When people think of weather-related damage and natural disasters, droughts don’t particularly come to mind. This may be because droughts are not as visually damaging as hurricanes, such as Hurricane Fiona, which recently devastated parts of Puerto Rico, or Hurricane Ian, which swept through Florida. But the drought is wreaking havoc on communities and buildings more than you might think. Drought is the most expensive weather-related disaster in the United States after hurricanes. Unlike other natural disasters, it’s much harder to predict when a drought will start or end, and therefore harder to prepare for.
believe it or not, drought were able Physical damage to commercial buildings. When drought occurs, the lack of water in the soil causes it to shrink around buildings. This results in uneven settlement, which can cause damage to the building’s foundation that may not be apparent at first. Eventually, the foundation can show signs of cracking, and any damage to the building’s foundation can lead to damaged pipes, collapsed floors, warped windows, and more.
Physical damage to buildings isn’t the only way droughts can hurt commercial real estate owners. Ross Sheil, senior vice president of global revenue at Infogrid, said: “We have learned a lot of painful lessons about how drought can reduce the viability of dry areas and areas that draw water from drought-affected sources.” Smart building software developer.
News of the drought had been in the headlines last summer. The number of states affected by moderate or severe drought ranged from 40 to 42 throughout the summer. States such as Texas, Arizona and California continued to experience the worst drought conditions due to extreme heat and lack of rainfall. California is suffering its worst drought in 1,200 years, with nearly three-quarters of the state in severe or abnormal drought. Scientists say climate change could exacerbate droughts in the coming years. Warmer temperatures promote evaporation, which reduces surface water and dries out soil and vegetation, creating periods of reduced precipitation.
Commercial properties that employ technologies to reduce water use and waste can help protect themselves from these drought conditions. One of the consequences of drought is the availability and quality of drinking water. Reduced flow in streams and rivers can increase the concentration of pollutants in water and cause water stagnation, creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes and West Nile virus. Commercial buildings in areas hard hit by drought will increasingly have to deal with consequences that may not directly affect properties but certainly affect the quality of life in the area.
Percentage of Area by U.S. Drought Monitoring Category since 2000
Of the 48 U.S. states, 40% were under drought warnings not only last summer but in the past 100 weeks. That means this goes all the way back to September 2020. The megadrought on the West Coast could continue for another eight years. To make matters worse, some of the U.S. states hardest hit by drought are projected to have some of the strongest population growth in the country. For example, Arizona’s population is projected to grow by 26.1 percent between 2020 and 2040, according to a study by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. Arizona residents also experienced a historic drought, with six cities in the state officially declaring water shortages over the summer. Commercial real estate may feel the effects of drought more in the future, if owners haven’t already.
In dry regions, water conservation is essential and may even be required by state and local authorities. Commercial real estate can play a huge role in water conservation, as many properties are heavy water users. A typical federal building with 200 employees uses 3,000 gallons of water per day, which equates to about 800,000 gallons per year. Commercial buildings have a similar range of consumption, covering everything from sinks, toilets, outdoor irrigation, drainage, cleaning, and in some cases heating and cooling.
Providing safe, secure and reliable water requires a facility management team to understand the building’s water usage and manage it effectively. The risk of water-borne diseases such as Legionnaires’ disease must be reduced by keeping the water supply within a safe temperature range. The water must be moved to prevent it from stagnant, and safety measures often include regular flushing of water outlets and temperature checks by maintenance personnel. Historically, all of these tasks were done manually, which resulted in the use of thousands of gallons of water.
In addition to day-to-day water security, water in commercial buildings is wasted in other ways. Surprisingly, leaks account for more than 6 percent of the average commercial building’s water use, according to the EPA. Leaks and constant running water aren’t always visible, but they can quickly add to high utility bills and waste. Inefficient external irrigation is also a big waste of water. On a typical commercial property, exterior landscaping accounts for about 20 percent of drinking water consumption. Restrooms consume more water than any other area in a building, estimated to be around 37%. A leaky faucet wastes more than 3,000 gallons of water each year, and most buildings have a lot of leaky faucets.
Many commercial properties may still be in the “dark ages” of water conservation. This is because building managers have no data to understand how much water they consume and waste. Without this data, it can be difficult to know where to start and how best to use technology to optimize water and energy savings. The use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and artificial intelligence is helping some homeowners better control their water consumption.
