Embracing water conservation

The drought that launched a thousand building innovations

Gov. Jerry Brown’s 25% water usage reduction mandate seems to have driven the point home for many area residents: Drought conditions in California are hardly a distant abstraction anymore.

As California strives to rise to the occasion, there’s a natural selection of sorts that’s taking place in the building industry. The mainstream is adopting the products that do the best job of conserving water — and by extension, the hardware stores that do the best job of supplying them.

Truthfully, home improvement retailers are encountering a fertile valley of sales growth and opportunities, particularly as they apply to irrigation products.

David Cowie, co-owner of Baller Hardware in Los Angeles, sees his customers moving toward drip systems and water-saving shower heads in the absence of much other change.

Augie Venezia, president of the 100%-employee-owned Fairfax Lumber & Hardware, has seen a boost in his bottom line as well: Customers are going after water-conserving devices, and they’re also considering ways to adopt gray water reuse and rainwater harvesting. Should conditions continue along this track for another two years or so, Venezia foresees a major landscaping overhaul involving more hardscape and drought- and heat-tolerant plants.

In many ways, though, dealers aren’t merely taking a front-row seat to the transformation. They are also serving as the gatekeepers, directing the tide to an extent, and increasingly taking on a role as water conservation gurus in their communities.

“We were on this well over a year ago,” said Orchard Supply Hardware president Bob Tellier. “We’ve launched several programs to provide water-saving alternatives. We’ve done an education program on water saving in native California plants — everything from lavender to cactus and succulents. We label products accordingly and help customers make a considered decision, because it’s just a fact of life out here on the West Coast: five years of a pretty bad drought.”

Venezia agrees that awareness has reached critical mass, and like Tellier, his team has been expecting it.

“A lot of stuff that’s still in limbo really hasn’t hit in a hard way, but people are asking questions,” he said. “The phones are ringing. They’re talking to us about water tanks, gray water reuse and other water-conserving devices like shower heads. They’re not talking much about toilets yet, but we have them ready to go, and we’re gearing our nursery toward plant materials that are drought-tolerant.”

Obviously, the retailer’s role in effecting this sea change depends hugely on innovative suppliers. WaterSense-rated toilets have been on the ball, finding ways to use nearly half the water in any given flush: 1.28 gallons versus as much as 3.5, according to Adriana Miller, product manager for Mansfield Plumbing.

TOTO has earned special esteem as a Water Efficiency Leader (as designated by the EPA), touting high-efficiency, gravity-fed gallon-per-flush toilets that entail 71% water savings when replacing a 3.5 gpf toilet.

Elsewhere around the house, products like Toro’s Precision Series Spray Nozzles can reduce outdoor water usage by at least 30%, simply by using less water while retaining the same spray patterns and coverage. Even better if consumers are using a laundry ball in their wash cycle, which makes the used water suitable to be reused again for landscaping purposes.

Still, it takes a sage hardware store owner to help consumers navigate all these new options that are suddenly available to them, as well as guide them in using them to optimal effect. This, for Venezia, is akin to a promotion for the hardware retailer — a rise in prominence and significance within his community.

“Working in our industry has really not ever been a real glamorous job, but what we’re starting to see is products and methods of installation becoming more and more sophisticated,” he said. “And it’s taking more consulting by sales to customers regarding these products. It’s elevating the lowly hardware person to a higher position, and I think that’s a good thing.”

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