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AWU seeks to double budget for low-flow toilet rebate program

Monday, November 16, 2009 by Bill McCann

Michael Ager lives in California but is one of Austin’s biggest cheerleaders when it comes to toilets. Ager has been busy convincing apartment owners to take advantage of Austin’s water-saving toilet program. A growing number have responded.

Ager is project coordinator for Free Toilet Replacements, Inc., a Santa Monica-based company that works with commercial and apartment building owners around the country, including Austin, to install high-efficiency, water-saving toilets. The effort benefits building owners and residents by substantially reducing the use – and cost – of water, and benefits a city like Austin by reducing demands on its water system.

With the word getting out from Ager and a number of other sources, demand for the rebates has become so high the Austin Water Utility wants to pump more money into it – an extra $3 million this year to be exact. The $3 million, which is part of a $4 million budget increase requested by the water utility for water conservation, would more than double the utility’s current $2.3 million budget this year for water rebate efforts.

The council is scheduled to consider the $4 million request on Thursday. The Water and Wastewater Commission recommended the increase on a vote of 5-0 on Nov. 10.

With the added rebate money, the utility expects to realize an additional water savings of between 250,000 and 400,000 gallons a day, according to city officials.

“Austin has been one of the best cities we have had the pleasure to work with,” said Ager, whose company has installed about 1,500 toilets in half a dozen apartment complexes around Austin so far, with a number of others pending. The company buys high-efficiency toilets in bulk, hires local plumbers to do the work and oversees installation, he said. The city in turn provides a rebate of up to $200 a toilet to replace pre-1996 units with high-efficiency models.

Last week, for example, the Council ratified nine rebates totaling nearly $800,000 for almost 4,000 water-saving toilets in nine apartment complexes. The estimated savings is 68,000 gallons a day, or 24 million gallons a year. Four of those, totaling almost $400,000 in rebates, were for projects carried out by Ager’s company.

“Sometimes it takes a little educating,” he said. “They (building owners) are wary when they hear the word ‘free’ and sometimes their initial reaction is that the toilets are not any good. But these are far different from the old low-flow toilets that came out in the 90s. These new ones are high-efficiency, with the newest technology, and the difference is like night and day.”

The new high-efficiency toilets, he said, use 1.28 gallons per flush, compared to anywhere from 3.5 gallons to as much as 7 gallons a flush in old units. Switching from a 3.5-gallon unit to the 1.28-gallon unit can save 17 gallons a day per toilet or $85 a year in water costs, Ager said.

Another advantage of the program, he said, is once apartment owners see the benefit, they become more interested in taking other measures to save water or energy.

“What we are finding is that a lot of property management companies in Austin are national companies with properties around the country,” Ager said. “When they see how it (toilet rebate program) works so well in Austin, they want us to do the same thing in other places. Unfortunately, a lot of cities do not have what Austin has put together.” 

Last week, Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza sent a memo to the City Council proposing the $4 million budget amendment. The proposed funding increase is part of the water utility’s effort to be more aggressive in promoting water conservation, something City Council members have insisted upon. 

In addition to the $3 million for rebates, the utility is seeking $500,000 in increased funding for water conservation marketing, advertising and outreach and $500,000 for yet-unnamed initiatives to be recommended by the Citizens Water Conservation Implementation Task Force. The marketing funds would include hiring three new staff to work on marketing, advertising and public awareness efforts. The current marketing budget is $700,000.

In his memo, Garza points out that the current budget allocates almost $2.3 million to the water conservation rebate program. But based on commitments, pending applications and projected needs, the budget would fall more than $3 million short for the year without the budget increase. 

To date, the utility has committed about $574,000 for the toilet rebate efforts for commercial and apartment buildings this fiscal year, and has pending applications totaling more than $1.9 million, according to Garza. In addition, the utility projects spending about $934,000 this fiscal year for its free toilet distribution program for individual homes, and projects spending more than $1.9 million for other water conservation rebates, including those for water-efficient washing machines, rainwater harvesting, and water irrigation equipment.

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