Plumbing Codes On the Front Lines of Water Conservation

Here are the latest updates to plumbing codes that can help communities handle drought and other water shortages.

Roughly four billion people on Earth experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year. Of those people, about two billion live without a safe or clean water supply at home. And the problem isn’t getting any better. According to, a further 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by water scarcity by the year 2030.

Lest you think that this problem is confined to the rest of the world – many communities in the United States also regularly experience droughts, or prolonged periods of abnormally dry or unusually hot weather that threaten the availability of water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects that this trend will continue, if not worsen, over the coming years.

Droughts have a significant impact on the communities that suffer from them, with economic, social, and environmental consequences. During a drought, water costs tend to skyrocket, water quality and supply plummets, and supplementary water sources are often stressed or damaged. So while droughts are usually a prolonged, slow disaster, the best way for communities to mitigate these damages is to act ahead of time.

Creating efficient water treatment and distribution systems is one of the best ways to conserve water while using less energy and fewer resources. There are a number of steps that plumbing professionals can take to ensure that their clients and their larger communities are better prepared to handle drought and other water shortages.

This starts with adopting updated plumbing codes, like the International Plumbing Code (IPC) and the International Residential Code (IRC), which set minimum regulations for plumbing systems and water efficiency. The International Green Construction Code (IgCC) and the International Private Sewage Disposal Code (IPSDC) also include provisions that address water conservation and efficiency.

Any community that is experiencing a drought—or simply wants to conserve water—should encourage its local government to adopt the most up-to-date codes related to water efficiency. At the same time, plumbing contractors should be aware of current strategies to save water in residential and commercial building and encourage their clients to take advantage of technologies that can save them money and make their buildings more eco-friendly.

Following are some specific provisions in the most recent codes that can be used to conserve water:

2018 IPC:

  • Incorporates innovative technologies including non-water urinals and detailed engineered designs that permit the installation of smaller, more precise water usage and water drainage systems, resulting in the savings of millions of gallons of water.
  • Defines maximum flow rates for plumbing fixturesthat match federal standards.
  • Provides requirements for storage, treatment and distribution of storm water and some liquid waste from a building that can be a source of non-potable water that can be used to reduce the volume of potable water supplied to the building.
  • Outlines regulations for disposing of non-potable water to underground landscape irrigation piping. Testing procedures are provided to assess the capability of the soil to accept the volume of flow

2018 IgCC:

  • Specifies requirements for potable water and non-potable water use efficiency, both for the site and for the building, and water monitoring. For example, , only municipally reclaimed water or alternate on-site sources of water shall be used to irrigate the landscape of golf courses and driving ranges.
  • Defines maximum flow rates that mirror the EPA’s WaterSense program requirements, which go beyond the current federal standards and save even more water. .
  • Requires appliances including clothes and dishwashers in residences to comply with the ENERGY STAR®Program requirements.
  • Sets maximum water use standards for toilets, faucets, urinals and showerheads.

2018 IPSDC:

  • Includes provisions for design, installation, and inspection of private sewage disposal systems, and provides flexibility in the development of safe systems.
  • Facilitates the use of the latest science-based best practices and innovative technologies in safely handling onsite, decentralized wastewater, thereby reducing customers’ costs.
  • Addresses inconsistencies within many regulations that dictate how decentralized systems can be designed, installed, and operated.

Leveraging the code provisions to conserve water have real, long-term benefits. For instance, in an effort to mitigate future drought damage and costs, Kansas towns Hays and Russell, which reside in a drought-prone region, recently took steps to allow their water utilities to blend lower quality groundwater with higher quality water sources. By regularly acidizing their wells, they were able maintain and restore wells that would otherwise have been abandoned, ultimately leading to significantly higher water production rates.

In Hogansville, Ga., city officials have continued to enforce measures that they enacted during a severe 2007 drought to the present day. This includes reducing main flushing and providing increased information to residents about leaks and water usage with meters that provide water use data in real time. These measures not only helped mitigate the cost of that 2007 drought, but they have also led to improved water use efficiency citywide in the years following the drought.

These are just two examples of the ways that efficient water systems can mitigate drought. When faced with the potential damage that droughts can inflict on our communities, it is more important than ever to be prepared. Local governments should be encouraged and empowered to take the steps necessary to prevent as much of this damage from occurring in the first place as possible, and to provide safe, clean, and abundant water for everyone.

Neil Burning is Vice President of Government Relations Technical Resources at the International Code Council.