Not down the drain
For future generations, climate change and increased population in cities will significantly limit the access to and availability of wholesome water. Utility companies have already recognised that water shortages and droughts will increase across Australia and have started to increase the price of water.
Managers in all types of facilities need to start considering the next generation of plumbing technology, as part of their efforts to restrict water and energy usage. Smart technology, energy efficiency and high population growth will almost certainly have a major impact in plumbing systems of the future, but what’s next and are you prepared?
In his book, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization, Steven Solomon predicts our water resource will be a major source of conflict this century. Solomon says water is divided disproportionately and we currently pay far less for water than what it is actually worth.
So, what can we do? The best ideas are often the simplest. That’s reinforced by recognising that modern day plumbing systems are among humankind’s greatest inventions, resulting in better health and sanitation. Even Albert Einstein recognised this achievement, stating, “If I could do it all again, I’d be a plumber.”
But, what’s in the pipeline for plumbing in the next five, 10 or 20 years? We rarely think of plumbing as a science that’s constantly evolving and benefiting from innovations in technology. However, in the last five to 10 years there have been quite a few advancements, steering the plumbing industry to greater depths.
Many of the plumbing products available today are a result of the desire for new technology relating to hygiene and water conservation. For example, motion sensor operated valves and controls for plumbing fixtures provide a literally hands-off approach, reducing the spread of germs and bacteria and the amount of water used.
On the flipside, this adds extra maintenance for the manager who has to replace the battery, which can be frustrating and time consuming, especially in high-rise facilities. However, recent advancements in photovoltaic and piezoelectric technology that gather and store power to operate motion sensor-operated valves and fixtures will eliminate the need for batteries, reducing maintenance.
Taking this technology a step further, solar hot water technology is advancing considerably and becoming far more effective and efficient. Just consider for a moment, however, if the same solar panels on the roof could also harness energy from rainwater droplets and convert that to electricity. Piezoelectric technology is advancing considerably and being further researched in Europe in conjunction with movement of water, in particular integrating with plumbing systems.
In the hotel and leisure industry, focus on personal comfort is paramount. Having the ability to stream music in the shower to sing along to your favourite tune, plus control the shower temperature and water pressure through a digital interface, is only the beginning. Integrating plumbing fixtures with LED lighting would have been deemed impossible just a decade ago. Yet this technology is now widely available via motion sensors.
For example, saving the energy used to turn all the lights on in the middle of the night with a WC that incorporates LED lighting is just the start. It may sound like a gimmick, but consider the potential opportunities available to the young and elderly such as a bath, shower or basin incorporating an LED light that glows red or blue to indicate the water temperature and protect the vulnerable from risk of scalding.
In Japan, they take their washrooms and WCs, also known as the ‘washlet’ very seriously. The Japanese washlet is extremely popular and installed in most hotels, offices, retail shopping malls and restaurants. For the 2020 Olympic Games, due to be held in Tokyo, Japan is further developing its space- age toilets, by including an array of controls to control the flush, wash and dry, to operate the lid, and even heat the seat to the desired temperature… although further development on the pictograms for tourists will be required!
Building management systems (BMSs) provide a means of accessing information on water and energy usage for a facility or specific area of the facility. Integrating this with building information modelling (BIM) is becoming more frequent for new buildings.
If you consider the time required to test plant, equipment and valves, and record this, it can be a major headache and a full-time role in itself. However, plumbing manufacturers are recognising the importance and advancing technologies of smartphone apps that can be used to measure performance and provide diagnostic codes in real time via near-field Bluetooth communication.
This will be of particular advantage for managers to speed up plumbing-related servicing and maintenance of facilities. By enabling trouble-shooting during set-up or future maintenance and servicing, and even suggesting solutions for easy adjustments including temperature, tracking energy and water usage, it also keeps an eye on operating costs.
Within any facility, rainwater from the roof is conveyed to the council stormwater system at street level. Sustainable engineering practices encourage using captured rainwater for WC flushing or irrigation to conserve wholesome water usage. Additional emerging technologies combine facility automation and environmentally friendly plumbing technology. For example, new irrigation systems attach to a smart control system incorporating Wi-Fi to automatically download seven days of weather forecasts. This data is then analysed to adjust the operation of the irrigation system accordingly – smart thinking.
While water efficiency is clearly associated with plumbing (from advanced water conservation and recycling techniques through to the efficiency in fittings and fixtures), the connection between energy and plumbing is often overlooked.
In the majority of facilities, hot water is generated to temperatures over 65 degrees Celsius. An array of innovative techniques ensures the energy used to heat the water, various controls, insulated pipework and temperature is all regulated at the fixture for maximum performance and comfort. Then what do we do? We let it simply flow down the drain.
Right below the ground, in sewers, is a hidden and rarely used energy source where domestic and municipal wastewater has a constant temperature of 12 to 20 degrees Celsius. Even during winter, the wastewater temperature hardly ever drops below 10 degrees Celsius. This makes wastewater an excellent energy source for the operation of a heat pump.
With our cities becoming increasingly populated and high-rise buildings reaching for the sky, changes to codes and standards will also need to be implemented. Research in Europe and the Middle East is currently being undertaken to combat issues associated with plumbing systems within high-rise buildings.
Building owners and facility management teams are now seeking assurances that drainage systems have been installed to eradicate issues that can lead to hydraulic jump at the base of drainage stacks, resulting in siphoning trap seals that can lead to foul odours emanating into facilities. In the UK, Studor has the largest drainage test tower in the world, standing at 127 metres tall, which demonstrates the issues associated with transient positive and negative pressures within the drainage system and how technology has advanced to provide a solution.
Net lettable area of any facility is at a premium, but hydraulic plant, such as pumps and hot water generators – even riser space – will reduce in physical size. In addition, with the implementation of low-flow fixtures, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), in conjunction with Heriot Watt University, is researching the effects of loading units and pipework sizing.
The outcome of this research will effectively reduce pipework diameters in hot and cold water systems.
To answer what the next big thing in plumbing may be, it’s clear it will be a combination of smart technology and smart thinking that will slowly change the face of plumbing, as we know it, to keep the population and our water safe.
Paul Angus is an associate director – Hydraulic Services at AECOM, based in Sydney. Paul has strong commercial and technical capability in developing and delivering hydraulic design strategies and solutions. He specialises in providing a sustainable approach to system design, including water conservation, recycling and generating innovative engineering solutions. He has extensive experience in the hydraulic design, pre-acquisition and condition surveys, including all forms of specialist client advisory work. He also has extensive experience in expert witness reporting, taking part in adjudications, mediations, negotiations and arbitrations.
This article also appears in the June/July issue of Facility Management magazine.
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