Going with the flow

Going with the flow

WELS has had a significant impact on the plumbing supply sector, but is it enough to ensure ongoing compliance with standards? Terry Nguyen reports.

The Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) Scheme has been in operation for well over a decade now with results that suggest the initiative is definitely here to stay. WELS has reduced the water consumption of dwellings in Australia by considerable amounts, but have WELS registrants learned all the secrets of the ongoing compliance strategy?

WELS requires the mandatory certification and testing for water consumption of many plumbing fixtures and appliances to ensure efficient use of the precious commodity. The certification and testing is a once off check, which provides a ‘design freeze’ for the product under the premise that leaving its configuration unchanged will maintain its continued performance and compliance. While in principle this technique helps to keep compliance costs down, it comes at the cost of potential exploitation in a highly competitive market environment.

PROVE Standards & Engineering is a NATA-accredited laboratory that is required to perform continual proficiency testing on the same product against similarly accredited laboratories as an additional validation that the results are reproduceable and repeatable. In performing such testing, products are often sourced from the market where it is in a new condition to limit the amount of any effects or degradation from previous tests.

Most products purchased and tested between PROVE and other laboratories usually produce results consistent with the WELS label presented on its packaging, but not all of the time. On occasion, results from testing between the laboratories inadvertently reveal that the product is in fact non-compliant with current Australian Standards.

Easy targets can be simple products such as taps and showers which almost always rely on integral flow controllers to achieve the star rating being sought. Flow controllers are small and relatively inexpensive but are still an added cost to the final product. Exchanging carefully selected flow controllers to cheaper inferior alternatives can be an attractive proposition, particularly as it can be extremely difficult to detect. A shower packaged in a box with a flow restrictor fitted isn’t going to raise alarm bells.

Similarly, large overhead rain showers that appear identical to that which was initially tested may in fact be missing vital internal components that correctly distribute the water flow evenly to the outer nozzles rather than bias the majority of the flow through the centre. Small changes in the products’ construction all effect how efficiently the product works with direct impacts on overall water consumption. Multiplying this across all products nationally is likely to show a significant amount of unnecessary consumption, not to mention the increase in energy to heat the extra water.

Products can appear completely normal from the outside and it’s only when the product has been purchased, installed and used that problems may be realised, typically resulting in frustrated phone calls to plumbers from a customer for an explanation as to why their new fixtures are not performing.

Appliances, such as refrigerators and air conditioners, that are subject to mandatory energy efficiency standards are regularly retested to ensure ongoing compliance and surety to consumers on performance claims. With WELS now being in operation for well over a decade, perhaps it is time for the creation of a similar program to assist in rectifying a weakness in the scheme which looks to have been identified and targeted.

PROVE has had initial discussions with WELS where mutual benefits to all stakeholders can be shared in a carefully structured program. Effective check testing could be co-ordinated by the regulator where accredited laboratories would also meet their obligatory requirements for regular ongoing proficiency testing. The cost of testing is likely to be at no or very low cost for an activity that is already performed regularly by NATA-accredited laboratories.

A discussion paper of an independent review on the WELS scheme was published seven years ago highlighting the need for check testing; however, nothing yet has eventuated. With WELS looking to strengthen the compliance and enforcement areas of the scheme in the near future the concept of WELS and laboratories collaborating could have great potential.

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