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Berkeley Lab Water Conservation Efforts Pay Off in Unexpected Ways

Total consumption down 25 percent from three years ago.

(from left) Chris Weyandt, Deirdre Carter and John Elliott helped implement an online monitoring system for water cooling towers like this one at Bldg. 71.

(from left) Chris Weyandt, Deirdre Carter, and John Elliott helped implement an online monitoring system for water cooling towers like this one at Bldg. 71. (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

With California in an extreme drought, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) started a number of water conservation efforts two years ago. But when Chief Sustainability Officer John Elliott started seeing drops in water usage that were much larger than what could be attributed to the conservation projects, he realized there was something more at play.

“Individual behavior makes a big difference,” said Elliott. “Of the roughly 10-million gallon drop in water use we’ve seen in previous years, we expect that up to three-quarters of the savings may be attributable to behavior rather than infrastructure projects.”

Water consumption at Berkeley Lab—with more than 4,000 employees, contractors, and students working at its main site in the Berkeley Hills as well as at facilities in Oakland, Emeryville, and Walnut Creek—declined at least 15 percent per year in the first two years; over the past three years, the cumulative decrease is 25 percent. Sustainable Berkeley Lab, headed by Elliott, in collaboration with the Facilities Division, is working to meet a federal goal of reducing potable water use 36 percent by 2025 from a 2007 baseline.

The biggest uses of water at Berkeley Lab are for cooling towers and process water make-up, which account for close to 60 percent of water use, and bathrooms. Deirdre Carter, Energy and Sustainability Manager, together with Chris Weyandt, Energy Management Engineer and others in the Facilities Division, have overseen projects to retrofit bathrooms, detect and repair leaks, and manage water use by the cooling towers.

Lab Water Use

(click for larger image)

Lab Water Use-Q4The retrofits to date have included installing aerators and flow restrictors on faucets and replacing diaphragms in the flush mechanisms of urinals. Urinals that were consuming between 1 and 3 gallons per flush now use 0.5 gallons per flush.

For the cooling towers, which keep buildings cool by dissipating heat through water evaporation, water usage was previously recorded manually. So Sustainable Berkeley Lab connected meters to an online monitoring system, which includes a dashboard to track energy and water use and inform operational improvements on the cooling towers to reduce unnecessary water consumption.

“Now we have better visibility of how the cooling towers are performing.” Elliott said. “We can make sure that cooling towers aren’t leaking and that they dump only enough water to maintain their effectiveness.”

Ninety percent of the water consumed by cooling towers at Berkeley Lab’s main hillside site, or more than 20 million gallons per year, is now covered by this monitoring system.

Historically, a much smaller percentage of water at Berkeley Lab was used for landscaping, but when the drought started, that practice was discontinued. “In many campus environments, landscape watering can be one of the biggest water uses,” Elliott said. “We’ve chosen not to have landscaping that requires ongoing watering.”

Elliott cautions employees to not let up on their conservation efforts, even after it starts raining. After two consecutive years of drops in consumption greater than 15 percent, FY 2015 saw a jump in water usage. This jump was entirely due to an increase in the last quarter of the year. “While the increase can’t be attributed wholly to behavior, I suspect that a change in behavior may be at play,” he said.

The Lab will continue its efforts to identify and repair leaks and find additional conservation opportunities. “We will all need to work together to save water,” he said.

More water conservation projects are planned for this year. With about $100,000 awarded by the Dept. of Energy’s Sustainability Performance Office, Berkeley Lab will retrofit remaining urinals and replace very old toilets with high gallons-per-flush rates. Those changes are estimated to save another 2.1 million gallons annually.

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit