Health Clubs and Recreation Centers Introduction

Health clubs and recreation centers are part of a growing industry, and their water consumption grows as they expand their services.  What used to be only weight rooms, stationary bikes and a few racquetball courts has expanded to include aquatic sport and exercise facilities, smoothie bars and food services, day care facilities, and soccer fields.    The greatest impediment to achieving water savings in this sector is the common disconnect between the person that pays the water bills, the owner and manager, and the various contractors that maintain the facility and equipment.  Water saving potential is enormous, but success implementation requires a cooperative effort from everyone involved.  The common water conserving opportunities are as follows.

Landscape Irrigation

Turf on playing fields requires an average of 40 to 60 inches (101.6 cm to 152.4 cm) of water per year to maintain a healthy appearance, depending on climate.  Most of this water is required during summer months (1.5 to 2 inches per week (3.8 cm to 5.08 cm)), when weekly rainfall is lowest, often totaling less than 0.5 inches (1.27 cm) per week.  Unlike trees and shrubs, turf grasses have very little capacity to store water and withstand drought periods.  Turf fields usually needs water applied at least twice per week in the summer.  Any deficit in rainfall must be supplanted with irrigation.  A typical soccer field requires approximately 50,000 gallons (189 m3) of water per week in summer to maintain the healthy vegetation.    This annual gross water needs equates to more than 1.5 million gallons (5,678 m3) per year.  Net irrigation needs depends on the amount of rainfall during the growing season.

Irrigated turf is often over-watered by more than 30%, especially in the autumn.  In September, the grass needs only half the water (0.75 inches/week (1.9 cm/week)) compared to the water required in June (1.75 inches/week (4.4 cm/week)).  Most irrigators fail to set back the irrigation schedule properly after July.  Proper irrigation schedules alone can conserve more than 100,000 gallons (681 m3) of water per year, without costly irrigation system replacements.   Weather based irrigation controllers (WBIC) can assist in properly adjusting the irrigation schedule.

Optimizing the water efficiency usually requires proper scheduling of the irrigation, and improving irrigation uniformity by hardware change outs.  A water audit, conducted by a trained professional, is required to determine the proper equipment needed (spray heads, water pressure regulators, controller, station separations, etc.) and a schedule based on the evapo-transpiration rate of the vegetation.  Weather based irrigation controllers (WBIC) can automatically adjust irrigation schedules to local conditions, but must be installed and set up properly to achieve any water savings.   Irrigation equipment only provides the tools for water efficiency; the tools must be used properly.


Water savings can be achieved by replacing older model toilets using 3.5 GPF ( 13.2 LPF) or greater with new ULFTs (1.6 GPF (6.1 LPF)), HETs (1.28 GPF (4.84 LPF)), or dual flush toilets using 1.6 GPF (6.1 LPF) for solid waste and 1.0 GPF (3.78 LPF) for liquid waste.  The frequency of toilet flushes per toilet is often greater than home toilets, although the frequency is highly variable from facility to facility.  It is reasonable to assume an average of 2 to 4 flushes per person per 8 hour shift for workers; and 1 to 3 flushes per customer, guest or member.   When conducting benefit/cost analyses, it is important to separate the calculations for women’s toilets versus men’s toilets for two reasons: (1) the ratio of men room toilets per male (worker and customer) is usually different than the ratio of women room toilets per female worker and customer; (2) men will most often use urinals (when available) rather than toilets.  Every facility is unique in its flushing frequency.  While it is reasonable to use average toilet usage estimates for program planning; performing toilet retrofit projections on individual facilities requires calculations based on unique site data.  A sample calculation might be:

Data: 364 days open per year 

15 male workers-shifts, 5 female workers-shifts 

400 male customers/day, 100 female customers/day 

8 male toilets, 8 urinals 

8 female toilets 

Male Toilet Flush Quantities: 

15 males X 364 X 0.5 toilet flushes/day = 2,730 toilet flushes/year 

400 males X 364 X 0.25 toilet flushes/day = 36,400 toilet flushes/year 

39,130 flushes / 8 toilets = 4,890 flushes/year/male toilet 

Male Urinal Flush Quantities: 

15 males X 364 X 2.5 urinal flushes/day = 13,650 urinal flushes/year 

400 males X 364 X 1.75 urinal flushes/day = 254,800 urinal flushes/year 

154,700 flushes / 8 urinals = 33,550 urinal flushes/year/urinal 

Female Toilet Flush Quantities: 

5 females X 364 X 3 toilet flushes/day = 5,460 toilet flushes/year 

100 females X 364 X 2 toilet flushes/day = 72,800 toilet flushes/year 

78,260 flushes / 8 toilets = 9,782 flushes/year/female toilet 

Conclusion: This example shows replacing male urinals will likely garner the greatest savings; and replacing female toilets offers better return on investment than male toilets. 

