By Ted McIntyre

Water conservation in Ontario

Water conservation is more than a passing fad, so expect more efficient products and usage to be mandated in the near future

Ontario is home to one-fifth of the world’s freshwater, and we act like it too—as though there will always be a bottomless well just the turn of a tap away. According to a 2016 Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation report, Canadians use the fourth-most water per capita of the 28 nations profiled, withdrawing approximately 1000 m3 of water per person per year. Ontarians, in particular, indulge somewhat more, with roughly 1745 m3 per capita in 2011. These numbers admittedly include water takings for all uses except hydroelectric power production, with the majority used for thermal power production. Still, there is much room for water conservation improvement. The 2016-2017 report Every Drop Counts: Reducing the Energy and Climate Footprint of Ontario’s Water Use, published by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), indicated that residents in this province consume at least 50% more water than many Europeans, with “Ontario homes averaging 200 litres per person per day, compared to 140 litres per person per day in (the province’s) water-efficient homes,” while “many European nations use only 110-150 litres per person per day for residential use.”

Every drop used, not to mention every drop wasted, carries with it an environmental impact, reminds ECO’s Senior Manager of Energy Conservation Policy, Mike Parkes. “Most Ontarians are not aware of the large energy and environmental footprint of our water cycle. Treating and pumping our water and sewage is responsible for about one-third of the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from municipal operations. More efficient water use can limit these impacts. Every litre of water that does not need to be treated and pumped reduces energy use and emissions. Water conservation and efficiency can also help defer or avoid municipal infrastructure upgrades, and reduce the harm that our water use can cause to aquatic ecosystems and wetlands.”

Water Shortages Around The Globe

While water is still taken for granted here, it’s not the case in many other places in the world, where dwindling freshwater reserves have made plenty of news of late. And we’re not talking barren Third World nations here. Cape Town, South Africa, has been teetering on the brink of disaster for a year now, and only avoided “Day Zero”—when the city’s 400 million inhabitants would have to rely on 200 water access points to obtain 6.6 gallons of water per person per day—thanks to an unexpected rising amount of water in local dams as well as “intense water-demand management programs and behavioural change over the past two years,” according to Cape Town’s executive deputy mayor Alderman Ian Neilson.

California has experienced its own droughts of late, with catastrophic wildfires among the devastating results, not to mention doubling water bills for many. Brazil, meanwhile, a water-rich country, recently suffered its worst drought in 35 years, with a NASA study estimating that the region lost an average of 15 trillion gallons of water per year from 2012 to 2015. Residential water use in Sao Paolo, a city of 12 million, was shut off for 12 hours a day to protect reserves. In fact, a full third of water basins across the world are running low, NASA reports.

With its 15-year-long “Millennium Drought” still fresh in the memory bank, Australia has become one of the most proactive nations in the world in promoting water conservation, with its ​​​Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) scheme designed to help its citizens make smarter purchasing decisions for their homes and businesses. “Using water-efficient products could save Australians more than $2 billion by 2030,” the program notes. “That’s an average saving of $175 ​per household each year—65% of these savings are from reduced electricity and gas costs from avoided water heating, while 35% of are from reduced water bills. If you actively replace inefficient products with efficient ones, you could save even more.”

Water Restrictions in Canada – Water Conservation Initiatives

In Canada, “over the past three years, Vancouver and other cities in British Columbia had to enact heavy water restrictions; Regina and Moose Jaw, Sask. lost their primary water source to algae; Alberta experienced record drought; and wells across Nova Scotia dried up,” the Huffington Post reported last year.

Ontario as a whole has certainly been making strides in water conservation. “Though Ontario municipal drinking water systems served one million more residents in 2013 than in 2005, total potable water consumption fell 13%,” the ECO study reports. “Per-capita consumption fell even further between 2004 and 2013—by 20% for total water use and 23% for residential use.” 

But we can go much further, says Parkes. “Improving water efficiency in new-home construction (through the Ontario Building Code) is an important tool in reducing Ontario’s water use. We know that there is the potential for at least a 20% reduction in water use, relative to the current Code. The ECO has made several recommendations on areas the government should consider for Code updates: higher efficiency standards for water fixtures, particularly toilets; reducing summer peak outdoor water use; making the plumbing of multi-unit buildings suitable for water metering of individual units; and expanding opportunities for reuse of greywater and rainwater. At the moment, it is unclear what the government’s plans are for future updates to the Building Code.”

