GUELPH’S RESIDENTS ARE CONSERVING THEIR UNIQUE SOURCE OF DRINKING WATER BY USING THE BLUE BUILT HOME PROGRAM.
By Adam Simmons
When Theodora Pierson was building a new home in Guelph, the builder suggested installing water-conserving features to save money and tap water. Pierson said the efficient fixtures and appliances in her home don’t seem any different than inefficient ones. “The faucets, for example, don’t seem like they’re giving out less water,” she said.
The move didn’t just help Pierson save money, it also helped Guelph save water.
The city currently uses 60 per cent of its available groundwater supply. But without encouraging residents to save water, it could run out. Guelph’s 2022 Water Supply Master Plan (WSMP) predicts that the city won’t be able to meet the daily water demands by the year 2051 without taking action to save water. Guelph is trying to address the water shortfall by encouraging residents to cut their water use at home and has introduced a program, called Blue Built Home, that offers residents rebates when they swap out water-hogging appliances for water efficient ones.
Guelph’s population is increasing fast. According to Statistics Canada census data, Guelph is growing faster than the provincial average. In 2021, the city saw its population jump to more than 143,000 residents – a 9.1 per cent increase since 2016 and 5.8 per cent higher than the provincial average. And the city is only expected to keep growing: Guelph’s water plan predicts that the city’s population will grow to more than 203,000 by 2051. As Guelph grows, so does its need for infrastructure to ensure its residents will have enough water every day.
Canada’s freshwater comes from rivers, lakes, ice, snow and groundwater. Guelph is the largest city in Canada solely relying on groundwater for drinking water. Out of nearly 15 million Ontarians, only 2.5 million get their drinking water from groundwater. Most provincial residents — around 9 million — get their drinking water from Lake Ontario.
But Guelph is a landlocked city, meaning it lacks access to lakes or surface water. Overusing its groundwater can lower the water table and lead to less water ‘downstream’ that would eventually release into rivers, wetlands and lakes, negatively impacting groundwater-dependent ecosystems, said Jana Levison, a groundwater expert at the University of Guelph. “It is important that we monitor and protect groundwater quality and quantity since we need to use groundwater for our drinking water supply and also because it is important for sustaining various ecosystems,” said Levison.
Groundwater comes from rain and melted snow that sinks deep into the ground through open spaces. Most cities can’t support their entire population’s water needs using groundwater alone, but Guelph is located on top of two aquafers which provide the city with high-quality drinking water. The water is harvested by 21 groundwater wells that tap into the aquafers.
And while it’s great that the city can tap into the aquafers, it also means Guelph’s groundwater replenishes at a slower rate because it is used as the city’s main source for tap water. Guelph’s water plan shows that there won’t be enough groundwater to support population growth unless the city actively conserves water now.
How Guelph is conserving water
That’s part of the reason why the city introduced the Blue Built Home program.
Rebate programs prove to be one of the most meaningful ways to reduce water consumption in homes all around Guelph. The Blue Built Home program takes individual rebates and packages them together to help people conserve water and save money on bills, said Hayley Tompkins, Guelph’s water program coordinator.
Guelph started the program in 2011 as an incentive for builders to construct homes with water efficiency in mind. But residents can also retrofit homes under the program by installing a ‘big-ticket’ item, such as a rainwater harvesting system or grey water system, to qualify for rebates ranging from $1,000 to $2,000. Those big ticket items can help residents save $300 to $400 on their water bills every year. Another way to qualify is by doing what Tompkins describes as an “a la carte menu” where residents decide what to upgrade. “So maybe you upgrade your toilets, and maybe your dishwasher is WaterSense certified and maybe you switch out your faucets and add aerators to make sure that you’re using less water that way,” Tompkins said. By doing so, a homeowner can collect a variety of different rebates ranging from $10 to $100 while also protecting Guelph’s groundwater supply.
Blue Built homes have saved more than 500,000 litres of water each year between 2018 and 2021. The most recent statistics from regular water efficiency updates the city releases show that the average resident in Guelph uses about 40 fewer litres of water each day than the average Ontario resident.
Guelph residents and their communities are generally environmentally focused, said Ally Zaheer, who is a fourth-year environmental engineering student at the University of Guelph
“A lot of people are in these communities where they know their neighbours and there’s a lot of small businesses, and they want to act as stewards of the environment in order to preserve what they have,” said Zaheer.
The Blue Built Home Program was originally meant to only target new homes by directly working with builders. It’s still one of the main ways the program is used.
“I think it’s important, because it’s definitely a proactive way to help our water supply and the environment. It’s also a cost saving initiative for everybody, and in this climate, we all can use some saving,” said Carolyn Anthony, who co-owns Anthony Homes, a Guelph-based custom home building and renovation company. The company often encourages its clients to have their home built with features to qualify it for the program.
Guelph’s most recent water efficiency update says that homes with high quality water fixtures and appliances can reduce a homeowner’s utility bills by as much as 62 per cent. Under the program, residents who own a home, or plan to build one can choose from 13 different water saving options from the Blue Built Home program’s website. Each option includes a different rebate, depending on the feature that’s installed to the resident’s home. For example, homeowners who install an EnergyStar rated washing machine that uses 5,500 gallons or less per year can collect a $50 rebate. Guelph also offers a few other water efficiency rebates that aren’t listed on the Blue Built Home website but can still count towards the program, such as the ‘royal flush’ rebate. Most homes have toilets that use six litres of water per flush, but the royal flush rebate is for people who install toilets that use 4.8 litres of water or less.
Getting your home certified
Guelph residents can use the Blue Built Home program if they already have a home, or plan to build a home in the city. People that already own a home in Guelph can sign up for visit where home advisors come to their home and tell them which Built Home requirements they may already meet, and what else they could do to get certified and collect rebates.
