The company has put a free toolkit together to help other businesses jumpstart their own water management programme. The tools include a scorecard for assessing water efficiency and creating visibility of water performance at facility level, and a calculator to estimate the scale of water and financial savings that can be made from implementing specific measures.

The move has stemmed from an internal drive at AT&T to reduce its own water footprint over the past two years. Back in 2012 it discovered it was using 15 billion litres of water annually across its US operations, and that just 125 of its facilities (less than 2% of total building infrastructure) accounted for 50% of this water use.

Speaking in a webinar on corporate water risk this week, AT&T’s director of sustainability operations Tim Fleming said these 125 facilities had one factor in common – they had high evaporative cooling demands as the primary source of water use on these sites was a cooling system.

“Back in 2012, our water expenditure was less than 2% of our energy expenditure. [Water] wasn’t hitting our bottom line so it made it harder for us to put a business case together,” he said.

To address the problem, AT&T collaborated with not-for-profit organisation Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to undertake some pilot work to assess the cost benefits of adopting three different approaches to reduce water use – technical, operational and free air cooling.

The pilots demonstrated that the technical approach (upgrading the cooling tower filtration system) and the free air cooling approach (using external air to cool down the process) were most effective.

AT&T upgraded a cooling tower filtration system in one of its Phoenix facilities at a cost of under $100,000 and calculated it could get a payback of more than $60,000 in annual water and sewer savings. Meanwhile a minor $4,000 equipment upgrade to expand free air cooling was found to offer $40,000 in annual savings.

Huge savings

Fleming stressed the importance of putting cost figures against water savings. “We need to make the business case,” he maintained. “The water savings were very significant, we had an overall 29% reduction in overall water use and a 70% reduction in water discharge – that’s water not going into the sewer.”

He added: “There’s a lot to be gained just from improving your efficiencies in the water tower cooling system and these investments don’t have to be big ones.”

Overall, the pilot work achieved water reduction savings ranging between 14% to 40%. These figures were taken by EDF and scaled up – it estimated that if all US commercial and institutional building operators could achieve just the 14% figure, it would result in 127 billion litres of water being saved per year.

AT&T have now adopted a formal water goal, to realise 682 million litres of annualised water savings by the end of 2015. This figure represents approximately 15% of cooling tower use and 5% of total water use.

“Before we engaged with EDF we had no stated water goal, apart from some internal KPIs. We were encouraged by the pilot work to move from baseline to action,” Fleming said.

Maxine Perella

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