Rising to the challenge of water efficiency

Devastating drought across the UK has seen water move back towards the top of the sustainability agenda. Nick Hughes reports.

As if navigating the energy price crunch wasn’t challenging enough, hospitality sector operators are having to battle with restrictions over their use of water too.

Drought experienced across much of the UK this summer has led to restrictions on water use being imposed by a number of water companies, forcing businesses, as well as households, to mitigate their use of scarce supplies.

Businesses are not subject to the exact same set of restrictions as households, however some measures do apply to both. Thames Water, for example, lists automatic irrigation of any planting around buildings such as pubs; use of hoses and sprinklers on gardens and green spaces; and use of a hosepipe for non-essential needs like cleaning a path outside your business premises among the list of activities that businesses must not undertake under its temporary use ban.

The supply of water into premises has largely been unaffected to-date, according to Waterscan managing director Neil Pendle, who believes water companies “have done pretty well to maintain supplies across the board”. However the possibility of drought lasting well into the autumn and even beyond means pubs, restaurants and other hospitality settings will need to carefully manage their water use for the foreseeable future.

So what kind of water efficiency measures should businesses be taking?

Water buckets

Pendle divides the required actions into three buckets: monitoring usage, good housekeeping and behaviour change. The first of these requires businesses to have visibility over exactly how much water they are using. That means asking your water supplier to provide regular meter readings or otherwise proactively reading the meter yourself. 

“Quite often at the moment the retailers aren't taking enough meter readings so you can't really understand your consumption,” says Pendle. “Particularly in a seasonal business like hospitality, if you read the metre once or twice a year it just doesn’t give you enough data to be able to control it.”

The second measure, good housekeeping, means businesses should be constantly looking to fix leaks or maintain equipment which might otherwise result in wasted water. Pendle says modern toilet systems are a case in point: “At the bottom is a diaphragm and what can happen is just a little bit of water leaks out – you quite often see it in a little ripple in the bottom of the loo – but it'll go all the time. Basically, you’re just wasting water and it’s quite prevalent.”

Another tip offered by Thames Water is to stop urinals from automatically flushing overnight. It notes that turning off the flow to the urinals when not in use could save thousands of litres of water.

Behaviour change should be the third prong of a strategy for minimising water use. Kitchen usage can be particularly high; Pendle says good practice in the kitchen includes asking chefs not to leave taps running constantly when preparing vegetables or cleaning down work stations; and ensuring dishwasher loads are full and set to the most efficient rinse setting. Front-of-house workers should be similarly diligent when preparing drinks or cleaning utensils and surfaces.

It’s common sense stuff that if implemented consistently could lead to meaningful savings.

Business efficiency

Across the country – and supply chain – businesses are taking their own individual steps to ensure water continues to be available both for their own use and use within the community. In May, Greene King partnered with Bury in Bloom and Bury St Edmunds Town Council in a project to harvest rainwater from buildings in the town.

Greene King, which is headquartered in the town, installed a 10,000 litre rainwater harvesting tank in its car park to collect water from its social club roof with a second location due to follow later in the year.  The rainwater harvested is being used to water all the hanging baskets around the town.

In Scotland meanwhile, researchers from the University of Aberdeen and James Hutton Institute have worked with The Glenlivet distillery to create a series of small dams in the landscape supplying the distillery that capture water and prevent its closure during dry periods.

Many distilleries have had to temporarily stop distilling in recent summers because of water shortages, costing the industry millions. During the dry summer of 2018 groundwater supplies to the Speyside-based distillery, owned by Chivas Brothers, decreased and did not replenish until the following spring.

The dams “will have a small but positive impact that could help increase water availability during periods of water scarcity and reduce flood peaks during high rainfall”, says University of Aberdeen PhD student Jessica Fennell, who led the project.

Smart metering

Looking ahead, Pendle believes that smart water metering – which essentially carries out the same function as a smart energy meter – will be a “really important” tool for businesses to use in future given the real-time, granular water usage data it can provide. Thames Water and Anglian Water are among the frontrunners in offering smart water meters to commercial and domestic customers to give them greater control over their water use and bills.

Self-supply, whereby a business buys water supply services direct from the wholesale water market, also has the potential to drive improvements in both cost savings and water efficiency for certain businesses – it gives them greater control over water consumption and cost. “For multi-site operators that's a good route because they are able to engage directly with the wholesalers. It also means you pay slightly less,” says Pendle.

For single-site operators the complexity of the water market means self-supply is not usually a viable option; for these businesses Pendle suggests the priority should be “working with your retailer to make sure you're getting good meter readings, you're getting an accurate bill and you're on the right tariff”.

With scientists predicting that long periods of drought will become increasingly common under future climate change scenarios, water efficiency is set to remain a key sustainability priority for hospitality businesses for years to come.

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