Environmental guidance for your business in Northern Ireland & Scotland

Water use and efficiency

The UK has a wet climate, but some parts of the country have less water available per person than countries such as Greece or Spain. By 2050, climate change could reduce the amount of water available by 10-15 per cent.

Demand for water continues to increase, so it's vital that you use water wisely. This means working out how much you use and putting simple measures in place to cut water use, which has the added benefit of cutting costs. You can also reduce the indirect costs of water use such as the energy used for heating, pumping and treatment.

This guide explains when a business needs authorisation to take or store water, how to apply for one, and how to analyse the quantity of water you use. It also covers the benefits of cutting down your water use, gives you tips for saving water and describes the financial support available for introducing water efficiency measures.

How much money can your business save?

Use the savings calculator to see what your business can save on bills by putting in place some straightforward efficiency measures.

The calculator links to the Resource Efficient Scotland website where free help is available for businesses in Scotland.

For our Northern Ireland users we have links to the equivalent organisations that will provide a similar service.

The savings calculator

Additional resources

Watch our short video:

How to harvest rainwater for your business

Over the past 20 years demand for water has risen steadily. Using water, especially hot water, uses energy and causes emissions of greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. You should use water more efficiently to help ensure everyone's needs continue to be met in the future.

All businesses can benefit from using water efficiently. In manufacturing, water bills can cost over 1 per cent of turnover. Most businesses could halve their water bill by implementing simple and economical water minimisation measures.

You could be paying more for water and associated costs than you need to. The cost of using water isn't only what you pay to the water company for its supply. Other costs to your business may include:

  • disposal of your wastewater, either as a percentage of the amount of water you use or by the strength of your effluent
  • losses due to leaks and wasteful appliances
  • the energy you use to heat or cool water
  • wasting water, eg excessive washing down
  • pumping and storing
  • heating
  • capital depreciation of and maintaining equipment and infrastructure
  • materials or products lost in wastewater, for example metals lost by poor control at metal plating facilities
  • meter size charges.

Using less water may mean that you can rely fully on the mains supply and not have to pay for a licence to abstract water from the environment. You should review which option is best for your business as you may not need to use high quality mains water for all your activities, for example cooling.

How much money could you save?

You could save up to 30 per cent of your water costs through simple, low cost actions, eg fixing a leak from a single cold water tap could save you up to £900 per year.

There are also non-financial benefits of using water efficiently. Suppliers and customers are increasingly environmentally conscious, demanding that businesses use natural resources sustainably. By demonstrating your water efficiency you can attract and retain customers and employees. You can also create interest from investors, stakeholders and the media by showing that your business is well managed.

For financial help on water-saving initiatives, see the page in this guideline: Finance and support for water efficiency measures.

The only way to gauge the true cost of your water use is by analysing it systematically. You should:

  • study your water bills - do this over the previous two or three years noting the annual consumption and cost
  • identify any trends or patterns - you may be able to pick out seasonal variations
  • involve your staff, eg you could get them to complete a water use survey
  • produce a water balance - this is a numerical account of where water enters and leaves your business and where it is used
  • carry out a benchmarking exercise and compare your water use to other businesses in your industry sector.

Wrap Northern Ireland: Tracking water use to cut costs

Resource Efficient Scotland has produced a series of free, online training modules for SMEs. The training will help develop the skills and knowledge needed to put in place effective resource efficiency measures in your business. They deal with energy, waste and water efficiency. You can work through them at your own speed, choosing the modules that are relevant to your business.

Resource Efficient Scotland: Green Champions Training

Once you have identified the amount of water your business uses and where you use it, you should identify where you can make savings. Lowering your utility bills will save you money and give you a competitive edge.

You could draw up a plan that details how you will reduce your water use and when the improvements will be carried out.

If you have an environmental management system in place, you may have already analysed your water-use patterns.

Environmental management systems (EMS) and environmental reports

Further information

Northern Ireland water: Water saving information

Business Stream: Guide to creating a water efficient business

Minimising water use in your business can require financial commitment. However, many measures are cheap and simple to implement and could potentially save you up to 30 per cent of your water costs. You could:

  • Only use water when you need to. Record how much water your business uses on a daily or weekly basis to understand your demands. This will help you decide the best ways to save water and money. If you abstract water it will also help you comply with the conditions of your authorisation.
  • Educate staff about implementing water-efficiency measures. You could include their roles and responsibilities in a water policy statement, eg to report leaking taps straight away.
  • Get buy-in from management and involve staff with responsibility for facilities, finance and operations in water minimisation measures from the outset. This may form part of an existing environmental policy
  • Appoint a member of staff to monitor water use and identify minimisation opportunities, eg by doing a regular walk-round survey of your business and reading water meters. If parts of your business use a lot of water, consider installing sub-meters. See the page in this guideline: How to analyse how much water you use.
  • Buy water efficient new equipment. This may mean a larger initial investment, but it will pay off in the long term. See the page in this guideline: Finance and support for water efficiency measures.
  • Protect against cold weather-related leaks by insulating pipes and checking them regularly.
  • Investigate alternative water sources, eg harvesting rainwater through a roof catchment or reusing wastewater from wash basins and showers, known as greywater. Once captured, you can use the water where non-drinking water is required, for example to flush toilets.
  • Fit water-minimising controls, eg push taps, low-flush toilets, flow regulators or restrictors. The payback period for installing flush controls on urinals can be as little as five weeks.
  • Review your plans to reduce water use, ideally at least once a year.
  • Consider treating your wastewater to reuse it for industrial uses, toilet flushing and irrigation which do not require water fit for drinking. Using less treated drinking water will save you money.
  • Check your meter size is appropriate to the amount of water you use. If it is larger than you need, you will pay your water supplier more than necessary.
  • Check your meter location and the supplies it measures, eg in industrial and business parks where a neighbouring business may be supplied through your meter. Also check that your meter serial number matches the number on your bills and that you are being billed for your own meter.
  • Fix drips and leaks as quickly as possible.

Your water supplier can provide you with advice on saving water. You can also compare costs and services provided by different suppliers.

Northern Ireland Water: Water and waste services

Scotland on Tap: Water suppliers

The Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme enables you to deduct the whole cost of your investment in water-saving technologies and products from your profits in the tax year that you make the purchase. The scheme is available to businesses that pay UK corporation tax or income tax, and that have enough profits for the allowance to be written off against.

You can claim the allowance when you buy any of the products that appear on the water technology list (WTL). The WTL includes water efficient products from taps to industrial cleaning and leak detection equipment.

Manufacturers and suppliers that wish to include their products on the WTL must meet certain qualifying criteria. The WTL symbol can be used to promote products for sales and marketing purposes.

The following technology areas are included on the WTL:

  • cleaning-in-place equipment - ie monitoring and control equipment, and spray devices
  • efficient showers - ie aerated showerheads, auto shut-off showers, flow regulators, low-flow showerheads and thermostatic controlled showers
  • efficient taps - ie automatic shut-off taps, electronic taps, low-flow screw-down/lever taps and spray taps
  • efficient toilets - ie low-flush toilets, retrofit WC flushing devices and urinal controls
  • efficient washing machines - ie efficient commercial and industrial washing machines
  • flow controllers - ie control and flow-limiting devices
  • leakage detection equipment - ie data loggers, pressure-reducing valve controllers, and remote meter-reading and leak-warning devices
  • meters and monitoring equipment - ie flow meters and water management software
  • rainwater harvesting equipment - ie monitoring and control equipment, rainwater filtration equipment and rainwater storage vessels
  • small-scale slurry and sludge dewatering equipment - ie belt press, centrifuge and filter press equipment
  • vehicle-wash water reclaim units - ie partial or full reclaim systems
  • water efficient industrial cleaning equipment - ie scrubber/driers (walk-behind and ride-on machines) and steam cleaners
  • water management equipment for mechanical seals - ie seal water recycling units, internal flow regulators, and monitoring and control units
  • water reuse systems

GOV.UK: Enhanced Capital Allowance - technology list and criteria

To be eligible for the ECA, the product must be on the WTL at the time you buy it - you cannot claim an ECA on a product that is added to the WTL after you purchased it.

New products are added to the WTL on the first day of every month. The criteria for the WTL may be reviewed annually and can include the introduction of new technologies.

WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) provides structured information and support to businesses to help them achieve water efficiency savings in Northern Ireland.

Zero Waste Scotland provides structured information and support to businesses to help them achieve water efficiency savings in Scotland.

Wrap Northern Ireland: Tracking water use to cut costs

Resource Efficient Scotland: Implement a water minimisation programme

Scotland: Hydronation water innovation service

Watch our short video:

How to harvest rainwater for your business

You must have authorisation from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to abstract water from:

  • surface waters such as rivers, lakes and wetlands
  • coastal waters, ie water within three nautical miles of land
  • transitional water, such as estuaries and water in the vicinity of river mouths
  • underground strata such as wells, boreholes and springs.

You may also need authorisation from the NIEA if you own, operate, maintain or plan an impoundment, such as a reservoir, which is used to store water.

Apply for an abstraction authorisation

Abstracting less than 10 cubic metres (m³) of water a day with minimal risk to the environment is called a permitted controlled activity (PCA). You don't need to contact the NIEA, but you must:

  • be able to demonstrate the volume of water you abstract
  • minimise water leaks
  • prevent any contamination or pollution.

If you take between 10m³ and 20m³ a day, you must notify the NIEA and comply with PCA conditions.

If you abstract more than 20m³ you need an abstraction licence from the NIEA. You will need a:

  • simple licence if you abstract between 20m³ and 100m³ of water per day
  • complex licence if you abstract more than 100m³ of water per day.

Both licences may be subject to conditions such as the maximum rate at which you can abstract water and the maximum volume you can take in any day.

Apply for an impoundment authorisation

You can impound water without contacting the NIEA as long as your impoundment:

  • does not control the water level upstream
  • is not associated with an abstraction of water
  • does not create a difference in height of more than one metre between the upstream and downstream water surfaces.

You will need an impoundment licence from the NIEA to impound water in all other circumstances.

The NIEA can review, modify or remove a licence if the licence holder requests it, or to prevent significant or serious damage to the environment. You may also need to submit an environmental statement to the NIEA before starting projects that use more than 200m³ of water per day, for example agricultural spray irrigation.

NIEA: How to apply for an abstraction or impoundment licence

DAERA has produced a handbook is for landowners and people and organisations involved in carrying out activities that may alter the physical characteristics or flows of rivers and other waterbodies. The activities covered include dredging and substrate addition, removal of bankside vegetation, bed and bank reinforcements, flow manipulation and culverting.

DAERA: Surface Waters Alterations Handbook

Contact your environmental regulator

QPA: Guidance for the Wise Use of Water in the Aggregates and Quarry Producers Industry

If you take or store surface water or groundwater from any source, you are abstracting or impounding water. These activities are controlled through three levels of authorisation, according to the degree of risk to the water environment:

  • general binding rules (GBRs) - low environmental risk
  • registrations - low environmental risk
  • licences - high environmental risk.

Comply with general binding rules

You must comply with GBRs if you abstract:

  • less than 10m³ of water per day
  • less than 150m³ of water in a year from a borehole for the purpose of testing the yield of the borehole or the water quality

You do not need to contact the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), but you must comply with the rules specific to your activity.

See The Water Environment (Miscellaneous) (Scotland) Regulations 2017 guidance page for information on the GBRs.

Register abstractions

You must register with SEPA if you want to abstract:

  • between 10m³ and 50m³ per day from inland surface waters, or groundwater
  • more than 10m³ per day from coastal or transitional water, eg estuaries
  • from lochs when the full amount is to be returned to the same loch.

Discounts are available if you apply online.

SEPA: Applications for authorisations

Apply for an abstraction licence

If you abstract between 50m³ and 2,000m³ per day, you will need a simple licence. If you abstract more than 2,000m³ per day you will need a complex licence.

You will have to pay for your licence when you submit your application.

SEPA: Charging scheme for controlled water activities

You will need to apply to SEPA for your licence. If there is a high environmental risk to the water environment, your water use licence will set out specific controls for the site.

Apply for an impoundment licence

If you carry out impoundment activities you must have a licence from SEPA. However, you can continue to operate weirs that existed before 1 April 2006 and where the sole purpose is to raise the water level upstream, as long as:

  • the height difference between the upstream and downstream water surfaces is one metre or less
  • the water level upstream cannot be varied
  • there is no impact on the migratory passage of salmon or sea trout.

You should already have a water use licence from SEPA for all other existing weirs and before you build any new weirs or dams.

You should also take steps to secure efficient and sustainable water use. See the page in this guideline: Tips for saving water.

Register reservoirs

If you have a reservoir that is capable of holding more than 25,000m³ of water above natural ground level, you must register it with SEPA. You must also appoint a panel engineer to supervise and inspect it.

Scottish Government: Reservoir safety

GOV.UK: Reservoir Panel engineers

Contact your environmental regulator

This page provides links to the full text of key pieces of environmental legislation relating to water use and efficiency. The websites hosting the legislation may list amendments separately.

If you are setting up an environmental management system (EMS) for your business, you can use this list to start compiling your legal register. Your legal adviser or environmental consultant will be able to tell you if other environmental legislation applies to your specific business.

Environmental Management Systems (EMS) and environmental reports

Water use and efficiency legislation Northern Ireland

Water (Northern Ireland) Order SI 1999/662 Enables the Department of the Environment (DoE) to make provisions to control the abstraction and impoundment of water.

Water Abstraction and Impoundment (Licensing) Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2006/482 Sets out a control regime for regulating the abstraction of water from underground strata and waterways and for constructing, altering or operating impounding works.

Water Abstraction and Impoundment (Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2007/122 Amend 2006/482. Provides for a water undertaker to be notified of any licence applications made to the Department and for the water undertaker to make representations to the Department within 28 days.

Water Resources (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2005/32 Outlines measures for public participation in creating plans or programmes relating to the environment.

Water Resources (Environmental Impact Assessment) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2006/483 Amends 2005/32 as a result of Water Abstraction and Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, outlining measures for public participation in creating plans or programmes relating to the environment.

Water and Sewerage Services (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order SI 2006/1946 Enables the DoE to introduce controls on water abstraction and impounding and sets out rules on information sharing about water and sewerage charges.

Water use and efficiency legislation Scotland

Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003 Sets out duties and powers of public authorities to protect the water environment and to regulate potential polluting activities, and sets up river basin management districts.

Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations SSI 2011/209 Replaces 2005/348 (as amended). Increases the transparency and efficiency of processing applications for water use licences, and introduces greater flexibility to deal with emergency situations where there are imminent risks of serious harm to people, property or the environment.

The Water Environment (Controlled Activities)(Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2013 These regulations amend the rules governing a number of activities that affect the water environment, including works close to or in watercourses, certain agricultural activities and the storage and use of pesticides.

The Water Environment (Miscellaneous) (Scotland) Regulations 2017

The Regulations amend existing general binding rules (GBRs) 3, 9 to 13, 15, 17 to 20, 23 and 24, and inserts new GBRs 25 to 28. Consolidate the oil storage regulations into the Controlled Activities Regulations (CAR) and extend them to include storage in depots for the onward distribution of oil.

Water (Scotland) Act 1980 Sets out general duties and powers of the statutory water undertaker in Scotland to supply water, maintain water quality, and conserve and protect water resources.

NetRegs environmental legislation

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NIEA - Apply online

SEPA - Application forms