Many manufacturers and builders are trying to stay ahead of the curve. “Imposed water conservation measures are certainly a possibility in the future as an extension of government strategy of working toward net-zero-energy buildings,” concedes Roya Khaleeli, Project Manager, Sustainability, Minto Communities. “And a link between water consumption and greenhouse emissions is another driver to reduce overall water consumption.

“Minto has incorporated water-conserving plumbing fixtures into all of our homes and condominiums over the past several years,” Khaleeli notes. “From showers and toilets to faucets, this translates into cost savings for homeowners, particularly important given the rising cost of utilities. At the time of initial construction in our high-rise condos, hot and cold water sub-meters are installed in each unit before plumbing systems are in place. The sub-meters measure monthly consumption and help reward water conservation efforts by ensuring homeowners pay for what they use. We also capture rainwater in a cistern to use for irrigation purposes in our high-rise condominiums.” 

Minto has also taken measures to conserve construction site water usage. At its Longbranch Phase 2 site in Toronto, where a potable water connection is unavailable, Minto collects groundwater that is filtered and reused for applications such as brick mortar and mixing concrete.

Builders have also been reading the tea leaves south of the border. “Water has been growing in importance in the building industry for the past several years, and we’ve seen that manifest itself in many ways,” Jonah Schein, Technical Coordinator for Homes & Buildings, WaterSense Program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, tells “For one, water and sewer rates are continuing to rise and not just water rates but connection fees, so in the building industry, we have to be concerned with the fact that infrastructure is costing more and more money. And we’re seeing it in terms of code and legislation and local ordinances, which will continue to put pressure on the building community to become more efficient.”

Working hand in hand with builders, some municipalities have taken big strides. Guelph, whose residential daily water use was already a modest 180 litres per person in 2013, has a strategy in place to reduce consumption to 157 litres by 2038. Wawa’s Energy Conservation Plan (required under O. Reg. 397/11) spells out near-term measures to reduce water use. The most important is to start billing citizens based on the volume of water use, now that metering is in place, while other actions include a bylaw to restrict lawn watering in the summer and introducing a rain barrel program.

The Priority Green Clarington initiative also showcases the potential for savings. The 2016 project worked with OHBA members Brookfield Residential, Halminen Homes and Jeffery Homes to outfit six new houses with water-saving technologies that went beyond Code requirements, including ultra-low-flow toilets (3.0-3.8 litres per flush vs. the OBC maximum of 4.8); low-flow showerheads (6.6 litres per minute vs. OBC’s max of 7.6); low-flow kitchen faucets (5.7 litres per minute vs. the OBC max of 8.35); and greywater reuse (in three of the six houses), where water drained from showers is recovered and treated as a partial source for toilet flushing.

Homes without greywater recovery saved $57 on their annual water/wastewater bill, while homes with greywater recovery saved $128 annually. “The project recognized the linkage between water and energy, and estimated the reduction in energy use at the Region of Durham’s water/wastewater operations due to the lower volume of water pumped and treated,” the ECO study noted. “Water use was responsible for 178 ekWh/year (equivalent kilowatt-hours) of embedded energy use in homes built to Code and 152 ekWh/year in Priority Green homes.”

Particularly notable were whole-house water savings in Clarington. “Homes built to the Priority Green standard used an average of 140 litres per person per day, (whereas) a billing analysis of 113 similar new homes in the same neighbourhoods built to Code found that these homes averaged 26% higher water use (176 litres per person per day),” the ECO report observed. “Even more striking, the average residential per-capita water consumption in all existing homes in the Region of Durham was 230 litres per person per day, 64% higher than in Priority Green houses.”

It serves as a reminder for Ontario’s renovators “of the opportunities that remain to improve water efficiency in older houses through more efficient water fixtures, management of outdoor water use and through the installation of greywater systems.”

Although “the greywater recovery system delivered the largest water savings (13 litres/person/day), it was the only water efficiency measure tested that was not cost-effective, due to its current high upfront cost,” the study showed. “The other three water-efficient technologies all paid back their upfront costs through savings on the water bill in less than five years.”


As the world looks to reduce residential water use, efficient fixtures and appliances are helping to drive the trend. A full-sized Energy Star-certified clothes washer, for example, uses approximately 33% less water—14 gallons per load—compared to the 20 gallons used by a standard machine. That’s a savings of more than 2,000 gallons of water per year.

In the U.S., the WaterSense label indicates that a toilet, showerhead, faucet, or other product has met U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criteria for product performance while using at least 20% less water than federal water-efficiency requirements. WaterSense product purchasers are eligible for rebates in many circumstances. Since 2006, it’s estimated that the program and its partners have helped U.S. consumers save almost 3 trillion gallons of water.