An example is a pipe monitoring solution in a large building that may have miles of water pipes. Owners can remotely monitor temperature and water flow with sensors to determine where water is stagnant and potentially creating conditions for Legionella. Traditional manual solutions for pipe monitoring require flushing all outlets and faucets between two and three minutes per week. Using IoT sensors for pipe monitoring, only 2% of faucets require manual flushing, saving wasted water with preventative pipe flushing. It also reduces the need for engineers to regularly visit construction sites, saving labor and transportation costs.
Another way technology can help is through leak detection. Sensors and AI-driven software can provide quick alerts when water droplets or pools are detected, saving buildings thousands of gallons each year. This is a water saving measure, but it also helps prevent internal building damage from standing water that can lead to dangerous mold conditions.
On-site water giants are another technology gaining momentum in commercial real estate. The technology was developed by Aaron Tartakovsky and his father, Igor, as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” a competition that could attract a lot of jokes, but also some great ideas. Water Giant Technologies captures and treats wastewater from buildings, producing recycled water for non-potable applications such as toilet flushing, recovered waste heat energy and reused organic solids for natural soil treatment.
Tartakovsky’s company, Epic Cleantec, has installed an on-site water giant system at the NEMA Building, a 754-unit multifamily complex in downtown San Francisco. Related companies also installed an operational greywater megasystem at the newly opened 1550 in San Francisco, a 1.2 million-square-foot luxury residential development. Epic Cleantec has partnered with other major U.S. developers and plans to install in multiple states, including the 1.3 million-square-foot Park Habitat commercial project in San Jose. Park Habitat’s system is expected to produce 30,000 gallons of high-purity recycled water per day to irrigate 20 layers of plant life and divert tens of thousands of pounds of wastewater organics from landfills.
A new, scarcer reality
While technologies such as on-site water giant systems can significantly reduce water usage, some owners have had difficulty justifying the cost. In drought-stricken areas such as California, office owners say there is little they can do to reduce water usage given high vacancy rates without making big investments. Some owners may be in a “dark age” when it comes to water conservation, but the severity of California’s drought means many office owners have implemented cutting-edge water-saving technologies, sometimes mandated by state and local governments. Office owners face more calls to cut water use despite drastic reductions.
In addition to government requirements, real estate companies are also setting their own water-saving targets. Compared to its 2015 baseline, Kilroy Realty is close to achieving its goal of reducing its water consumption by 20%. The company’s water use has dropped 17 percent through 2021, but cutting the remaining percentage points will be a tall order. The company is researching its HVAC systems to further conserve water, some of which use water cooling towers.
Kilroy has used recycled water for strategies such as watering plants or flushing toilets. The company is also investigating where landscaping can be replaced with drought-tolerant plants, and whether pressure washing can be reduced on certain exteriors, roofs and windows. At a time when office owners need to make a particularly good impression in a challenging office market, less cleaning and landscaping can change the appearance of a building. For some facilities in California and other arid regions, finding a balance between aesthetics and water conservation has become difficult.
Water giant systems can save a lot of water, but they’re an expensive improvement, and some landlords worry there won’t be a quick return on investment. With the office market still in turmoil, there is little guarantee that buildings with improved sustainability, such as more water-saving improvements, will be filled by tenants. On the other hand, a public relations push to save water can help attract tenants if landlords are willing to take the plunge.
Buildings with high sustainability scores are more popular as part of the office’s pursuit of quality, so landlords are emphasizing the use of signage on properties to inform tenants and potential tenants of water conservation measures. This is especially important for larger properties with fixed landscaping needs. Most tenants and employees think about energy savings and carbon emissions when talking about building sustainability, but owners can also remind them of the importance of conserving water. In areas particularly affected by drought, information on water consumption could be well received.
Technologies such as AI-driven leak detection and on-site water giant systems will become even more important for commercial real estate in the future. Drought conditions across the country are expected to worsen over the next few years, and water scarcity will become a growing problem, especially in the western and southwestern states where drought conditions are worst. Commercial buildings consume a lot of water, but they have options to help.
Adding water conservation measures to commercial buildings can make them less susceptible to fluctuations in water supply during periods of water scarcity and give them a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining tenants. In many parts of the United States, water scarcity is no longer an assumption, and building owners must adapt to this new reality. Hurricanes may be the most terrifying weather-related disasters, but droughts can be just as dangerous and costly.