valve flows at 1.6 gallons per minute or greater, upgrade to a high-efficiency model using as little as 1.0 gallons per minute, depending on product class. For more detailed information, see high-efficiency pre-rinse spray valves. For a comprehensive review of water conservation best practices for commercial kitchens, see Section 4 of  WaterSense at Work.

Laundries: If you manage an institutional laundry, upgrade to ENERGY STAR® qualified washing machines, which use about 45% less water than standard models. Check out Energy Star certified commercial clothes washers

HVAC Systems: Today’s mechanical systems are designed to function more efficiently using less water and energy. Facility managers sun-setting existing equipment and systems should take water conservation into consideration when making upgrades. For example, eliminate single-pass cooling equipment that does not recycle the water. In addition to upgrading equipment, regular inspections and cleaning will help keep systems running at optimum performance. 

For a comprehensive review of water usage in HVAC and mechanical systems and water conservation best practices, see Section 6 of  WaterSense at Work

Laboratory and Medical Processing:  A few simple upgrades can help achieve water conservation goals. These include installing thermostatically actuated valves to control the flow of water for steam sterilizer condensate discharge, replacing old steam sterilizers and vacuum pumps with more efficient models, and replacing fume hoods and filtrations systems with new ones that don’t require any water at all. Avoid leakage by keeping glassware and equipment washers in good shape and only run them when full.

For water conversation best practices in laboratory and medical processing, please see Section 7 of WaterSense at Work

Outdoor Water Use

According to the EPA, outdoor water use can account for 5-30% of a facility’s total water use. That’s why it’s important that commercial and institutional properties include outdoor water conservation as part of an overall water conservation plan.  

Golf courses can also make a difference in local water availability by managing water usage in accordance with best water conservation practices. For a comprehensive guide to golf course water management and conservation best practices, consult the United States Golf Association (USGA) principles and recommendations.

A basic landscape water conservation plan should take into account:

water conservation focused design and build


Effective outdoor water conservation begins with landscaping that is designed according to local soil and climate conditions. The design should limit clearing and preserve as much natural vegetation as possible.


Soil preparation is key to water efficiency as it ensures absorption by thirsty root systems and minimizes run-off. Topsoil should not be stripped off during landscape construction. Rototill soil to a depth of at least 6 inches to loosen the soil and allow roots to grow deep. Use cultural and fertilization practices that increase water infiltration, reduce runoff, reduce leaching, eliminate waste of water, encourage extensive root growth and maximize efficiency of plant water uptake. Use organic or organic-based fertilizers whenever possible and avoid pesticides that destroy beneficial organisms such as earthworms that naturally fertilize and aerate soil.

Innovative practices and approaches that can be incorporated into a water-friendly landscape design include rainwater harvesting, porous pavement and bioretention areas in parking lots, and green roofs

Drought-tolerant trees shrubs and plants

Local commercial professional landscapers are most likely familiar with the types of trees, shrubs and plants that are drought tolerant and will grow well in your microclimate. Those species native to New England and Massachusetts in particular will do best in our climate. 

The Right Plant, Right Place plant selection guide created by the University of Massachusetts provides a list of trees, shrubs and plants for designing a water conservation friendly landscape.

Irrigation systems

Commercial irrigation systems that are not properly designed, installed or maintained can place an unnecessary burden on local water availability. Inefficient practices that waste water include watering in the middle of the day when evaporation is highest, sprinkler heads that are aimed at hardscaping, and simply applying more water than lawns, plants and shrubs need.

For best results, make sure your irrigation system is designed, installed, and audited by professionals with the appropriate certification: https://www.epa.gov/watersense/irrigation-pro.

Fixed-spray irrigation is best suited to turf grass. Drip or micro-irrigation systems deliver water more efficiently to plants other than turf grass. Watering turf deeply and less frequently uses water most efficiently while encouraging strong, healthy roots. Irrigation systems should be timed accordingly and during the hours of the day when temperatures are lowest - typically early morning and evening. This will minimize evaporative water loss. Always comply with local watering restrictions.

During a drought or extended period of dryness, follow state guidance for limiting nonessential outdoor water use: 

MA Outdoor Water Use Restrictions Guidance

For more information on irrigation systems and technologies, consult:

Mowing and mulching

Simple mowing techniques will help conserve water while promoting lush, healthy turf. Keep grass at a height of 2 to 3 inches to deepen roots and help shade the soil and leave the grass clippings on the lawn as a natural mulch. As they decompose, they will return nutrients to the soil.  

Spreading mulch around the base of trees and shrubs will help the soil retain water while also adding nutrients to the soil and minimizing weed growth.

educate and engage

Don’t forget to publicize your efforts!

By placing signage in landscaped areas that identifies them as water conservation friendly, you will build awareness for your organization’s sustainability efforts. 

If you implement a green roof or rain harvesting program, invite employee participation to help grow a water conservation culture and community.  

Alternative Water Use

Alternative water use programs reclaim water used by a facility and repurpose it for systems and processes that don’t require clean, potable water. For example, reclaimed water can be used for irrigation, cooling tower make-up, toilet and urinal flushing, and fume hood scrubbers. 

Sources of alternative water may include:

  • Rainwater/stormwater
  • Foundation drain water
  • Treated gray water
  • Condensate from air handler equipment
  • Filter and membrane (e.g., reverse osmosis system) reject water
  • Cooling equipment blowdown

Alternative Water Use Planning: More information and guidance on alternative water use programs is available in Section 8 of the EPA’s WaterSense at Work Best Management Practices for Commercial and Institutional Facilities. Also find Information on wastewater reuse including use of treated gray water from MassDEP.

    People & No-Cost Practices

    Upgrading equipment and systems is critical but so is upgrading the behaviors of the employees, customers and visitors who will be using them. Here are some basic suggestions:

    Restaurants, Hotels, Institutions (Universities, Libraries, etc.): 

    • Educate employees about the importance of water conservation as part of your sustainability goals
    • Instead of automatically placing full water glasses on restaurant tables, wait to ask diners if they would like water
    • In the kitchen, use mops to clean the floors instead of power washers. And don’t run the dishwashers until the load is full
    • Lowering shades over sunny windows will keep occupants more comfortable while helping to manage your indoor climate and cooling system usage
    • Place signs in hotel room bathrooms stating that in the interest of water conservation, towels will not be removed for laundering unless requested by the guest and left on the floor
    • Share results! Publicize the good news when you reach your water conservation goals so that all can feel part of the solution

    Industrial and Office Properties:

    • Educate employees about the importance of water conservation as part of your sustainability goals
    • Provide information about your specific water conservation actions and how they can support them
    • Work with your cleaning services provider to implement water-conscientious best cleaning practices
    • Share results!  Publicize the good news when you reach your water conservation goals so that all can feel part of the solution

    Industrial Case Studies from Massachusetts

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