Grass Roots Greening
February 6, 2010
There's an old song that goes, "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool." The lyrics are an opportunity for the singer to mention all sorts of suitably authentic countrified things he or she did back before anyone else did them and how that unfailingly establishes the singer as the real deal, rural lifestyle-speaking.
It shouldn't really be too much of a surprise there are plumbing companies that were 'green' before 'green' even had its very own name and market segment. That kind of 'green' philosophy is actually born out of a good, old-fashioned ethos that says you don't waste things-you use them up, repair them, wear them out and make them do. Some people call that frugality.
Plumbing Concepts Inc., of Yorba Linda, Calif., is one of those companies. The new construction, residential service and repair company in Yorba Linda, Calif. was founded by Ken Meadows, who brought with him to his new company a sense of frugality. One result of that is the company is now one of the area's leading plumbing contractors-with a workforce pared back to "only" 150 or so-that's quite active with various kid's organizations in its communities. It's Web site offers browsers plenty of information about topics such as water usage and quality, water heating and energy use, not to mention information on products ranging from tankless water heaters to low-flow and dual-flush toilets, showerheads and efficient kitchen faucets.
And the company recently became a certified GreenPlumber by way of the training classes offered by GreenPlumbers USA. It's now a green plumber that is also a GreenPlumber.
Company president John Raya sits back in his office and reflects on that little play on words for a minute. On the wall are Endless Summer-style art prints of various styles of woody wagons decked out with surfboards on the roof and, on the shelf behind him is a model of the big rig used to transport part of Ashley Force's NHRA drag racing operations from event to event. Included in the replica sponsor decals is a miniature of the Plumbing Concepts logo, a nod to owner Meadows' drag racing associations.
"I would say that there's a generation of folks who grew up in this country with the mindset of not being wasteful, being better stewards than, maybe, a couple of the succeeding generations," Raya said, adding green is simply being frugal with your resources. "It's being a better steward of all the things that are around you. It's a lot like people like us who grew up with the 'Don't be a Litterbug' slogans. That's a green philosophy-don't waste unnecessarily."
Becoming a certified GreenPlumber came later for the company, but it was a natural because of the overriding frugal philosophy of the company: "That is something that came along later, but it is something that is very complementary to his basic philosophy on how you do things," Raya said.
"It was an investment. There are probably a half a dozen or so of us who've gone to the certification process. At one point we sent a group of us to Las Vegas for classes. [Owner Ken Meadows] has been amenable and supportive and said if that's what it takes, then OK."
That's the formal, capital-G 'Green' part of Plumbing Concepts. The longstanding small-g 'green' philosophy would indicate there's plenty of low-hanging fruit ripe and ready to pluck if someone wanted to make their own business-or home-significantly greener. For example, it goes without saying all the toilets in the Plumbing Concepts building are either dual-flush or low-flow and every faucet in the joint is equipped with a low-flow aerator.
"These are the things that anybody can do and make a difference right away." Raya said. "I did the same things at home. I measured my water this past June-June against June-and, with a pool and a vegetable garden and all the usual stuff, my water went down five billing units." [NOTE: At least one water utility in Southern California uses a billing unit based on a measure of 100 cu. ft. of water (748 gallons). Your actual mileage, however, may vary--Ed. ]
"I was surprised," he said. "We have two boys at home, and all the usual stuff. We also changed our lifestyle-we sweep the driveways instead of washing them down. Just in doing my studying for my certification changed my outlook."
While there's plenty of Raya's low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked on the residential side, he said the rules about being a small-g 'green' plumber and designer on the commercial side are the same as on the residential front, albeit with a couple of interesting market dynamics thrown into the mix, not the least of which is the fact many local jurisdictions now have 'green' requirements.
"And there's a pervasive attitude in the industry that they want 'green lite': They want to comply...but they don't want to lead-they want to comply and they don't want it to cost them any more and what's the minimum?" Raya said. "I've often said the construction industry is 200 years of tradition unencumbered by progress. The mandates are coming but they're still a lot of latitude given. I believe at one point, and I don't think it's going to be too far in the future, the hammer is really going to come down."
It's not too surprising there are some commercial projects for which wonkish, by-the-book certification is the goal, while for others, it's a function of doing just enough to get over. That's fair-projects have a way of taking on the personality of the people trying to get them done and, for some, the whole 'green' thing represents little more than feelgood government mandate and a break from the Way Things Have Always Been Done. Remember, though, making 1.6 GPF toilets mandatory was initially greeted by a great wailing moan from some in the industry, but today those units are the norm even as stingier fixtures are on manufacturers' drawing boards for the future.
Bottom line, though, are the "wonks" becoming more prevalent than the "just get over" crowd? Raya said it depends.
"They're not all Ed Begley," he joked. "If the customer has the inclination, they're information-hungry and they want you to explain things to them. If not they just want the compliance level," he said. We do a nice business with tankless heaters. One of the things with tankless heaters is how much more energy efficient they are, not only in energy use, but you're not wasting water. Some folks are looking at flow rates and BTUs-they're the wonks that are going to tell us what they want. Sometimes other people will be looking for confirmation of their research on a product or system. Then there are people who just don't care, really-they just want a toilet that works. But that's no different than what we're encountering at the construction level. Why? Because it's the same kind of people."
So, what's the Next Big Thing we're all going to need-as industry professionals and as consumers-to make the green philosophy, whether it's small 'g' or the capital 'G' GreenPlumbers type, a regular part of the way we live? Raya has one somewhat drastic idea: Shut off everybody's water for a while.
"I'm old enough to remember a time when we had gas lines and the supply was allocated to people on odd or even days based on their license plate numbers," he said. "I'm not suggesting that or advocating that, but you asked what it would really take to make people sit up and pay attention. [Turning off the water] would get it."
Of course, the water would only be off for a little while-the idea is just to remind people that much of the West is, in fact, a desert and that every last drop of water needs to be squeezed until it screams. Look at Australia, the home of the GreenPlumbers movement here in the U.S.: "We use 80- or 90 gallons of water per day per person here in California," he said. "That's almost double what is allotted to an Aussie family for a week. I have a couple of kid's organizations I work with and I'd love to go and do a presentation to the kids and talk to them about this. That worked with buckling seat belts-I don't know too many parents who can get into their cars without buckling their seat belts because the kids will get on them about it. That's what got me wearing mine. What makes it even more impactful is that they're right."