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What is the WaterSense Label for Homes?

By Debra Judge Silber Rise Writer
Jun 12, 2021

If you've ever shopped for a showerhead, you're probably already familiar with the Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense label. Since 2006, the label has identified products that meet specific EPA criteria for water efficiency and reliable performance. WaterSense-certified products, including toilets, showerheads, bathroom faucets, and irrigation system components, are at least 20 percent more water-efficient than average products in their category. 

But fewer homeowners are aware that an entire home can be WaterSense-certified. Launched in 2009, WaterSense Home is a whole-house certification program that looks beyond the efficiency of specific products to evaluate a home's total water usage, inside and out. 

This shift in attention from certifying individual fixtures to certifying the home itself mirrors the evolution in thinking about residential energy efficiency, says Jonah Schein, the EPA's national program manager for homes and buildings. "There was a time when energy efficiency was all about replacing light bulbs," he says. "but a house isn't just a bunch of light bulbs … it's a system." Likewise with water use. Conserving water requires more than controlling the flow on a bathroom faucet. It also means designing plumbing systems that get water where it needs to go quickly and without waste—a feat of engineering that varies with every house and doesn't lend itself to product-type labeling.

Like whole-house certifications focused on energy conservation, WaterSense Home can help homeowners save energy and money, along with gallons of water a year. It benefits communities by reducing demand for water and helping to ensure there will be enough water for everyone in the future. And in 2021, revisions to the program streamlined the certification process. They made it more flexible for builders while also increasing its potential for saving water.

WaterSense Benefits EPA
Photo Credit: EPA

What are the Benefits of a WaterSense Home Certification for Homeowners?

For homeowners, the benefits of a WaterSense Home start with a lower water bill. Certified homes use, on average, 30 percent less water than a typical home. It's hard to put a dollar figure on that savings because the cost of water varies so much across the country. Still, the EPA suggests WaterSense certification could save a household 50,000 gallons a year. Because the price of water has traditionally been a bargain compared to other utilities, like electricity, convincing homeowners to conserve water has been an uphill battle. But water costs are increasing in many communities, often due to the cost of repairing aging infrastructure. 

Certification also provides peace of mind for homebuyers. They will know their new home is free of leaks and that they won't find themselves standing in the shower waiting for hot water to arrive.

What are the Benefits of a WaterSense Home Certification for Builders?

For builders, the certification is an opportunity to differentiate their homes from others on the market. The WaterSense Home certification process dovetails with other green building programs, like ENERGY STAR, the National Green Building Standard (NGBS), and the Home Energy Rating System (HERS). So, obtaining WaterSense certification requires only a few additional steps.

But even more important to builders is that water use restrictions introduced by either governments or utilities are liable to put new projects in jeopardy. One example is California's 55-gallon per-person, per-day limit, which will impose fines on utilities that exceed it once the law kicks in in 2023. (The average American uses 82 gallons of water per day, according to EPA). If utilities limit connections to the water supply, it could threaten builders' livelihoods in a way that energy efficiency never did. In this environment, the availability of energy does not determine whether or not a home is built. Schein says, "They're built or not built based on the availability of water.

Water Tap

What Does a WaterSense Home Certification Focus On?

WaterSense Home Certification aims to lower residential water use through indoor efficiency, outdoor efficiency, and performance. 

It addresses indoor efficiency by mandating WaterSense-labeled toilets, bathroom faucets and showerheads, and ENERGY STAR dishwashers and clothes washers, for which water efficiency is a feature.

But plumbing system design—including, for example, the distance water must travel from the water heater to its point of use—must also meet WaterSense targets. Efficient water delivery conserves energy and gallons: heating water is typically the second-largest energy use in a home after space heating and cooling. This goal can be met with a demand-initiated recirculation system or simply a well-planned route for delivering water to fixtures.

Outdoors, the certification assesses the size and design of the landscape and the water requirements of plantings. If there's an irrigation system, it looks at the efficiency of the sprinkler heads and the entire system.

A certified home's entire plumbing system is checked for leaks, both visually at fixtures and by using pressure-loss tests on supply lines to ensure performance.

Capstone Homes WaterSense Program Partner
Photo Credit: Capstone Homes, a WaterSense Program Partner

How Do I Get WaterSense Certified?

Just about any residential building can be WaterSense certified, including single-family homes, duplexes, rowhouses, condominiums, and multifamily residential buildings. Residential remodels can also qualify for certification by builders who choose to pursue the program's prescriptive approach.

How Many Homes Are WaterSense Certified?

As of June 2021, the EPA has logged certifications for roughly 3,000 homes under the original program, but deficiencies in the reporting process may have left half of the actual certifications uncounted. In addition to broadening certification options for builders, the 2021 version of the program (ver. 2.0) includes administrative updates expected to improve reporting. EPA hopes to increase the number of certifications to approximately 10,000 a year initially under the updated program, eventually increasing to about 30,000 annually.