The predominate type of toilet in health club facilities is flushometer valve toilets and pressure-assist toilets, though gravity-tank toilets are found occasionally.  Both the bowl and the flush valve of the flushometer valve toilets must be replaced to assure water savings and adequate flushing performance.   The cost to replace a flushometer type toilet usually ranges from $250 to $400, depending on the type of toilet required.  Wall-mounted flushometer valve toilets are the most commonly found in new buildings; while floor mounted toilets are more common in older buildings.

As with all toilets in the commercial sector, there are a few extras items to consider:

  • Building maintenance staff must be trained to only use the proper parts when servicing the flush valves, or all water savings will be negated.  Unfortunately, 3.5 GPF (9.46 LPF) parts often fit the new 1.6 GPF (6.1 LPF) flush valves.
  • Replacement options include the 1.6 GPF (6.1 LPF) toilets, and there are now hundreds of models of HETs available (1.28 GPF (4.84 LPF) models and dual flush) While there are many gravity type toilets suitable for light commercial applications, flushometer valve types or pressure-assist models are preferable in most commercial buildings.
  • Sensor-activated flush mechanisms often result in more frequent toilet flushing than manual flush valves.  There is no evidence the sensor-activated valves save water.
  • If installing dual-flush toilets, it is wise to post instructions for the toilet users.
  • Disposable seat covers and paper towels are the most common causes of clogged toilets.  Consider alternate methods of hygiene (sanitizers, continuous roll seat cover dispensers, hot air dryers, etc.), or select new toilets models that exceed 500 grams (1.1 pounds) in MaP Testing. 
  • Flushing performance is very important for success.  Refer the MaP testing before selecting new toilets.


The benefit of replacing urinals is highly dependant on frequency of use and the proposed replacement.  Frequency of use is determined by calculating the quantity of male 8-hour shifts, quantity of male customers, the average urinal flush per man, and the quantity of urinals.  Keep in mind that athletic activities often inspires consumption of liquid refreshments; thus, incurring more frequent flushing.

There are many options now for urinal replacements; from simply replacing the flush valve to reduced flows, to replacing the entire fixture with a high-efficiency urinal (HEU), which includes both flushing and non-water urinals.  All options vary in the costs and benefits. In many cases, marginal water savings can be achieved by simply retrofitting the urinal flush valve to a lower GPF diaphragm on flushometer valve urinals, though some older urinals will not properly function at these reduced flows.   Unfortunately, this type of valve-only retrofit can be easily and mistakenly reverted back to the higher flush volume during routine maintenance.  Much consideration is needed to determine the best retrofit or replacement for any given restroom.   To assure water savings are sustained over time, the best strategy is to replace the entire urinal and flush valve with an HEU (e.g., 0.125 GPF or 0.25 GPF model (.47 LPF or .94 LPF), or a non-water urinal). 

As with all urinals in the non-residential sector, there are a few extras items to consider:

  • Building maintenance staff must be trained to only use the proper parts when servicing the flush valves or all water savings will be negated.  Unfortunately, 3.5 GPF (11.35 LPF) parts often fit the new 1.0 GPF (3.78 LPF)  flush valves.
  • Sensor-activated flush mechanisms often result in more frequent urinal flushing than manual flush valves.  There is no evidence the sensors valves save water.
  • Non-water urinals are considered compliant by most, but not all plumbing code authorities.  The Uniform Plumbing Code and the International Plumbing code allow the urinals, but some local cities and counties have not yet approved the devices.  It is wise to contact the local plumbing jurisdiction before installing non-water urinals.

Lavatory Faucets

Flow rates for wash basin faucets in lavatories can reasonably be reduced to 0.5 GPM (1.9 LPM) or lower.   (The current national standard and most model plumbing codes in the U.S. call for a maximum flow rate in non-residential lavatory faucet installations of 0.5-gpm.)  Projected savings are usually based on usage frequencies similar to toilet and urinal use.  Flow durations are often estimated to be 5 to 30 seconds per use.  Retrofitting aerators on the faucets is the most common and least expensive strategy.   The water savings are small when compared to replacing toilets, but the cost of retrofit is minor, usually less than $1.00 per faucet.

Some wash basins are fitted with mechanical metering valves (automatically shut-off after a preset time span) or negative shut-off valves (user must continue to exert pressure on valve handle to maintain water flow).   These types of valves are required to save water and deter flooding the lavatories.   The valves are often adjustable for the duration of the flow.  The flow should not exceed 5 seconds per activation.

There is no scientific evidence that sensor-activated faucets save water.  To the contrary, recent studies have provided valid evidence that sensor faucets use much greater water than manually activated valves.   Sensor activated valves provide user convenience, but are now known to be wasters of water.


Many recreation facilities include showers for the members and guests.  The Energy Policy Act of 1995 set maximum showerhead flow rates rate at 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM) (9.46 LPM).  Despite this federal mandate, some showers flows can still be found flowing in excess of 5 GPM (18.92 LPM).  Depending on frequency of use, replacing showerheads in the locker rooms might offer significant water savings.    

New, well-designed 2.5 GPM (9.46 LPM) showerheads offer a satisfying and effective shower experience for users.  There are some models of showerheads that flow less than 2.5 GPM (9.46 LPM) and also have high levels of consumer satisfaction, but these are not recommended for safety concerns.  As showerhead flow rates have decreased, the incidents of accidental scalding have increased; caused by the loss of thermal buffering in water volume when supply water temperature changes suddenly.  Thermostatic mixing valves prevent this problem, and are now required by most plumbing codes.  To date, thermostatic mixing valves are only tested and certified for flows of 2.5 GPM (9.46 LPM) or greater.  Installing showerheads with flow rates below 2.5 GPM (9.46 LPM) is not recommended until thermostatic mixing valve requirements are amended to accommodate lower flows.

Water savings projections can be easily estimated by measuring the flow rates of the pre-existing showerheads, estimating the golfer usage rate, and calculating the water use differential.  A facility that has 400 showers taken per day, using 4 GPM (15.1 LPM) showerheads, could save 180,000 gallons per month (681.4 m3 per month) by converting to 2.5 GPM (9.46 LPM) showerheads.  This equates to more than 2,000,000 gallons saved per year (7,570.8 m3 saved per year).

Fitness club managers are very sensitive to user satisfaction, especially private membership clubs, and shower quality seems to evoke strong reactions.  It is very important to choose replacement showerheads that are known to have a high level of user satisfaction.  Most high quality showerheads cost $5 to $12 in bulk quantities.  We do not recommend using price as sole criteria when selecting showerheads.

Reclaimed Water

Where the local wastewater treatment agency provides reclaimed water (wastewater treated to drinking water standards, though deemed non-potable), recreation and sporting facilities provide an excellent opportunity to supplant potable water use with reclaimed water use.   Landscape irrigation is the most obvious opportunity to use this water, especially sports fields and landscaped areas surrounding the facilities.  Reclaimed water can also be used to supply water to toilets and urinals.  Depending on the water quality requirements, many cooling towers can also use reclaimed water rather than potable water.

In all applications, the reclaimed water must be strictly separated from potable water sources and end-uses.  This requires a clear separation of pipes supplying water to the end use (irrigation system, toilets, urinals, cooling tower, etc) from pipes supplying potable water to faucets, drinking fountains, etc.   Irrigation systems are usually on separate meters and water supplies; thus, this is the most common application for reclaimed water use. 

The water supply pipes for toilets and urinals are often interconnected with faucets and drinking water fountains; requiring extensive plumbing system retrofits if reclaimed water is to be used.   Retrofitting a pre-existing plumbing system inside a building is usually too costly to justify the use of reclaimed water to flush sanitary fixtures. 