“Our motivation for using the program is to help support our community, help support the city’s efforts in the Blue Built water conservation program by bringing awareness to the clients that it’s available,” said Anthony.
Anthony Homes built Pierson’s home in 2021. She had it Blue Built Certified after construction finished. “I feel like it’s worth bringing someone in to do a test in your home because you may have a Blue Built Home without even realizing it,” Pierson said. She admits that water efficient appliances and fixtures might be more expensive, but the money saved in the long run makes it worth it.
Pierson’s home is equipped with low flush toilets and low run faucets. Appliances such as her washing machine are also water efficient. She found out about the Blue Built Home program after working for sustainability group eMERGE while in university. When she was building her home, Anthony Homes reminded her about the program.
“One of the people that worked at eMERGE came in with their kit, and they tested our water faucets with these bags. So, they’ll put it on, turn the faucet on for five seconds and then turn it off, and see how high it measures on their test. And if it’s low flow, then obviously the water usage is below a certain line,” said Pierson. eMERGE also checked whether her toilets were low flow, and other appliance labels. Pierson received a $100 rebate and saves on monthly bills.
Guelph has taken a “big-picture” approach to water conservation because of how important it is to protect their groundwater supply, said Tompkins. Guelph is unique because it is the biggest city in Canada to rely on groundwater and needs to conserve its water to continue growing.
According to a 2021 Statistics Canada study on potable water use, Canadians use an average of 215 litres of water every day. The most recent available data from 2018 shows the average Guelph citizen uses 156 litres per day — nearly 30 per cent less than the Canadian average.
“Even though we have a lot more people in the city, we’re using less water because people are very conservation focused,” said Tompkins. “Our groundwater in Guelph is a very precious resource, and if each person can do these very small actions, like having a new toilet, you can really do your part to save our supply of our groundwater.”
But rolling out a water conservation program and getting homeowners involved can be difficult. The Blue Built Home program has faced a number of challenges in recent years. eMERGE was unable to do home visits for more than two years because of the pandemic. “We were very confused about what was going to happen, and we didn’t want to transmit COVID to people,” said Rasha Abusitta, who is the sustainability program coordinator at eMERGE Guelph.
Even without the pandemic, Pierson said it was hard to find a time to have eMERGE visit her home. “I work full-time, and they were only available to come during weekdays… We ended up just doing it on a lunch break one day,” she said.
Now that most pandemic restrictions in Ontario have been lifted, the Blue Built Home program is planning to ramp-up promotion efforts in 2023 to attract more residents to the program. As of now, the program is mainly advertised on Guelph and eMERGE’s websites and by partners like Anthony Homes. Tompkins referred to 2022 as a “transitional year” for the program.
“The future relies on our groundwater source, and we all need to make a collective effort,” said Abusitta. “But if they (families) don’t bring this conversation to the dinner table, we will be stuck for a while.”
Even if Guelph residents understand the importance of conserving water, on its own the Blue Built Home program can’t fully protect Guelph’s groundwater supply. A City of Guelph staff report from June 7, 2022, advised city council the city will likely need to develop a new water supply source before 2051. According to the report, Guelph’s best-case scenario is that the city’s groundwater can supply 79,422 cubic meters of water, or enough to fill almost 32 Olympic-sized swimming pools. But this number can drop as low as 65,447 cubic meters — about 26 Olympic-sized swimming pools — because of drought conditions, possible contamination, and unanticipated population growth.
In 2051, the city may need 68,306 cubic meters of water every day — and maybe as much as 91,530 cubic meters. This means Guelph will need an extra 3,000 cubic meters of groundwater on average every day, and on some days could need as much as 26,000 cubic meters. Regardless of how successful the Blue Built Home program is, Guelph’s water plan points out the city will need to build new infrastructure to ensure there is enough water to support community growth and account for problems like droughts.
While the program largely focuses on builders and new construction, homeowners of older homes can also use the program. Tompkins said its success depends on reaching new developments as the population continues to grow.
“There is a lot of totally untapped potential. There are all these new communities popping up… there’s tons of homes now being built. There’s a lot of opportunity for it to spread more broadly throughout the city,” said Tompkins.
The price of saving
But not everyone can afford spending extra cash on having their homes built with new features like Watersense appliances or a rainwater harvesting system. “If you have a rainwater harvesting system, you would qualify as a Blue Built home, but that’s a pretty big-ticket item,” said Tompkins. According to Fixr.com, the systems can cost as much as $15,000.
With a possible recession in 2023, residents may feel less inclined to purchase big-ticket items. In an article about Canada’s recession to arriving earlier than expected, RBC economists Nathan Janzen and Claire Fan predict higher prices for items and rising interest rates that will decrease the average Canadian household’s “purchasing power” by $3,000 in 2023.
House prices are also rapidly increasing in Ontario. As Guelph’s population grows, so does the demand for housing. A Statistics Canada report pointed out that homeownership has dropped from a peak of 69 per cent in 2011 to a low of 66.5 per cent in 2021 across the country. This resulted in 21.5 per cent more homes occupied by renters instead of owner(s).
Landlords can use the Blue Built Home program for their rentals, but it’s more difficult. Not every landlord understands the benefit of conserving water or knows about the program, said Abusitta.
It can also be difficult to find a time that renters are available to have their apartments inspected, especially when a building has a lot of apartments. The landlord and residents also need to work together to decide which features to upgrade, and who receives any applicable rebates. It takes a lot more work and a lot more commmunication, but for Guelph, the effort may be worth it.
“The impact would be huge,” said Abusitta.