By Nate Hendley
Originally published in Construction in Focus magazine July 2020
Watershed Technologies Inc. offers a suite of services and solutions designed to conserve energy and lower utility bills in multi-residential buildings. This Toronto-based firm uses audits and technological tools to measure and monitor a building’s water and energy consumption, and the data is then presented to clients along with cost-reducing energy conservation measures.
|Very often we find savings in the range of twenty to forty percent… In four of [a group’s] buildings that we worked on, they’ve saved over half-a-million dollars in water bills, and their total project costs were about $140,000 to $150,000. That’s not an unusual story.
Doug Hart Founder and President, Watershed Technologies
“We are able to save people quite a lot on gas and water. Very often we find savings in the range of twenty to forty percent [in terms of] gas and water consumption,” states Watershed Founder and President Doug Hart. “There’s one group we started working for a couple years ago. In four of their buildings that we worked on, they’ve saved over half-a-million dollars in water bills, and their total project costs were about $140,000 to $150,000. That’s not an unusual story.”
A patented proprietary system called Interval Data Optimization (IDO) is central to the company’s work with natural gas heating. Years in the making, IDO “is a new methodology we developed for controlling building heating and cooling systems. It’s largely applicable to multi-residential buildings,” he notes. “It’s a control methodology that uses interval data. Instead of just looking at temperatures, we look at gas consumption every day. We use this energy monitoring to guide the control of the building.”
IDO technology allows Watershed to fine-tune building automation controls. This approach can “radically improve building performance and eliminate or reduce overheating which is common in older apartment buildings,” Hart continues.
The company’s water conservation services, meanwhile, blend scientific analysis with common-sense observations. “At three o’clock in the morning, you don’t expect too much activity going on with water consumption. Normally we should see quite a drop in water consumption in the night. If we don’t see that, it gives us a good idea we’re looking at leaks. We have a parameter called a leakage ratio,” says Hart. “We track that variable over time. If we see the leakage ratio gradually increasing over months and years, then we know there’s an opportunity for conservation. By going into the building and fixing all the leaks, you can save a lot of water.”
Other services include energy auditing, utility monitoring, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system recommissioning. The company conducts intensive research and development and manages some renewable energy and co-generation projects as well.
Energy audits are geared toward clients who want a broad picture of “what the building is doing,” he says. During an energy audit, Watershed staff members “go through all the mechanical, electrical, and water systems in the building.”
Energy consumption is measured and data compiled. Watershed employees will then sit down and determine the expense of implementing specific energy conservation measures (such as replacing or repairing old infrastructure) versus costs incurred by doing nothing. Results are passed to building owners to give them “an idea of what the return on investment is,” says Hart.
With this information in hand, building owners will have a better sense of whether potential savings outweigh the initial expense of implementing energy conservation measures.
Utility monitoring, meanwhile, is a service that the company has offered for over two decades. It has developed an online software program called EnergyBrain to enhance its utility monitoring capabilities. The program links utility meters in a building to the Internet, so information can be transmitted online and examined on computers at Watershed headquarters.
Hart describes EnergyBrain “as kind of a repository for data.” This includes hourly information about building energy consumption and weather reports from local airports. Weather data gives the company more insights into how a building is performing, energy-wise.
Clients can access the system to view utility use statistics. Watershed uses the data from this and other sources to create predictive models.
“We have a model that predicts how much energy a building should be using, and we compare that on an ongoing basis to actual energy use. Things should be pretty much in-line. If there’s a deviation, that means something’s gone off the rails a bit or maybe a lot. We can raise an alarm and go find solutions. It could be a water leak or a control sensor that failed. We track data hourly to get a very good handle on what’s happening in the building. It brings in a level of science to the whole area of building management,” Hart explains.
Watershed also recommissions HVAC systems. Staff will test these systems for factors such as flow rate and investigate if all the valves and parts are working properly. Tweaks and upgrades are performed, and HVACs are returned to a state of optimal performance.
The company primarily serves customers in the Toronto area; however, it does make exceptions. “Some property management groups have properties across Canada, and they send us all over the place. We work from coast to coast. We’ve worked in Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. I would say eighty to ninety percent of our work is in Ontario and mostly in Toronto, but [we’re willing to do jobs] even if we have to fly to Halifax and get accommodation there for a little while,” he states.
Hart founded Watershed in 1977 as a solar thermal panel manufacturing and installation company. His timing was good; a few years earlier, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reduced oil output to Western nations in response to warfare and political unrest in the Middle East. This caused fuel prices in Canada and the U.S. to soar and greatly increased the popularity of energy alternatives such as solar power.
For a time, business boomed. Then, in the late 1980s, oil prices fell to new lows, and interest in solar power declined. Climate change was not on the public’s radar as people happily turned back to using oil and gas.
In response to these developments, Watershed transitioned. Instead of selling solar systems, a decision was made to focus on energy conservation. The company would become a leader in measuring and monitoring energy use in buildings and offering energy-saving solutions. It was a solid business strategy; regardless of whether a residence is powered by oil, gas, electricity, or solar energy, all building owners have an interest in reducing utility bills.
It no longer makes solar panels, but thanks to its experience in the sector, the company is sometimes called on to fix or manage solar systems.
At present, over ninety percent of Watershed’s work is conducted in the multi-residential building sector. Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), the agency responsible for social housing in the city, is a regular client. The firm also works for a wide variety of property management companies and occasionally takes an assignment at a shopping mall or public venue.
It does not typically provide services for private residences, and Hart advises homeowners who want to lower their utility bills should contact a company that specializes in house-based energy audits.
Watershed is at a critical moment in terms of its future development. It wants more people to use its unique Interval Data Optimization methodology but worries about becoming a corporate behemoth.
“We feel there is a huge opportunity for gas reduction and water saving. The big challenge now is how do we get our [IDO] technology out there so other people can benefit from it without growing into a big company ourselves? I think it is going to be through licensing or relationships with other groups,” says Hart. “We’ve been thinking about licensing the patent or having joint operations with another group, for example, a company in Montreal or New York or somewhere. Someone interested in this technology who has a customer base in a geographic area. We could help enhance their offering through our technology,” he says.
“We kind of like the small company environment. We’re about eight to ten people. It’s not too hierarchical. We’re all friends who work together. It’s a nice kind of management environment,” he adds.
Watershed does not do a huge amount of promotion. It does a bit of advertising and attended trade shows in the early days but finds itself too busy to visit trade events now. The company also does not want to diminish its reputation for quality service by taking on more work than it can handle.
“We also have a good revenue flow, good cash flow, and workflow. So, we’re not worried about increasing our size at the moment. We’re basically a small business,” states Hart.
In addition to “looking at licensing [IDO technology] with people in geographically different areas, the company plans to “look at potentially developing technology to integrate with other types of building automation systems. But this will take time. We’ve got a lot to learn,” he admits.
For now, Watershed will continue to do what it does best: use science and skill to reduce building utility bills and energy use. “It’s always nice to help people save on gas or water,” notes Hart.