When constructing new facilities, the cost to separate the water supply pipes for sanitary fixtures is marginal.   Many water agencies are now requiring new commercial buildings to be dual plumbed to separate the plumbing so reclaimed water can be used to flush sanitary fixtures, even if reclaimed water is not immediately available.  Commercial property developers report this has added less than 15% to the total cost of the plumbing system. 

Cooling Towers

Most recreation centers employ the use of a cooling tower in the HVAC system to cool the building and remove excessive humidity.  Cooling towers use the cooling effect of evaporating water to remove heat from water circulating through the HVAC chillers.  There are numerous ways for the system to waste water when the system is not properly maintained.   Depending on the climate zone, building cooling load, and the cooling system; the water wasted can be greater than all the sanitary fixtures combined.  Appropriate retrofits usually require a conductivity controller be installed and properly maintained to achieve water efficiency.  Conductivity controller retrofits, usually cost less than $1,500 per cooling tower, can save more than $800 per year for a typical office building.

Cooling tower retrofits and maintenance should be part of every water conservation program targeting large buildings.  There are ample technologies available to greatly improve the water efficiencies of most cooling tower systems.  Technology provides the tools for water savings, but does not guarantee water efficiency.  Controller installations and retrofits must be part of an overall customer maintenance and education program to be effective.

Storm Water Collection and Use

Collecting the storm water or rainwater on the building site (roof, parking lot, hardscape, landscape, etc.) is one of the fastest growing strategies in the water conservation industry and the “green” building efforts.   There are three distinct advantages to this strategy:

  • The collected water can be stored then used to irrigate the landscape during dryer months.
  • The water collected is prevented from entering the storm water system, which is often overtaxed in urban areas causing flash floods.
  • The pollutants from the building site (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, animal waste, automobile fluids, etc) are prevented from being carried by storm water to streams, rivers, and other sensitive aquatic ecosystems.

Food Preparation

Many recreation and health clubs include small diners, smoothie bars, coffee shops; and this presents excellent opportunities to conserve water in the areas of food preperation and dish washing. 

Pre-rinse spray valves, using 4 GPM are used to rinse dishes before placed in the dishwasher; new efficient spray valves use only 1.2 GPM and save hundreds of gallons per day (depending on volume and type of meals served). 

Ice machines are commonly found in refreshment centers; and this equipment can use surprisingly excessive amounts of water.  Depending on the model and the settings, ice machines use 2 to 18 pounds of water for every pound of ice produced.

The water efficiency of commercial dishwashers also varies greatly.  The high cost of these machines often impairs the benefit-cost ratio of early replacement; but as older dishwashers fail, high efficiency models should be installed as replacements.

Swimming Pools and Spas

Swimming pools can be the source of great water waste, especially if there are hidden leaks in the pool, liner, drain, or filtration system.  Leaks are often unnoticed by staff because they develop slowly over several month or years.  If the pool has an automatic refill valve, the water loss will go unnoticed until the water bills become outrageously high.   Water loss can only occur three ways: evaporation, splash runoff, and/or leaks.  There is virtually nothing to manage the splash runoff, so water conservation efforts should focus on evaporation and leaks.

Evaporation rates of pools depend on local climate, pool water temperatures, location of pool (indoor versus outdoor), and the use of pool covers.  Outdoor pools will usually have an evaporation rate of 150% to 200% of local evapo-transpiration rates (Eto).  Heated pools will have greater evaporation rates.  The typical evaporative water loss in mid-summer will be approximately 12 inches (30.5 cm) per month for an outdoor pool.  This equates to evaporative losses of nearly 40,000 gallons (1,514 m3) for a 100 ft. X 50 ft. ( 30.45m X 15.24m)pool in the month of July.  Heated pools will cause greater evaporation, indoor pools will have less evaporation depending on indoor humidity levels.

Evaporative water loss can be avoided by the use of pool covers.  Utilizing a pool cover, even if only at night, can reduce evaporative losses as much as 25%.   Pool covers cannot be used when swimmers are present; thus, 24-hour use facilities garner no advantage with such devices.  Some facilities will not use pool covers because of the liabilities and dangers of children slipping under the cover and drowning.

Water loss from splash (water run-off onto surrounding hardscape and drained away) and carry-off (water clinging to bodies and clothing of swimmers exiting pool) has few remedies, but should be estimated to make total water use accountings and detecting water loss from leaks.  The splash can be reasonably estimated at 2 to 5 gallons (7.6 L to 18.9 L) per user.  Children are likely to cause more water loss because of more frequent exits in and out of the pool.   The type of facility and typical pool users guide the estimates for this water loss.

