Plumbing: What lies around the bend
It’s time to take a closer look at the importance of water conservation, and an effective design strategy to prevent missteps in future upgrades to the plumbing system in your building.
We’ve all been there. In unfamiliar surroundings within a building or facility and the necessity to pay a visit to the amenities unexpectantly rears its head. For me, this is exactly how it occurred one evening last week, whilst attending a seminar in a well-established high-rise building in Sydney. As soon as I opened the door to the men’s toilets, I was immediately subjected to an eye-watering pungent odour, which, upon striking the back of my throat, caused me to struggle to breathe any last remaining gasps of fresh air available into my already struggling lungs. This smell is not what you were immediately thinking; it was the unmistakable stench of Struvite (magnesium ammonium phosphate), caused by a build-up of scale from urine. After washing my hands and wiping away the tears from my eyes, I struggled to find any indication of how the facilities were automatically maintained, only before realising these were no ordinary urinals, these were waterless urinals.
In new buildings, waterless urinals provide a successful method of assisting in the overall reduction of water usage. Even in existing buildings, retrofitting waterless urinals can be installed quite successfully. However, an easy decision to install waterless or low-flow systems to the existing sanitary pipework requires to be carefully considered to ensure the drainage pipework gradient can effectively convey low-flow rates from water efficient sanitary fixtures and fittings. In this case, the building was approximately 25 to 30 years old and would have undergone a refurbishment in the last two to three years. How this odour could possibly have gone unnoticed or not been reported to the facilities management team was a mystery in itself. Does this sound like a similar scenario? Are we only scratching the surface of future plumbing problems that may already exist in your building?
The building’s plumbing infrastructure would not be considered as being at the most critical or even a high business risk by most; however, a significant risk lies in the operation of the hydraulic system, as well as more importantly where public health can potentially be compromised, which is paramount to the continuity of any business. For example, should the water supply not be available for a significant period of time the building will effectively become uninhabitable, unproductive and, as such, a loss of earnings will be incurred, whatever the nature of the business. Could the existing plumbing system or retrofit recently installed potentially have an impact upon your tenant’s productivity and profitability? What’s around the bend and what impact could it have on you?
Avoid reactive quick fixes
Facilities management teams are continually implementing innovative and cost saving methods to improve existing plumbing infrastructure. In order to instil confidence with tenants and investors alike, it is paramount to ensure the operation, maintenance and inevitable replacement strategy is in place. Regular preventative maintenance can greatly assist in extending the life expectancy of hydraulic related plant, pipework and sanitary fixtures; however, upon failure these can often very quickly escalate to become a major issue resulting in the need for immediate action. When carrying out these upgrades, it is recommended that reactive or quick fix practices should be avoided, as they will inevitably cause more financial burden than relief further down the track. Taking a proactive and preventative approach to upgrades is extremely beneficial. Consider replacing out of date, inefficient plumbing fixtures with low-flow outlets or, alternatively, providing fixtures with aerators to reduce water consumption are effective methods of addressing water efficiency issues that can provide significant savings, associated within a complex building with multiple fixtures and fittings.
However, the full extent of other consequences should be considered. For example, as previously demonstrated, installing low-flow fixtures or waterless fixtures – and in conjunction with existing sanitary drainage pipework configurations – can inadvertently cause significant blockages. Retrofitting waterless urinals may seem an effective solution; however, the existing waste pipework and sanitary fixtures and fittings configuration must be fully assessed, as the pH content of urine can very quickly corrode existing copper waste pipework, making a quick solution an expensive high priority issue to replace the pipework. New tenant fitouts may also require trade waste drainage – which requires significant plant area designated for grease arrestors – as well as the implementation of pumps, plus mechanical ventilation, which requires substantial sized risers to the roof and to atmosphere. Retrofitting trade waste pipework (HDPE) in these scenarios can, of course, be overcome by careful coordination in the design phase at an early stage of the project.
Concerns associated with hot water plant, pipework and pumps that have exceeded their working life often escalate and more often than not require immediate action. Taking a proactive approach to upgrades is beneficial. Sustainable hot water systems, such as ground or air source heat pumps, plus solar hot water systems can be easily implemented on new buildings at the design stage; however, retrofitting can be somewhat troublesome, due to a lack of plant room space or the orientation of the building’s roof.
Any hot and cold water replacement strategy requires the mitigation of any risks, as well as the full exploitation of opportunities. Such opportunities may include a review of the payback and life cycle analysis of system upgrades, while, in parallel, an assessment of water reuse, recycling opportunities and legionella risk assessments should be fully evaluated. Unfortunately, these situations are rarely budgeted for, straining an already inadequate budget, as well as causing frustrations for building operations staff and tenants alike.
An environmentally sustainable hydraulic design on the refurbishment of the University of Technology Sydney | Central Campus has been provided by Erbas and Associates. This development aims to be at the forefront of environmental sustainability initiatives, not only within the campus, but also within Australia, by seeking both a six-star energy and water rating, which the university takes extremely seriously in all of its projects.
At a very early stage, following an audit of the hydraulic system, a matrix was introduced scoring each system to evaluate the most effective solution to suit the building’s needs and requirements. The water usage overall, as well as an ageing hot water plant, was recognised early in the project as a primary consuming element, which will be minimised and replaced with recycled water, as well as plate heat exchangers integrated with the new mechanical heating and cooling system, an opportunity that will assist in reducing energy consumption, as a result.
Other sustainable measures include green roof technology, as well as irrigation water being provided from rainwater harvesting from the main roof area, effectively reducing potable demand by up to 50 percent.
The robust water strategy should focus on operational measures, as well as engineering solutions. It needs to avoid reactive measures, identifying both short- and long-term solutions that can be staged. It must also be integrated with other strategies; for example, energy management, for a building is a complex web of interconnected systems that cannot operate in isolation of one another.
A strategy can be aligned with a range of industry benchmarking tools such as LEED, Green Star and NABERS. These tools can help a building’s performance to be publicly recognised and, as such, increase its overall asset value. A forward-thinking water strategy is an important aspect to a building, to not only mitigate the risk of business continuity, but also take advantage of opportunities, be they environmental, cost or reputation related opportunities.
The author, Paul Angus is the associate director of the Hydraulic and Fire team at Erbas & Associates with extensive experience of plumbing systems in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. Erbas has a key focus on reducing water consumption in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales.