CHATAHOOCHEE HILLS & KENNESAW, GA. — Low-flow toilets, faucets and showerheads are the future of residential bathrooms throughout the Southern U.S. — the economics simply demand it. There are too many people, and not enough fresh water to go around.

According to an August 2009 issue of Metropolitan Atlanta’s Creative Loafing newspaper, Georgia officials estimate that conservation measures (such as replacing existing fixtures with low-flow models) are 27 times cheaper than building new reservoirs. In early February, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue announced the Green Water Stewardship Act of 2010 that mandates the use of high-efficiency plumbing products. More than 15 states and numerous municipalities have rebates available for purchasing high-efficiency toilets (you can use the American Standard Rebate Locator to learn if there is one in your area).

But consumers aren’t making the switch. The problem is one of public perception. According to Nick Marine, president of Marine Plumbing, Marietta, Ga., “When you say high-efficiency, people still get scared. When you say low-flow, the first thing they think of is a scrub brush on one side of the toilet and a plunger on the other.”

Nick Marine’s background in green technology and practices made his company, Marine Plumbing, the right choice for a mass retrofit project funded and supplied by American Standard Brands. The object was to demonstrate that the technology behind WaterSense-labeled products had advanced to the point where it could deliver customer satisfaction as well as water savings. For more details on the WaterSense label, click here.

Last fall, Marine Plumbing replaced 71 toilets, 96 faucets and 55 showerheads in 71 bathrooms belonging to 19 families in two Georgia developments: Serenbe, a planned sustainable community, Chatahoochee Hills and Chastain Lakes, an older suburb built in the late 1980s in Kennesaw.

Marine is a third-generation plumber (and — despite his name — a former Navy Chief) who first hung out his shingle in 1992. His new company started out doing commercial work for Home Depot stores and the Motel 6 hotel chain. Around 1999-2000 he began to get into solar installations, graywater recycling and started taking classes in green practices and technology. Over the past two years Marine Plumbing has taken on more and more tankless water heater installations and other energy- and water-efficiency projects.

Through it all, he’s had to struggle to stay small. “By staying small,” Marine said, “we’re able to provide better service, and we don’t lose faith with our customers.” He and his partner Tony Little, also a former Navy Chief, still do almost all the day-to-day work, from answering the phones to doing bids to the actual installation work. Last year, just the two of them completed more than 180 water heater installations.

Their warehouse isn’t open to the public — it’s just to pick-up and drop-off material. With the help of a specialty contractor in Chicago, their ace tile guy (the company does custom granite, travertine, etc.), and sometimes Nick Marine’s brother, Marine Plumbing is able to scale up to almost any size job without losing the agility and one-on-one contact of a small company.

Marine Plumbing still wouldn’t have gotten the retrofit job without GreenPlumbersUSA. “Don Devine, CEO of American Standard had the incredible vision to do this,” said Marine, “but he wouldn’t have selected us if we hadn’t gotten a license through GreenPlumbersUSA.”

GreenPlumbersUSA is a national training and accreditation program that assists plumbers in understanding their role in the environment and assists consumers through water-usage audits, tips on reducing usage and guidance on current government rebates for plumbing fixtures. American Standard Brand is a founding partner of GreenPlumbersUSA, and naturally wanted to work through the program on the retrofit project.

Nick Marine had to take an extensive exam and offer proof of the many hours of classes he had participated in, but by the end of the process he was licensed as a Green Plumber — and was told to his surprise he was the first licensed Green Plumber in the state of Georgia. Marine said his reaction was, “Wow! I just didn’t realize we’d completed all the courses necessary.”

It’s been a long trip for a man who admitted, “Tony and I, being ex-military and pro-Republican, we were initially a little scared of the green movement, of being labeled one thing or another. But being green doesn’t mean you hold with one party or another, it just means doing what’s right for the environment.”

Much like some of the technology he promotes, Marine said, “We’ve had to fight a battle over perception for years.”

In choosing where to conduct the program, Serenbe, which has been a showcase community for the sustainable living movement, was a natural pick. Nick Marine suggested Chastain Lakes, knowing that the suburb, being in Cobb County and constructed before 1992, was eligible for $100 rebates on low-flow toilet installations. Marine reached out through a friend, a realtor and resident in the neighborhood, Peg Gready, and she had little trouble rounding up volunteers.

After the Chastain Lakes installation was done, “I filled out the [rebate] claims for every single toilet,” Marine said. “It was an extra surprise for them, after they received all new faucets, all new showerheads, new toilets, and then to get this credit there on their water bill.”

Doing the actual installation work for the nine families in Serenbe and the 11 families in Chastain Lakes took Marine Plumbing about a week and a half. “It was the front end and the back end that was hardest,” Marine explained. “Getting access to the homes, covering carpets and staircases, that sort of thing.”

The biggest challenge of the project may have simply been getting all the materials to the job site.

“It was just Tony and I,” Marine said, “and my brother came in one weekend to help us receive the material. Just imagine, eight pallets got shipped to the American Standard HQ in Marietta, then we had to have everything inventoried from there and put in a pod and shipped to the site so we could work out of the pod.” All of that doesn’t factor in time spent on the phone, on e-mail and meeting with homeowners and engineers.

But the results have been worth it. Tommy Linstroth, a water-savings expert and principle at Savannah, Ga.-based Trident Sustainability Group was retained to measure pre- and post-water savings and report them on his blog. Linstroth documented at least a 20% collective savings in overall water usage at Serenbe, a savings that has remained consistent over a two month period.

At Chastain Lakes, Linstroth documented at least a 25% savings from the retrofit, working with only one month of water usage data.

“We would expect results in Chastain to be higher, since there were still old toilets in those homes,” Linstroth said. “But our numbers get diluted because of all the other fixtures in the house — irrigation, clothes washing, dishwashing, etc. – they all bring down our totals.” Linstroth plans to release a second report later this spring after amassing more data from the participating homeowners.

What can’t be quantified are the levels of satisfaction the volunteer homeowners are experiencing.

“We absolutely love our new fixtures, our showerheads seem to have better water pressure and we are conserving water now,” reported Serenbe resident Dallas Nevins two months after installation. “We have been super pleased and surprised with how well the American Standard toilets flush.”

“I can’t tell any difference with the volume of water in the shower and sinks,” said Serenbe resident Tom Reed, “which is great. I was afraid I would get a dribble.”

It’s those kinds of personal stories that Nick Marine hopes will have a snowball effect that will be good for his business, good for consumers and ultimately good for the country. Even though his back and knees start to ache when he thinks about the job, he sees the value coming out of it far exceeding the effort he put in.

“To me,” Marine said, “that whole circle of people that we met, that was my real payback for the job.”