Saving Water, Time, and Money by Fixing Leaks in Affordable Housing

Saving Water, Time, and Money by Fixing Leaks in Affordable Housing

by Cora Snyder, Senior Researcher

Key Takeaways

  • Southern California is experiencing worsening water scarcity, and while important improvements in water efficiency have been made, there is still great potential to reduce water waste.  
  • Pacific Institute is partnering with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) and Sensor Industries on a project deploying toilet leak sensors to reduce water waste in eight affordable apartment buildings across the city.  
  • In addition to saving water, this project helps HACLA streamline property maintenance and reduce water and wastewater costs, which contributes to their mission of preserving and increasing the supply of affordable housing. 

No Water to Waste in Southern California 

As drought – and longer term drying trends – worsen in Southern California, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have no water to waste. There has been a lot of attention on water wasted to lawns, but there is invisible water waste happening inside our homes, too. In fact, Pacific Institute research shows that there is almost as much water-saving potential inside of homes as there is in our yards. Across the region, millions of gallons of water are being wasted to leaky, inefficient fixtures and appliances.  

There have been important improvements in water efficiency over the past decades, thanks to updated plumbing codes and collective conservation efforts by water agencies, property owners, residents, and businesses alike. However, there is still great potential – and need – to reduce water waste and improve efficiency.  

Affordable Housing Group Tackles Water Waste 

Tackling water waste is not only key to making Southern California more resilient to water scarcity; it can also help lower utility bills. Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), the largest provider of affordable housing in LA, wants to do both. Through a collaborative pilot project with the Pacific Institute and other partners, HACLA is confronting water waste head-on in eight of their low-income apartment properties across the city by installing leak detection sensors. The project is helping them achieve their water sustainability goals, streamline property maintenance, and reduce water and wastewater costs. This all contributes to HACLA’s ultimate mission of preserving and increasing the supply of affordable housing.  

Finding and Fixing Leaky Toilets  

The US EPA estimates that every year, household leaks waste nearly 1 trillion gallons of water nationally. Leaky toilets, in particular, are a leading source of indoor water waste, regardless of the efficiency of the toilet.  

In large multi-family apartment buildings, toilet leaks are notoriously hard to detect. With dozens or even hundreds of units dependent on a single water meter, property managers have no easy way to identify toilet leaks unless tenants submit a work order. In affordable housing – where many tenants are older and may not speak the same language as their property manager – these leaks often go unreported. Those undiscovered leaks cause invisible, preventable, and expensive water waste.   

To reduce water waste in the eight affordable apartment buildings participating in the pilot project, HACLA is deploying leak sensors on every toilet in those buildings – 1,200 in total. The sensors are part of an innovative remote leak detection system, provided by Sensor Industries, which can identify toilet leaks in real time. The sensors are connected to an online dashboard that sends immediate alerts to property managers and automatically generates work orders for maintenance teams, creating a streamlined process to find and fix toilet leaks quickly.  

Initial estimates indicate that through toilet leak detection alone, we can reduce building water use at each pilot site by 15% or more. For HACLA’s eight pilot properties, this could mean saving over 10 million gallons of water per year, which translates to thousands of dollars in water and wastewater bill savings.  

Collaborative Partnerships and Funding Strategies 

While most water efficiency investments are cost-effective, up-front funding can be a barrier – especially in affordable housing. Water agencies often offer rebates to help incentivize water efficiency, but the rebate approach does not address the up-front-capital barrier. To help close this gap, corporations are stepping up to cover the pilot project costs for HACLA. Many of these corporations are members of a group called the California Water Action Collaborative, known as CWAC.  

CWAC is a network of diverse non-profits and corporations who have joined forces to address growing water-related challenges in the state. Since its inception during the height of California’s last drought in 2014, the group has grown to over 30 organizations learning together, collectively developing projects, and advancing innovative solutions to improve water resilience across California. The original idea for the HACLA pilot project was seeded within CWAC. The corporations are supporting the pilot project – and other projects within CWAC – as part of their commitments to corporate water stewardship

The corporate funding for this project is facilitated by a nonprofit partner and CWAC member, Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF). Together, Pacific Institute, BEF, Sensor Industries, and HACLA comprise the core pilot project team. Additional partners, including the Los Angeles Better Buildings Challenge (LABBC) and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), have helped guide the project along the way. Both MWD and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) are also providing rebates to co-fund the installations. This project would not be possible without these unique cross-sector partnerships.  

Measuring Multiple Benefits  

Pacific Institute researchers are closely tracking and gathering data on the HACLA project to assess its impacts on water use, utility bills, maintenance workflow, and resident perceptions. It can be a challenge to measure water savings in large multi-family buildings, which have many units that all share one water meter. However, by using multiple data sources such as the toilet leak detection dashboard, water meter readings, and stakeholder surveys and interviews, our researchers are able to develop accurate estimates of the multiple benefits of this project. Results from this project will be synthesized and shared to inform future projects and help demonstrate the potential for water savings in affordable housing.   

What Is Next?  

Building on the pilots with HACLA, the Pacific Institute is working on expanding this work to other cities and investigating mechanisms to scale it up. One exciting aspect of this project is that it is transferrable and relevant across the US and globally. There are different drivers for adoption of water efficiency in different geographies, but all affordable housing providers have a need to save money and improve operational efficiency, and most are interested in improving sustainability as well. Affordable multi-family housing is a critical amenity in urban areas; keeping water costs low in these properties helps them remain affordable.  

Additional pilots are under development in California, Arizona, Texas, and New York. Beyond pilot projects, we are also working to identify new partners, programs, and policies that can help scale this work beyond individual installations to more systematic adoption of water-saving solutions in affordable housing.  

Want to learn more? Explore the links below: 

Advancing Water Efficiency for Low-Income Multifamily Housing in Southern California – Water Action Hub 

Pacific Institute-Led Water Efficiency Project Featuring Remote Toilet Leak Detection in Low-Income Housing Wins Los Angeles Better Buildings Challenge Award 

Saving water in L.A., one leaky toilet at a time – Google Keyword Blog 

The Power of Unlikely Alliances: Public-Private Partnerships for Water Efficiency – World Water Week 2023 

Advancing Innovative Water Efficiency Solutions at the WaterSmart Innovations Conference 2022 

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