What are the WaterSense Certification Steps?

To take part in the certification process, a builder must first become a WaterSense partner. There are currently 269 builder partners listed on the EPA website. The builder then chooses to pursue certification under one of the two Home Certification Organizations (HCOs) recognized by EPA. These organizations provide the framework through which a home is certified and work with energy experts who verify that the home meets WaterSense Home criteria. 

RESNET HERS H2O Logo

What Are the Home Certification Organizations for the Watersense Labeled Homes Program?

EPA currently recognizes two HCOs in the WaterSense program. One is RESNET, which qualifies homes for WaterSense using HERSH20, a water-efficiency program based on its nationally recognized Home Energy Rating System (HERS).

The other, approved in February 2021, is Home Innovation Research Labs. They are an independent testing and research firm that originated as the National Association of Home Builders Research Center. Home Innovation certifies WaterSense homes through its National Green Building Standard (NGBS). Builders can choose one of two options:

  • A prescriptive path that focuses on qualified fixtures and features, or 
  • A performance-based approach using the Water Rating Index (WRI), the NGBS's pathway to water efficiency. 

Both WRI and HERSH20 are based on a 100-point scale on which 100 equals the water efficiency of an average home.  

The programs are very closely aligned. So, it's "not a heavy lift" for a builder who attains a WRI score of 64 under the NGBS to take the few extra steps needed to attain the highly recognizable WaterSense label, says Cindy Wasser, senior manager for green building programs at Home Innovation. Those steps include meeting WaterSense's mandatory checklist requiring WaterSense-labeled fixtures and their inspection to guarantee the home is free of leaks.

HIRL Certified Water Rating Index
HIRL Certified Water Rating Index

What is the Role of Home Certification Organizations for the WaterSense Home Program?

Both RESNET and Home Innovation work with a WaterSense-approved verifier. They are the "boots on the ground" organization or individual that inspects and tests the builder's work to ensure it meets program requirements. The EPA website currently lists 82 verifiers, most of whom are energy consultants. The HCO issues the certification and notifies EPA after confirming the verifier's work.

The program's latest version offers builders the choice of either a prescriptive or performance-based path to certification, whereas the original program was largely prescriptive. 

It's a significant difference, says Schein. "We say, 'This is how efficient you have to be. You can get there however you want.'" Builders can also choose to certify under the previous program version through the end of 2021. 

How Much Does WaterSense Home Certification Cost?

According to Schein, most of the design components and fixtures required to get a new home to the WaterSense threshold of 30 percent higher efficiency add little additional cost. But builders do have to pay verifiers and invest in the expertise required to design efficient plumbing systems. Pricing for verifiers may run $400 to $1,000 for a single-family home, but this varies widely based on location and the type of project, says Wasser. 

Home Innovation does not charge an additional fee for WaterSense certification. Instead, it's covered by certification fees for NGBS, which start at $100 for a single-family home and $300 for a multifamily dwelling, Wasser says. 

In the end, she says, "A home that has a third-party green certification may have 1 to 5 percent (higher) construction costs, but there are long-term benefits throughout the ownership of the home through energy cost saving and reduced maintenance." 

Does WaterSense Home Certification Add Value to a Home?

While there's little data on specifically how much value WaterSense certification adds to a home, Home Innovation points to research showing that buyers are willing to spend up to 4% of a home's purchase price for third-party green certifications. Water-saving features can also be documented as part of the Appraisal Institute's Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum to ensure they are considered when a home's value is determined. 

Fulton Homes 2020 EPA WaterSense Partner of the Year
Photo Credit: Fulton Homes, 2020 EPA WaterSense Partner of the Year

What Advice is there for People Interested in Certification?

Builders who specialize in energy efficiency and sustainability, especially those who are EPA partners, are a good source of information and guidance on finding or building a certified home. Wasser suggests homeowners start by touring green homes and asking questions about water-efficient features. Looking for the WaterSense label on plumbing products and becoming familiar with flow rates can help you choose more wisely when it's time to build. 

Choosing to conserve water, particularly the idea of ensuring there's enough for future generations, is an idea EPA wants to promote. "People have an emotional reaction to water. It's necessary; we need it for life," Schein says. "We don't like to make it all about dollars and cents."

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-05T19:52:42+0000
Debra Judge Silber

Article by:

Debra Judge Silber

Debra Judge Silber is a Connecticut-based journalist who writes on home design with an eye toward practices that support our health and our planet. She is a former editor at This Old House, Fine Homebuilding and Inspired House, and has written for a number of other publications.