Four Lessons in Corporate Water Efficiency

Splashing water on a white background

I received quizzical looks from family and friends when I told them I was working on water-efficiency projects at Verizon this summer. They paused, racking their brains about where water is used within the telecommunications industry. “Like in the bathrooms?” they’d ask.

The reality is that domestic telecom companies rely on billions of gallons of water per year to cool, clean and maintain the buildings and equipment that support their extensive networks. And because customers expect networks to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, much of that equipment is running round-the-clock. From cooling tower adjustments to gray-water recycling, there are a number of water-saving opportunities available for the telecommunications industry. Companies can improve their bottom line by reducing their municipal water, sewer and energy bills in one fell swoop.

As an EDF Climate Corps fellow, my job was to chart a path for Verizon’s water-efficiency efforts. The company has already made significant strides to reduce its carbon intensity – by 37 percent through 2012 over a 2009 baseline. “Verizon is putting more emphasis on water efficiency to save critical resources for future generations,” says James Gowen, chief sustainability officer and vice president of supply chain at Verizon. “Reducing our utility bills and increasing effectiveness of our assets is a win-win for our business and the environment.”

Here are some lessons learned from my time at Verizon, which I hope will help other professionals developing corporate water strategies. The key is to gain a better understanding of how and where your company uses water – a critical building block for an effective program:

  1. Expect Water Bills to Be a Handful. If your company is serious about water tracking, invest in bill-paying software that summarizes utility data into easy-to-pull reports. This will help you avoid the data analysis nightmare of manually normalizing billing cycles, units, fees, etc., and make it easier to calculate usage across a range of facilities billed by different water providers.
  2. Calculate Water Use Intensities. Normalizing a building’s water use by its square footage – or total number of employees for administrative buildings – is a helpful way to prioritize facilities for water-savings projects. This is similar to how one might use an energy-use-intensity (EUI) metric to prioritize energy-efficiency projects. Of course, it’s most useful to compare water-use intensities among buildings with similar use profiles and climates to account for cooling needs.
  3. Leverage Benchmarking Resources. Some interesting resources are popping up that you can use to compare your company’s water use with others of the same type. Use these resources to give your key decision makers a sense of how your buildings measure up to average buildings of the same type.
  4. Make a Lot of Friends. Water-efficiency projects will require data, insights and buy-in from multiple teams. The sooner you get all necessary parties in the loop, the better it will be for your project. At Verizon, I am coordinating among the sustainability, real estate, network, facilities and finance teams to get pilot water-efficiency projects in administrative and technical buildings up and running.

As the California drought worsens, there is no better time for companies like Verizon to kick off robust water-efficiency programs. EDF estimates that improving the efficiency of cooling towers in all large U.S. buildings alone could save 28 billion gallons of water annually. Now is the time to baseline, benchmark and get to know your company’s water use. There is a good chance that water is flowing through many more places than just the bathroom.

About EDF Climate Corps
EDF Climate Corps (edfclimatecorps.org) taps the talents of tomorrow’s leaders to save energy, money and the environment by placing specially trained EDF fellows in companies, cities and universities as dedicated energy problem solvers. Working with hundreds of leading organizations, EDF Climate Corps has uncovered nearly $1.3 billion in energy savings. For more information, visit edfclimatecorps.org. Read our blog at edfclimatecorps.org/blog. Follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/edfbiz and on Facebook at facebook.com/EDFClimateCorps.