Delta is among those trying to establish higher standards. “As a four-time WaterSense Sustained Excellence Award winner, Delta Faucet Company is dedicated to developing innovative designs and technologies for the kitchen and bath that pair water efficiency with maximum performance,” says Marnee Colman, Director of Product Management at Masco Canada, whose product lines include Delta, Peerless, Axor and Brizo. “The award is a testament to our ongoing commitment to educate consumers and trade professionals alike on the importance of conserving water.”

The trick for manufacturers, of course, is providing at least the same performance level, but with less water. Delta Faucet’s new HydroRain H2OKinetic 2-in-1 shower head, for example, boasts a flow-rate range from 1.5 gpm to 1.75 gpm—approximately 12-25% savings over the standard 2.0 gpm Code—but with a powerful stream. The technology involves the channeling of water through a series of strategically placed chambers that both create velocity and sculpt the water into a unique wave pattern, leaving the sensation of more water while using less.


Toilets, however, are the main culprits of water use in the home, accounting for nearly 30% of residential indoor water consumption, while also being a major source of wasted water due to leaks and/or inefficiencies, according to manufacturer American Standard. Over the course of your lifetime, you will flush the toilet almost 140,000 times, the company says. If older toilets are replaced with EPA WaterSense-labelled models, almost 13,000 gallons per year will be saved. That translates to more than $90 per year in reduced water utility bills for a family of four, and $2,000 over the lifetime of the toilets (U.S. statistics).

Future Net Zero homes built by Reid’s Heritage Homes will feature American Standard toilets that are even more efficient than the WaterSense standard, reducing water consumption by up to 38% than conventional toilets.

As is the case in the U.S., where some states have stricter codes than are required at the national level, standards vary in Canada. “Some standards are the same as set by WaterSense. Each province has their own plumbing code, and some municipalities set their own standards for water conservation which may be more strict than the standard stipulated in the Canadian National Plumbing Code,” says Maria Bosco, Director of Product Marketing for LIXIL Canada Inc., American Standard’s parent company.

“Water is a limited resource and such an important part of what we do,” adds Bosco. “Our products are used throughout North America and in areas where water scarcity is a huge issue. Our goal is to set and raise the standard of water-efficient products that have an impact on our environment and people around the world. Over the last several years, we’ve taken proactive steps to improve the way American Standard products are engineered to save water. All of our bathroom faucets have been converted from 1.5 to 1.2 gpm (gallons per minute), exceeding WaterSense certification requirements. We have also introduced several 1.8 gpm showerheads, such as the Spectra+ ETouch. Several new kitchen faucets have launched with lower flow rates at 1.5 and 1.75 gpm (older faucets were rated at 2.5 to 2.8 gpm).

In regard to toilets, the American Standard 1.0 gpf VorMax Ultra-High Efficiency toilet is the only one in the market that has a 1000 MaP score, meaning it is high-performance and water-efficient. The VorMax technology reinvents the way the toilet flushes by using 70% of the water to clean the bowl and 30% to push the waste down. Conventional toilets do the opposite, using more water to push the waste down and less to clean the bowl, which often requires multiple flushes to get the bowl clean.”

As far as manufacturers are going, provincial initiatives are required to push water conservation to the next level, says ECO’s Parkes. “Ontario should look at tools to improve water efficiency in existing homes, which could include incentive programs or minimum water efficiency standards. Several municipalities offer rebates for water-efficient products, although the provincial government does not. Ontario also has the legal authority to set minimum water efficiency standards for products, similar to the way it sets minimum energy efficiency standards for appliances. However, the government has never used this authority. The ECO has recommended that the government examine opportunities for implementing water efficiency standards that apply to products at point-of-sale and, in particular, set water efficiency standards for toilets. More efficient toilets are likely the largest opportunity to save water in existing homes, as is reducing unnecessary outdoor water use (e.g., lawn watering), and better detection of water leaks. Mandating or incenting more efficient toilets could deliver a 20% reduction in toilet water use (4.8 litres per flush vs. 6 litres per flush).”

Given that the newly elected Ontario government has moved the ECO to the Attorney General and Premier’s Office, it remains to be seen how the ECO water-conserving recommendations will be received by the new government.

But it’s likely just a matter of time. “At Masco Canada and Delta Faucet Company, we are following the trend closely to ensure we are meeting the demands and legislation requirements for today and tomorrow,” says Peter Ashton, VP of Trade Sales at Masco Canada. “We can only speculate that the requirement for water-conscious products will increase.”

Originally published in Ontario Home Builder Winter 2019,

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