Wichita outlines rebate plan for water-saving appliances, equipment

Wichitans have plenty of good reasons to conserve water.

There’s not an inexhaustible amount and the drought has put the city in short supply. But now city officials are adding another reason:

Rebates for residential users who purchase equipment designed to conserve water.

Thursday, the city rolled out the specifics of the plan that the City Council approved earlier this month in allotting $1 million for rebates on clothes washers, dishwashers, low-flow toilets, irrigation controllers and rain barrels. The plan takes effect Monday.

“Some will conserve just because it’s the right thing to do,” said Joe Pajor, deputy director of public works and utilities. “Others will need a dishwasher and because of the program will be aware some kinds conserve more water. So they’ll buy that one just because it’s the right thing to do.

“The rebate becomes another good reason. This empowers people to do something. We need to get their attention.”

As indicated when the plan was first proposed, the city will offer $75 rebates for rain barrels and $100 for each of the other four items. One household can claim up to five rebates, Pajor said.

The program ends Dec. 31 – or when the $1 million is exhausted – and is retroactive to May 1. An application and original receipts must be submitted within 60 days of purchase, although the clock doesn’t start ticking for items bought between May 1 and June 30 until July 1.

More than one item can be put on the same one-page application, which can be downloaded from the city’s website, The completed form must be printed and submitted with the receipts, either by mail or in person, to the environmental health office at 1900 E. Ninth St.

Proof of installment is not required, Pajor said. Payment of rebates will be done by crediting water bills, he added.

The only qualifying requirement for rain barrels is that they be at least 50 gallons. Specifications for the other items are more detailed; a list of the makes and model numbers of those items can be found on the city’s website.

Options abound. Toilets lead the list with 1,800 different makes and models that qualify; dishwashers are at 492; clothes washers at 375; and irrigation controls at 74.

“Our objective was to provide incentives for purchases that would go beyond the minimum building code and federal law,” Pajor said, “and yet would be readily available in the local marketplace so people wouldn’t have to special order.”

Qualifying toilets must not use more than 1.28 gallons per flush and carry the Water Sense label, a designation by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s 20 percent less than the federal requirement of 1.6 gallons per flush that took effect in 1992.

Standard-size dishwashers are required to use no more than 4.25 gallons per cycle and compact dishwashers no more than 3.5. Both must have the Energy Star label.

For clothes washers, the specifications require the unit’s water factor — a formula-based designation — to be no more than 4.5. Those washers are called tier two or three, which is usually marked on the washer, and exceed the Energy Star requirements, a city document says.

Smart irrigation controllers must meet the EPA’s Water Sense minimum standards. The devices include stand-alone controllers, add-on devices and plug-in devices that use current weather data as a basis for scheduling irrigation.

Cathie Lavis, an extension landscape management specialist for Kansas State University, said in an e-mail that irrigation’s future will be the use of soil moisture sensors.

But while Smart controllers can help conserve water, she added, “They are not a fix-all. They do require understanding of use by the homeowner/manager.”

Change in behavior also is an important part of reducing water use for irrigation.

“We all need to be `okay’ with grass that goes dormant during the heat of the summer and is not green-green,” she said.

The $100 rebate for toilets probably wouldn’t cover the cost of installation, which is usually up to $150. Cost for a a basic toilet that meets the specification ranges from $250 to $700, according to area plumbers.

A qualifying dishwasher usually starts at $400 and can go as high as $2,000, said Bob Finn, owner of Lytton’s Appliances. Clothes washers meeting the rebate guide lines run from $550 to $1,500, he said.

The $75 rebate for rain barrels could actually be more than the cost of a barrel. In any case, the rebate could cover a much higher percentage of the cost than the other items on the program’s list.

“That’s intentional,” Pajor said. “Most people are going to accept they need a clothes washer. You don’t have to have a rain barrel.”

It’s about encouraging people to do more to conserve, he added. Besides saving water, rain barrels also help relieve the pressure on the storm-water system and cuts down on pollutants flowing into the system, Pajor said.

Average costs for the barrels range from $125 to $175, although larger and more elaborate barrels can exceed $1,000.

A person, however, can receive a rebate only up to the cost of the barrel, so a $50 barrel would bring a $50 rebate, Pajor said. He added those who want to make their own barrels can get a rebate up to the cost of materials after original receipts are provided.

In setting up its plans for rebates on irrigation controllers, city officials drew input from local irrigation and landscape professionals, Pajor said.

Much of the rest program was derived from looking at what other communities are doing across the country. One of those is Hays, which has a highly regarded comprehensive water conservation program that it established more than 20 years ago.

The western Kansas community started providing rebates for low-flow toilets in the early 1990s and issued more than 2,000 in the first two years. The number quickly tapered off over the next few years, said Nicholas Willis, the city’s superintendent for water conservation and storm water.

Hays conservation efforts – which include a city ordinance banning watering between noon and 8 p.m. and carries a progressive fine up to $250 – saw a 34 percent decrease in water use from 1983 to 2012, Willis said. During that same time, Hays’ population grew 23 percent.

Wichita city officials haven’t calculated what return water savings return it will get for its $1 million investment.

“We have no information on how this program is going to work,” Pajor said. “We’ll see what the reception is like, what the public feedback is like and we’ll go from there.

“At this point, we think this is an appropriate-size bite for the first bite out of the elephant.”

It hasn’t been determined if the city will offer another water conservation rebate program after this year. If it does, adding water-saving shower heads – a popular item for a lot of communities, including Hays, where they give away the low-cost items – will be on the top of the list of things to consider, Pajor said.

Businesses also may be included in any future rebate plans.

“We’re taking this one step at a time,” he added.

The city’s rebate program is part of an initiative that officials will hope stave off concerns about the drain on Cheney Reservoir, which was going dry because of the drought.

The lake had provided 60 percent of the city’s water until earlier this month when the amount was switched to 40 percent with the remaining coming from the Equus Beds Aquifer, the other source of the city’s water. The City Council also agreed to spend $5 million to drill deeper wells in the Equus Beds.

A rainy spring has helped Cheney recover. Its conservation pool — where the city’s water is drawn from — was only 58 percent full in February, when city officials predicted the lake would run dry in August 2015. The pool was just under 73 percent as of Thursday morning.

If the drought continues, the changes the city has already made are expected to extend the life of Cheney to to 2017 or 2018, city officials have said.

If the drought ends, the changes would mean Cheney wouldn’t run out of water for the foreseeable future, although its buffer to keep going in case of another drought would be diminished, city officials have said.

The city has had a water conservation plan for a number of years, but Pajor said it hasn’t been well publicized. The city is making an effort to change that, including spending $25,000 to hire a local advertising firm to help with the messaging.

That money comes from a fund that the city has budgeted at $85,000 annually since 2005 to help promote water conservation, city spokeswoman Lauragail Locke said.

The $1 million comes from water utility income and is “somewhat arbitrary but is a reasonable proportion to the budget,” Pajor said. Revenue from water sales was up $6 million in 2012 because of the drought, he noted.

Conservation of water won’t result in higher water rates to offset less water sold, as was the case in previous years, Pajor said. A revision of the water rate design in 2011 called for a more resilient system, he added.

“We designed it so when water sales are down in wet years we don’t have to go out and get those mid-year emergency rate increases,” Pajor said, “because we blended one wet year and one normal year into our assumed year.

“We made a more conservative assumption of how much our rates would increase, so the revenue we actually get is typically going to exceed our expectations – not fall short.”

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