What is the carbon footprint of water?

Before touching on the subject of water, it’s important that we answer the question, what is a carbon footprint? Carbon footprint refers to the total amount of greenhouse gases, or GHGs, that are released into Earth’s atmosphere by a building, business, person, or appliance (though this list is not exhaustive). This includes the emissions from burning fossil fuels, using aerosols, cutting down trees, and many other human activities that have become part of our day-to-day. Since carbon dioxide is the main gas released during these activities, the term “carbon footprint” is used to cover the release of any number and types of gas from these activities, including methane and nitrous oxide.

Carbon footprint examples

Commercial businesses emit greenhouse gases both directly and indirectly. Direct emissions come from the combustion needed for heating and cooking, waste and wastewater management, and refrigerant leaks, while indirect emissions are produced by burning fossil fuels to make electricity, which is then used in residential and commercial activities such as lighting and for appliances.

In 2020, direct emissions from homes and businesses were responsible for 13% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. And a large contributor to those emissions, and to businesses’ carbon footprints, was water wastage.

Water’s carbon footprint

Water’s carbon footprint generally depends on how it’s being used, and where it’s sourced. Groundwater, for example, has a higher carbon footprint than surface water because more energy is required to extract it. Treating wastewater has a higher carbon footprint than recycled water for the same reason – the energy that’s needed to get to it.

As for where it’s being used, consider again the energy needed to use that water for its intended purpose. When you heat water to take a shower, more energy is needed than if you were to run cold water. So before you turn on your boiler, ask yourself, what is a carbon footprint of the water I’m using?

How this applies to the construction and commercial sectors

One of the best ways to illustrate water’s carbon impact on facilities managers, developers, and construction companies is in the Empire State Building. By simply retrofitting a WINT water solution to their structure, the building’s management group saved 27 million liters of water and reduced carbon emissions by 340 tons.

Right now, sustainability and carbon emissions are urgent global problems. In his article titled The hidden carbon footprint of water, 2022 Vice President of LEEDs Technical Advisory Group for Water Efficiency—Ibrahim Kronfol—states that “Mitigation acts start with end users: with each and every one of us taking effective actions to reduce and control water demand.”

This means individuals, along with businesses, construction companies, developers, and industry. What’s surprising is that decarbonization is not just possible, but also relatively easy, thanks to technology like WINT. Additionally, the amount of money saved with leak detection systems is substantial.

The World Economic Forum published a report just a year ago stating that, “Global water utilities could cut GHG emissions in half, at low to no cost, with existing high-efficiency technologies. Think “smart” pumps, leak detection sensors and other digitally-powered solutions that dramatically reduce the amount of energy used in the treatment and transport of water. These abatement opportunities are low-hanging fruit and, crucially, do not require new technologies or carbon-pricing policies.”

How to reduce carbon emissions

There are a number of ways to reduce carbon footprints for commercial buildings and construction sites including:

  • Recycling – did you know that recycling a single empty can will save enough energy to operate a computer for a full hour?
  • Invest in recycled resources – by choosing recycled items, not only are you contributing to your workplace’s green status, but you’re perpetuating a more carbon-efficient process.
  • Choose suppliers with sustainability credentials – WINT’s water intelligence system, as an example, has an ISO 9000 rating, meaning it has reached very high-quality standards in its industry.
  • Switch to green energy – many energy providers offer a green tariff as a way of incentivizing energy consumers to switch to green energy. Switching to solar power – or wind power if it’s an option – are excellent ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Ways to reduce your carbon footprint of water

There are a number of ways to reduce the emissions caused by the overuse of water, and many of them apply to both home and commercial use, like:

  • Use less hot water – commercially, hot water has very specific uses. And if it’s not needed, it’s advisable to turn off boilers, reduce the temperature of the water you use, or choose cold water where possible.
  • Reduce water wastage – this should be an obvious practice in every building and construction site since it saves both energy and month. Part of reducing waste is checking for leaks and fixing them as quickly as possible. Since this can be labor-intensive, it’s a good idea to fit an intelligent water solution that will do all of the hard work for you.
  • Choose reusable items – disposable cleaning cloths, wipes, and towels are all contributors to environmental waste. By choosing reusable items, not only do you save on costs, but you make a significant impact on the carbon footprint of your site or building.

Let’s head back to the Empire State Building

When it began to search for an effective water intelligence solution, Empire State Realty Trust (NYSE: ESRT) made its goals very clear: detect leaks before they could cause significant damage; and optimize water consumption, during the environmental impact of water and its associated carbon footprint.

Implementing a WINT system had incredible results, like:

  • Early detection of anomalies in cooling towers, pumps, and other equipment, was a simple and quick way to reduce the carbon footprint.
  • Detection and prevention of significant water damage from a pump that had failed on a higher floor.
  • Identifying previously invisible sources of waste saves ESRT over $100k in water use per year.
  • Saving 7.5 million gallons of water and reducing greenhouse emissions by hundreds of metric tons per year.
  • Return on investment was quick, measurable, and substantial, at 1,500%, with a payback period of just three months.

WINT’s next-generation water management

The recently released WINT3 comes with powerful AI analytics to monitor and manage water, while also cutting waste, preventing water damage, and reducing emissions. WINT is working hard to make it even simpler for businesses to reduce their water carbon emissions. The system has already proven to have immediate, meaningful results.

Where to find more information

There are a wide variety of resources available for developers, construction companies and facilities managers to find information about reducing the carbon footprint of water, including:

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