Improvements That Pay Their Way

A California town encourages improvements that reduce water and energy demand by making the necessary up-front investments — recovered through bill surcharges.
Improvements That Pay Their Way
Water-efficient landscaping is a part of the Town of Windsor’s efforts to limit water consumption.

In the Town of Windsor, water conservation has been a challenge for decades, but in 2012 this small Northern California community hit on a remedy that already has won national recognition.

Launched in August 2012, the Windsor Efficiency PAYS program helps pre-qualified residents make upgrades that improve water and energy efficiency in their homes. They pay a surcharge on their water bills after the upgrades until the costs of their improvements are repaid.

Paul Piazza, water conservation program coordinator, says that even with the surcharges in place, residents should see an immediate reduction in their bills. When improvements are paid off, the surcharges will end and the savings will be even greater.

Everyone wins

“The innovation the PAYS program brings is that it’s attractive to everyone, even customers who don’t participate,” says Piazza. “The participants  ultimately pay for the full program, but they are saving money, too. It actually benefits everybody, because even the non-participants benefit from the lower cost of maintaining capacity in the future.”

Reducing demand is important for Windsor because it is nearing capacity during peak demand months. The town created the program with financial assistance from the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority and the U.S. Department of Energy Better Buildings Program, but it uses its own reserves as the seed capital for the home improvements.

In January, Windsor Efficiency PAYS was one of 12 projects recognized by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Alliance for Water Efficiency for programs that save both energy and water. Of 450 programs nationwide, five were deemed Exemplary Programs, and Windsor was one of seven recognized as Programs of Promise.

Not like rebates

Windsor Efficiency PAYS differs from traditional rebate programs in several ways. First, participants must qualify. “We have to qualify them based on their potential savings,” Piazza says. “We have to be sure that their savings will pay for the upgrades.” In most rebate programs, water customers simply have to prove that they installed efficient fixtures or appliances.

The town has set a goal of qualifying 2,000 customers in the first year and an overall goal of enrolling half of the 8,000 residential customers. “At that point we’ll probably be at our saturation point of customers who can qualify,” Piazza says.

Participants enter the program at the basic level, which covers the up-front costs of installing water-saving showerheads, toilets and aerators. The fixtures that qualify exceed the efficiency standards that govern the Windsor rebate program.

Once the equipment is installed, or if the home’s existing fixtures already meet program standards, owners can qualify for “basic plus measures” that help with the installation of drought-resistant landscaping, high-efficiency washing machines and compact fluorescent lights. A third step involves “co-pay measures,” requiring partial up-front investment by customers for high-efficiency refrigerators, on demand hot-water recirculation pumps and high-efficiency clothes dryers.

At every step, the town reviews applications to ensure that the savings will exceed the bill surcharges. If a customer moves from a house or apartment before the upgrades are paid for, that person’s obligation ends; the new resident gets the remaining savings and makes the remaining surcharge payments.

Room to grow

Piazza says the program may expand: “There is the potential to roll this into our commercial side, not so much based on indoor usage, but on landscape.” Water customers who don’t want to take part in or can’t qualify for the PAYS program have other ways to save water and money.

Under the Water Smart Home Program residents can have a water conservation representative perform an on-site assessment. Toilets, faucets and showerheads are checked for leaks and tested for water consumption. Where appropriate, the town provides free low-flow replacement showerheads and faucet aerators. Rebates are available for replacing 3.5-gallon-per-flush toilets.

Irrigation systems are inspected for leaks and are given a system performance check. Based on the results, the utility team creates a site-specific irrigation schedule for spring, summer and fall and provides water-saving recommendations for tuning up the system. A Water Efficient Landscapes (WEL) program offers rebates for upgrading to water-saving sprinkler technology or for removing turf grass.

Commercial and business water users also can save water and money:

  • The Town of Windsor and the Sonoma County Business Environmental Alliance partner to offer commercial, industrial and institutional users free water-use assessments conducted by an independent contractor, who provides a voluntary action plan.
  • The town offers free landscape water-use surveys.
  • Large users can get rebates up to $150 per toilet for replacing 3.5-gallon-per-flush toilets with units that use 1.28 gallons per flush or less.
  • The Water Efficient Landscapes Rebate Program provides up to $650 for commer-
  • cial mixed-use meter accounts or $2,500 for dedicated irrigation meter accounts when customers remove turf or upgrade with new water-saving irrigation equipment.
  • The Water Efficient Technologies Rebate program can provide up to $25,000 for process and equipment changes that save at least 50,000 gallons per year.


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