Green Kitchen and Bath Remodels
Contractors reveal what their customers ask for
Just a few years ago, ‘green’ was gold in the remodeling game. From sustainably-sourced cabinets to dazzling solar arrays, homeowners were willing to open their wallets to earth-friendly alternatives. But with today’s tighter budgets, flashy upgrades are out and functional choices are in, experts say.
The sluggish economy may have taken a bit of the steam out of green lately. But the topic still comes up in kitchen and bath remodels, notes Mike Perrotti, owner of Portland-based Black Cat Plumbing. “About half of our customers do ask about water-saving options,” he said. Other plumbing contractors, too, say they continue to see customers raise the topic of green alternatives.
Legislation, too, may drive demand for ‘green’ remodels in some parts of the country in the near future. “Under California’s new SB 407 legislation, [starting] in 2017, a home has to be brought up to standard whenever there’s a title transfer,” said Mike Barker, owner of Anaheim, California-based Barker & Sons. “And in 2019, everyone will need to be compliant. You’ll have to upgrade your water heater, shower heads, faucets and toilets.”
But which ‘green’ plumbing options are still flying high in today’s intensely competitive and price-sensitive market—and which aren’t? We asked plumbers to share their top eco-friendly remodeling tips, plus a few of the water- and energy-saving products they especially like.
Top Green Targets
One of the easiest targets for a green remodel, of course, is the home’s toilets, which account for as much as 26 percent of all water used in a home. “When you get into green, it’s all about water-savings, so the usual choices are things like low-flush and dual-flush toilets,” said Perrotti of Black Cat Plumbing.
“People usually ask for the low-flow toilets – that seems to be our biggest request in the ‘green’ remodeling area,” confirmed Rob Frank, owner of Four Star Plumbing in San Clemente, Calif. For low-flush toilets, Four Star typically recommends Toto and Kohler, he added.
In addition to Kohler and Toto, Mike Barker of Barker & Sons also recommends Wolverine Brass toilets to his customers. “Many of the models now have an anti-bacterial finish, which is kind of a cool advance,” he said.
Perrotti has had good luck with several low-flow toilet brands. “American Standard and Toto make good models,” he notes. “And the Toto Dual Flush is where I’d go if I were looking for a low-flow for my own remodel.”
Water heaters, too, have come a long way on the energy-efficiency road in the past ten years, and customers can really appreciate the savings. “We’re always looking at high-efficiency water heating solutions; there’s a big call right now for that,” Perrotti said. Among water heater models that Perrotti likes are Rheem’s Marathon electric water heater. “It’s plastic inside and outside, has great insulation, and it’s 93 percent efficient,” he noted. “And it has a lifetime warrantee on the tank because it’s plastic. So it is a really good solution for customers who’ve had a prior unit rust out.”
Perrotti also finds many customers eager to explore tankless models. “We really like the Rinnai tankless,” he notes. “And the Eternal Hybrid [by Grand Hall] is another choice we frequently talk to customers about, which is a hybrid with a small tank on board for a recirculation option. That uses a little bit more energy, but it’s a huge benefit on the water conservation side.”
Four Star Plumbing gets frequent inquiries about tankless units and other high-efficiency alternatives as well. “Yes, nearly every day I’m asked about tankless water heaters and ways to save water,” said owner Rob Frank. “My answer is simple: tankless water heaters offer endless hot water on demand, and they run only when in use, generating less emissions. But the return on investment is not immediate; so homeowners need to consider the savings over time.” Although Four Star installs many of the top tankless brands, Frank is particularly enthusiastic about the Eternal Hybrid. “They have the best customer service and tech support we have come across, and our customers are extremely satisfied with their tankless,” he noted.
Steve Stover, owner of Arizona Green Plumber in Prescott Valley, Ariz., has seen a similar trend toward an interest in tankless. “I’ve probably installed 30 tankless heaters in the last four years,” he said. “What’s driving it here is that we’re a rural area, so a lot of people are on propane. They can save about half on their cost of heating the water [with a tankless]. I’ve even had a lot of the propane companies recommend me. Someone will say, ‘I’m thinking about a tankless,’ and the propane company will say, ‘Call this guy.’ So it’s good for me.”
But tankless water heaters “aren’t for everybody,” cautioned Barker of Barker & Sons. “Venting can be a big issue. And if you’re looking at a couple of thousand dollars, that really discourages people. If you have a large family, tankless is great. But if you have just two or three people, the newer tank-type water heaters are nearly 97 percent efficient. So long as you maintain it, a tank water heater is fine, and it’s a lot cheaper.”
“Venting is always the hardest part,” agreed Stover of Arizona Green Plumber. “I really like the Navien tankless, which only uses a two-inch PVC pipe to vent, and has a built-in recirculator. So those are working out really well,” Stover said.
Tankless models do need to be sized properly for the house, Perrotti emphasized. Where venting might be an issue, he encouraged plumbers to explore alternate locations for the unit: “An installer should work with the layout of the house to establish an ideal location for the vent, gas, and delivery time of hot water,” he noted. “If you can get under your bath, on an exterior wall, that vent kit is likely to be less expensive.”
