Conservation Corner: E=mc2 or something like that


Watermark - fall 2010 cover

Sometimes math bugs me. It is not that I cannot do math, it is that I often do not like the answers I get. This is especially true when calculating the payback period for certain water efficiency products.

Last summer, I had synthetic lawn installed in my front yard. This year, I calculated how much water it saved, how much that water is worth under current rates, and determined that it will take 41.6 years to pay back my investment. I do not like that math.

I am not convinced that I will still be alive in 41.6 years, so you might say that the investment was a wash. Of course, the pleasure of watching my neighbours sweat as they mow, fertilize and water their lawns is priceless, but still…41.6 years!

Sometimes, it is not about the payback. There are people who spend thousands of dollars on in-home water recycling systems that will save only a few dollars a month. That could all change if water rates skyrocket over the next several years. Perhaps then, these people will be flushing all the way to the bank.

Most of these high-ticket water efficiency products come from the United States, where costs for water are considerably higher than in Canada, and where the possibility of running out of water is very real. This makes the math much more attractive.

Because I am a water-conservation professional, I get all sorts of calls from companies with high-ticket water saving products. Many of these companies make outrageous claims about how much water they save. They want my help in developing programs where a municipality subsidizes part of the cost.

Now, I believe whole heartedly in incentive-based programs, but when I do the math and show them that their claims of “50% reductions” are more like 5%, they tend to get upset. When I show the payback is measured in decades, they have been known to curse. I guess they do not like math either.

Then there are low-flow showerheads. We have two in our house. They work great and they save water and energy costs. Maybe it is only a couple of dollars a month, but, since they were so inexpensive to begin with, the payback was almost immediate.

Perhaps that is why so many organizations are gung-ho about giving away low-flow shower heads and water saving kits. But math rears its ugly head again in the form of studies showing that most giveaway showerheads do not get installed.

That is why it is always better to include the actual installation with the giveaway. Sure, it increases the cost of the program, but it also increases participation exponentially. The math tells us it is better to have 100 showerheads installed than to have 500 uninstalled showerheads rolling around in 500 drawers.

In the water conservation business, we spend a lot of time thinking about toilets. When it comes to toilets, everyone knows the difference between number one and number two. That is why dual-flush toilets are a no-brainer for me. I cannot understand why these things are not standard in Canada. Perhaps the Aussies and Europeans are simply better at math than we are, because, over there, dual flush toilets have been  standard for years.

Albert Einstein came up with his famous equation in 1905. Because I am a social scientist and not a real scientist, I have no idea what E = mc2 means. But, I do know one thing: math does not lie. One plus one always equals two, some water conservation products have better payback than others, and low flow showerheads always work better when they are actually in the shower.

Oh, and one more thing: with synthetic turf, the grass is always greener on my side of the fence. That is not math, but it works for me.


By Neal Klassen, BCWWA “Watermark” contributor

Originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of Watermark Magazine, the official publication of the British Columbia Water & Waste Association (BCWWA).


Posted October 2010