Water leaks from pool systems can often be easily estimated when the pool water supply has a dedicated meter.   For this reason, it is recommended all pools have a dedicated meter on the water supply, and the meter be read at least weekly.   Leakage amounts can be estimated by subtracting evaporative losses and splash losses from to total water added to the pool during any given time period.  Here is an example such estimates:

Water Use Factors: 

Pool size: 100 ft. X 50 ft. = 5,000 ft.2 

Child users/month = 600 

Adult users/ month = 300 

July Eto rate = 11.0” 

Estimated July pool evaporation rate: 11.0 X 1.5 = 16.5 inches = 1.37 feet 

Total water supplied to pool in July:  120,000 gallons 

Splash & Carry-off Losses: 

600 X 4 gallons =  2,400 gallons 

300 X 2 gallons =        600 gallons 

Subtotal =         3,000 gallons 

Evaporative Losses: 

5,000 ft2  X 11.37 ft  =  6,850 cubic feet of water 

Subtotal =    51,238 gallons 

Unaccounted Water Use* 

120,000 gallons – (3,000gallons + 51,238 gallons) = 

65,762 gallons (a large portion is probably leaks) 

 * Replacing pool water with fresh water (sometimes referred to as blow-down) to reduce mineral and TDS levels of the pool water is not included in these calculation.  All such maintenance procedures (including filter backwash operations) should be closely monitored with meter readings and not be included as “Unaccounted Water Use”. 

 Whenever the unaccounted water exceeds 15% of total water supply to pool, it is reasonable to suspect a leak is causing water waste.   Pool leaks can occur in a variety of places and have numerous causes:  faulty drain valves, faulty fill valves, cracked overflow tubes, leaks in filter system pipes, etc.  Most leaks drain directing into the wastewater system or storm drains, thus go undetected.  The example above represents a small leak of less than 2 gallons per minute (7.57 LPM) – easily unnoticeable at a large recreation center, and difficult to locate.   It is recommended a professional pool installation and maintenance firm be employed to find and repair the source of the leak. 

Laundry Facilities

Many health clubs and recreation centers provide towel service to its users.   A typical health club can generate more than 1,000 towels for laundering every day.  While some facilities use contractual laundry services to clean the towels, many have on-site laundering facilities.  Depending on the towel size and weight, this can equates to more than one ton of laundry per day.  Converting older machines to new efficient washers can save more than 3,000 gals per day per ton of towels (11.4 m3 per day per .907 metric ton of towels).  This equates to more than 1 million gallons of water conserved per year (3,785 m3).

Most on-premises laundries (OPL) inside health clubs rely on equipment referred to as washer-extractors.   These look and operate somewhat similar to a residential front-loading clothes washer, except washer-extractors are 3 to 30 times larger.   The name ‘washer-extractor’ is derived from the high speed spin cycles used between wash and rinse cycles to extract the water and detergent from clothes using centrifugal force.   The fabrics are washed in batches, similar to a residential washer. 

Washer-extractor efficiency is usually measured in gallons per pound of fabric, as opposed to residential machines that measure efficiency in gallons per cubic foot of capacity.  The typical washer-extractors require 3 to 4 gallons of water per pound of fabric cleaned (11.35 L to 15.14 L of water per .45 kg of fabric cleaned).  The most efficient machines have built-in water recycling capabilities; storing the rinse water from the previous load to supply wash water in the subsequent load, using less than 1.5 gallons per pound of fabric (5.6 L per .45 kg of fabric).

For washer-extractors without built in recycling features, there are auxiliary recycling systems available that can be connected to washer-extractors to filter and sanitize the rinse water to be reused or the wash water supply.  These systems vary in quality, size and efficiency. Many OPL are installed in relatively small spaces, where the washers, dryers, chemical storage, and folding/stacking/sorting benches fill most of the available space.  The space does not always accommodate additional recycling equipment and related water storage tanks.   Recycling the water requires adjustment in chemicals and detergents used in the wash and rinse water to maintain the quality of the washing process.  This requires the chemical supply contractor to be involved in planning any such retrofits.