Fri, Mar

Liquid assets

Do you know your company’s water footprint? here’s an argument as to why you should.

Do you know how much water your business uses? If you don’t know your water footprint you’re not alone - it sounds like a bit of a faff, and a waste of time, money and resource best used elsewhere. Yet Wrap, the organisation that works with governments, companies and communities to improve resource efficiency, estimates that you could use 30% less water if you took a strategic approach to the issue.

You might think you have a good handle on how much water costs your business, but a considerable amount of research suggests otherwise. For example, a 2014 study by the energy and water consultancy Utilitywise found that 52% of SME owners did not know how much their business spent on gas, electricity and water - probably because two-thirds delegated the task of purchasing and managing that aspect of the business to someone else.

Such findings have been backed by Wrap’s experience with specific companies. For example, it conducted an environmental review at a UK chemicals company and found that effluent was costing it £23,000 a year, not £4,000 as the directors believed. The discrepancy reflected the fact that the directors were only looking at the obvious visible costs of water - what they were charged for water, sewerage and effluent - and had ignored such significant hidden expenses such as the cost of: energy to heat water, chemicals for water treatment, wasted energy (eg pumping), chemicals for effluent treatment, raw materials/product in effluent and labour. Time and again, Wrap’s work shows that simple things - like fixing a leak - can save thousands. In one case, a work experience student suggested a simple alteration to a process that saved £100,000 a year.

The first step to managing water more efficiently is to get buy-in for the programme from the very top. This will be easier to get if you can highlight current costs, identify the need for more information, sketch out the likely savings that the programme should accrue and identify opportunities for quick wins.

Once you’ve got that buy-in, you need to involve staff, create a team and appoint a champion to drive the programme. They will find out about water saving devices and their potential application in the business, reach out to other interested people within the company, develop a simple programme and ensure that enough resources are allocated for the project to fulfil its goals.

This team will draw up a water balance. The concept is simple: if water comes into the business, it must come out … somewhere. So a water balance is a numerical account that shows where water enters and leaves your company and where it is used within the business. Typically, it would note how much water is used by the main processes within the business, identify what quality of water is required at each point of use and determine the water quality and availability at each point of discharge. Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

To focus attention, analyse what information you still need, and help to clarify - and communicate - what needs to be done, you might want to draw a diagram of your company, with a block representing an activity or location within your company.

Water usage profiles vary considerably between sectors. For example, Wrap’s research suggests that 72% of water use in an office is for flushing urinals or toilets. In food manufacture, 55% is used in processing and cleaning. In paper and board making, 29% of water is used by the vacuum pumps. Even companies in the same industry will use varying amounts depending on: their use of raw materials, number of products made, technologies employed, throughput, number of staff and staff facilities.

In essence, the water you use will belong to one of three categories:

1. General use - including on-site washroom facilities, and a canteen! You can make significant savings here by detecting and fixing leaks, faulty control valves and leaking cisterns. The payback can be pretty swift too: some of the new low cost technologies to limit use in urinals, toilets and showers can deliver a return on investment in four months.

2. Process use - including cooling towers, vacuum pumps, heat exchanger circuits, etc. Efforts to reduce use here will generally be site specific.

3. Cleaning and washdown - this includes flushing printheads, but also cleaning offices and washrooms. Cleaning often provides major opportunities to save money.

There is an opportunity to save water - and money - in each of these categories. To get a clearer, more detailed picture - and identify some of those politically useful ‘quick wins’, it might be an idea for someone in the team to walk around the site with a notepad, making notes and sketches on activities and operations that use water. Make sure staff know what you are doing and ask them if they have any thoughts on water use and current practice

Once you’ve evaluated current and future water costs by area, function or item of machinery, you can identify cost-effective water saving devices and practices and test the most likely options. You can then implement the most effective devices and practices - taking care to train staff if required - monitor their implementation, listen to feedback and, most crucially, spread the good news about savings and successes throughout the company - to the board and to employees on the factory floor.

The key then is to look for the next success. It’s a hoary old cliché but when you’re striving to manage water more efficiently, it’s a journey, not a destination. Keep improving and the programme will keep delivering dividends. And, given the scale of the water crisis facing this planet in the next 20 years, the pressure to use less water - from regulators, consumers and customers - is only going to grow.

Oxford-based Seacourt, which offers digital and large-format print, shows what can be achieved. The company, which claims to be the world’s first closed loop zero waste printer, won the award as best industrial business in the 2014 Water Efficiency awards, after a 13-year drive to save water and invest in new machinery - including waterless printing - reduced its water consumption by a staggering 80%. The soundbite that sums up their radical approach to the environment is: “Don’t blow it, good planets are hard to find.”