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Amy’s Kitchen is scrupulous about cleanliness at its main processing plant in southwest Santa Rosa.

It takes millions of gallons of water a month to clean the equipment used to cook, assemble and freeze the company’s vegetarian food before it is shipped all over the country, making Amy’s Kitchen one of the largest water users in the city.

But in the face of one of the worst droughts in state history, Amy’s has taken a hard look at its water use and has been surprised by what it has found.

With the help of a city-funded water audit and ideas solicited from its 800-strong workforce, Amy’s has been able to reduce its water use by 30 percent with minimal investment. That’s 1 million gallons of water saved per month, or the equivalent of 154 households.

“It’s really a part of the culture of this company now to be more efficient with water,” said Kevin Haslebacher, vice president of manufacturing for the Petaluma-based company.

Amy’s accomplishment is being hailed by city officials as an important step toward meeting the city’s communitywide goal of a 20 percent reduction in water use. It also demonstrates how big water users can have a significant impact on water use with relatively small changes in operations.

“This is a big customer stepping up and doing the right thing,” said David Guhin, the city’s director of utilities.

Amy’s began talking with the city in earnest about its water use after the expansion plans it announced last spring came with a preliminary price tag of $34 million in city fees alone.

The largest of those was a $31 million hookup fee for new water and wastewater service, a cost company officials have said was a “showstopper.” But the hookup fee did not reflect significant reductions in water use the city felt Amy’s could achieve with a close look at its plant operations and practices.

So the city and Amy’s agreed on a two-pronged approach: The city would hire an engineering firm to help the company get a better handle on its water use, and the company would internally review its practices at the 120,000-square-foot Northpoint Parkway plant.

The effort was a more complicated version of the water audits that the city does for all users, from apartment dwellers to major companies employing hundreds. The city is on track to perform nearly 1,200 such audits this year, a 50 percent increase from last year. In the first six months of the year, city staff performed audits for 520 single-family homes, 26 apartment buildings and 40 businesses.

But the city didn’t have anyone on staff with enough expertise in food manufacturing to meet Amy’s unique needs. So it hired the consulting firm of Brelje & Race to help out.

The first step was to figure out how much water Amy’s used and where it was used in the manufacturing process. The company had lots of data from its 13 internal water meters. But because some retrofitting had been done at the plant since Amy’s started operating there in 1994, it wasn’t clear what water was going to what processes.

“We weren’t really using the meters to our advantage,” Haslebacher said.

The firm helped Amy’s install five new internal water meters, and once those were online, the consultant began analyzing the data.

“They have been so busy doing their foods that no one has ever really looked at the data and crunched the numbers and mapped out what it all meant,” said Julian Kayne, an engineer from Brelje & Race who worked with Amy’s.

At the same time, Amy’s undertook an internal review of its water-use practices and launched an initiative to both educate workers and pick their brains about conservation efforts.

The education component was very basic, involving posters and slide shows with water-saving messages in English and Spanish.

“We didn’t overthink it,” said Nondas Vasiliou, plant engineer.

More importantly, the company had a worker talk one-on-one with employees about how they use water in their jobs and what ideas they had to use it more efficiently.

There were no prizes for the best ideas or raffles to gin up enthusiasm, just an authentic campaign asking employees for their help, Haslebacher said.

“At the end of the day, it’s just an accumulation of a lot of little ideas that really add up,” he said.

Several of the ideas that resulted in the biggest savings came from the cleaning crews. One involved how the company’s large mixing units are cleaned several times a day.

The three mixers, which are several thousand gallons each, used to be cleaned by nearly filling them up with water twice. Workers suggested that they could do just as good a job by filling the mixers the first time with just a few inches of water, running and scrubbing them to loosen any stuck food, and then performing the rest of the cleaning as normal, plant manager Eli Hamlin explained.

Other water-saving techniques were proposed by workers who run the plant’s massive dishwasher.

Workers had been in the habit of hosing down the large plastic baskets used to carry food from one area to another two times before each went into the dishwasher. But they realized the baskets used to carry tofu only needed to be pre-rinsed once and those used for baked goods not at all, Hamlin explained.

Similarly, a new rinsing technique is now used for the 32-gallon buckets used to move ingredients around the plant. Instead of hosing down the interior and exterior surfaces of each bucket with a wand, worker Hugo Calderon last week simply popped each bucket upside down into a high-pressure rinsing box that blasted it from all sides with hot water. Instead of 45 seconds, the new process takes just 10.

The new technique not only saved water but results in a process that is easier and safer for workers, Hamlin said.

“I think Amy’s is a great example of how you can effect change just by addressing behavior,” said Deb Lane, a water resources analyst for the city.

The engineers hired by the city came up with some practical solutions, too, Haslebacher said.

One was to expand the capacity of the system used to cool down large vessels of hot food. The plant already has closed-loop systems that pump cool water through the walls of large stainless steel tanks. The water doesn’t stay cool long, however, and fresh water is often added to keep the temperature down, Hamlin said. By adding more chilling units, less fresh water and more recycled water could be used for this purpose, he said.

Another was to change the way hot beans are dipped into cool water after they’re cooked. The way the plant has been doing it for years, water often sloshed over the side of the cooling tank and down the drain. A larger chilling tank would solve that problem, allowing more water to be reused, Hamlin said.

“We basically made them a map and said ‘You guys pick where you want to go,’ ” said Kayne, the consulting engineer.

The city hired Brelje & Race to perform such complex audits not just for Amy’s but for any company needing such detailed analysis. The Amy’s work cost about $14,000. Brelje & Race’s contract allows the city to spend up to $100,000 on the program, Guhin said.

The effort shows that the city isn’t just relying on residential users to reduce their irrigation and other practices, though that’s a big part of the current focus.

“We’ve got to attack this from every angle,” Guhin said.

Amy’s is now evaluating the changes proposed by the engineers and will have to run the numbers to see if they make sense. But the problem won’t just be looked at from a financial perspective, Haslebacher said.

While there are cost savings to the company from lower water and wastewater bills, that hasn’t been the main goal of the effort. If the company can make the same or even more product using less water, more water is available for others.

“This was not a cost-savings project,” Haslebacher said. “We want to use less water because it’s the right thing to do.”

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