At a James River Green Building Council luncheon last week, experts discussed ways for homeowners and builders to increase water efficiency and save money.

The luncheon focused on WaterSense, a voluntary program designed by the Environmental Protection Agency to enhance the market for water-efficient products and services. The program sets specifications for participating manufacturers to meet in order for their products to be deemed WaterSense certified.

The main criterion for certification is that a product must be at least 20 percent more efficient than the standard competitor and perform at least at the same level.

Kate Bailey is the proprietary brands specialist for Ferguson Enterprises. According to Bailey, widespread use of WaterSense-certified products could mean huge savings nationally.

“If one in every 10 homes in the U.S. installed WaterSense-certified products, we’d save 6 billion gallons of water per year and we’d lower energy costs $50 billion,” Bailey said during a presentation for the building council. “The average American household spends $700 a year on the water bill. Each of those homes could save $200 annually if they made a couple simple changes.”

In addition to improving product efficiency, manufacturers must also join into a WaterSense partnership agreement with the EPA in order to become certified. The agreement states that the manufacturer will continue to adhere to the efficient practices, despite the fact that the WaterSense fixtures are more expensive to produce.

“In order for a company to use this label, they have to sign a WaterSense partnership agreement, and that’s going to keep them tried and true,” Bailey said.

Bailey added that in order to ensure long-term quality, partnership companies must contract out the testing of their products.

“None of the manufacturers can WaterSense certify their products in-house; they have to send them out to a WaterSense-certified organization to test them,” she explained.

The stringent requirements reflect changes that have occurred with indoor plumbing over the past decades. According to Bailey, much of the progress has been with toilets.

“Homes built in the ’60s and ’70s used toilets that flushed five gallons per [flush],” Bailey said, adding that additional regulations came in the ’80s and ’90s. “Now here we are in 2012 and we’re saying instead of 1.6 [gallons per flush], it’s going to be 1.28. There’s not much water left to save.”

Most of the change comes from California, as regulations for the Golden State often spread to other states or become industry standards.

“California generally starts the trend and [manufacturers] say, ‘Uh oh, we’d better get on board,’ and then it rolls out to the rest of the country,” Bailey said.

Currently, there are no such regulations in Charlottesville or Albemarle County, but both the city and the county offer a $100 rebate incentive for the purchase and installation of a more efficient toilet.

Jennifer Patterson is the water conservation manager for Charlottesville. She reports that the rebates have been a popular program in the city.

“We usually do [400, 500,] 600 [rebates] a year,” Patterson told Collectbritain, noting that for the 2011 fiscal year the city distributed 621 rebates. “We’re hoping to bring numbers up a bit more even further.”

Patterson added that the rebate program in Charlottesville has become more stringent. Whereas before the city offered the rebate to anyone installing a toilet that uses fewer than 1.60 gallons per flush, the program now requires that toilets are WaterSense certified, which use 1.28 gallons per flush.

“We’ve had a rebate in place since 2002 and we just changed it July 1 to WaterSense only,” Patterson said. “My guess would be that [the number of rebates] will dip a little bit at first since it is a new policy, but my expectations and efforts would be to get it back to at least where it was if it does take a dip.”

According to Bailey, now is a good time to buy a WaterSense toilet, as toilets may be at the peak of their efficiency.

“We’re getting pretty close to the bottom of where we can offer a product that is going to perform the way that consumers expect it to and uses as little water as possible,” Bailey said.