Several plumbers we talked to noted that their customers are now exploring graywater systems to treat and reuse wash water. “We’ve put in quite a few [grey-water systems], and we often talk to our customers about that option,” Perrotti said. “It’s a simple design, and it doesn’t involve sending water outside to the garden area, which can be a problem. Sloan Aqus makes a great grey-water product, for example.”
But especially with a graywater system, making sure the customer is properly educated is crucial to having a happen end-user, Perrotti cautioned. “We’re not going to put in a graywater system if it looks like they are going to flip the house, or if someone isn’t going to use natural soap,” he emphasized. “You’ve really got to pay attention to who the customer is. If they’re not willing to adjust their habits, they’ll just be unhappy.”
Whole-house water filtration systems can be another important option to explore with customers, especially in parts of the country that have water quality issues, Four Star Plumbing’s Frank said. “Undetected slab leaks waste a great deal of water – and can go undetected for months,” he noted. “It is no secret that certain areas of Southern California have been riddled with premature leaks, which some studies have reported is due to the water quality. Homeowners can be left with extensive property damage and costly repairs. A whole-house water filtration system can extend the life of copper pipes and plumbing fixtures, and can also provide high-quality drinking water without all the plastic bottles.” Frank recommended a multi-stage carbon filter system, and notes that recycling the non-acidic discharge by directing it to flower beds can further add to a homeowner’s savings.
A Few Cautions
Consumers may need a bit of education about what to expect from ‘green’ options, our experts said. “There still is some apprehension among customers when they go from an older toilet to one of the new 1.28 gallons-per-flush models. They ask, ‘Is that really going to work??” noted Mike Barker, owner of Anaheim, California-based Barker & Sons. “I know with toilets, many consumers had a bad experience in the beginning.”
Some plumbers say low-flow models can still result in drainline carry issues. “Now with the low-flow toilets, we’re seeing a lot more under-the-house stoppages,” observed Barker. “With seniors especially, or single people who are maybe showering once a day, that amount of water isn’t enough and it doesn’t allow the toilet or waste line to function in the way it was designed to function. It’s like trying to wash leaves down a driveway with a hose; if you only have this much water, the leaves start to go and then they get stuck. If you have five people in the house, the showers are going to wash that down.”
Other plumbers, however, caution that issues experienced after the installation of low-flow toilets may have pre-dated the remodel. “I’ve never seen a problem due strictly to low-flow toilets,” said Perrotti of Black Cat Plumbing. “We’ve seen problems where there were bellies in the drain pipe, or roots penetrating the line. But I haven’t seen low-flow-caused stoppages for a long time.”
Design changes in low-flow toilets have largely solved many of the earlier problems, Perrotti said. “In the mid-‘90s when [low-flow] toilets first came out, manufacturers tried to just reengineer their existing porcelain designs by adding low-flow parts in an existing tank. And they got a bad reputation. But it’s like if a particular truck had a bad transmission one year, whoever heard about that is going to avoid that brand and keep preaching about it for ten years.”
Other plumbers, too, note that preexisting issues with a line can sometimes be incorrectly attributed to a new ultra-low-flush toilet. “Overall customer satisfaction with the low-flow toilets has been good, and some cities offer homeowners rebates for installing them,” noted Rob Frank of Four Star Plumbing. “As long as there are no isues with the sewer, a newer toilet is typically not an issue. But many times customers just don’t know they have an issue with their sewer until a main line backs up. And of course there can be multiple reasons for main line stoppages.”
Super-low-flow shower heads, though, aren’t likely to win friends in the remodeling game, our experts agree. “Most fixtures now are coming through with low-flow options. But shower heads – people just aren’t interested in the low-flow showers heads, for the most part,” Perrotti said.
“We get mixed reviews when we install low-flow aerators on showers and faucets,” confirms Rob Frank of Four Star Plumbing. “People tend to get used to the volume of water coming out of their fixture and if it’s not the same, they tend not to be as satisfied.”
And buyer beware when it comes to both whole-house filtration systems and tankless water heaters, Frank noteed. “Some manufacturers have better warrantees and less product failures, so be sure to do your research!” he cautioned.
Keep It Simple
‘Green’ options don’t have to be super-high tech – or super expensive, experts emphasize.
Perrotti gives a fresh twist to ‘green’ by recycling old plumbing fixtures rather than throwing them out as scrap. “We bring them to the rebuilding center and turn them in there,” he noteed. “We see a lot of people picking stuff up from the rebuilding center, either for use in retro homes or for art projects. The important thing to me is it’s just not being thrown away.”
Steve Stover of Arizona Green Plumber recommends putting aerators on faucets in kids’ bathrooms – a quick and simple change that saves both water and money. “Kids often like to turn on the water and let it run,” he noted.
And simple things like running toilets, drippy faucets, leaky hose bibs and dribbling sprinklers waste a great deal more water than homeowners typically realize, noted Rob Frank of Four Star Plumbing. “Being green isn’t just about buying the latest and greatest in water conservation products,” Frank emphasized. “We can all do our part by conducting a plumbing inspection annually throughout our home.”