Unlike the vast majority of people on the globe, we take water for granted and expect clean, safe, and virtually unlimited quantities to meet our cooking, bathing, washing, and irrigating needs. While our long history of public water delivery may explain our attitude of entitlement to water, the realities of climate change, persistent and frequent drought, and failing infrastructures are exerting an uncomfortable awareness that the free ride of this natural resource is about over. Changing perception to reduce waste, and increasing water efficiency has been, well, something like pushing water uphill. But lately, innovators in the water demand management arena have brought forth new technologies with creative strategies to meet the challenges, and they have proof it’s working.
The Big and Small Picture
After nearly two decades studying the science of water efficiency and water demand management, engineer Peter Mayer, P.E., founded Water Demand Management, a consulting firm that municipalities have more than one reason to love.
“I’ve spent my career focusing on where people use water in the urban setting: what are the effective methods of water conservation, where is water being lost, and what fixtures are the biggest users,” says Mayer. His company can provide utility customers the needed data to manage water resources through water use analysis, forecasting, conservation planning, water loss control, and more, all directed toward “improving the efficiency in managing and using water.”
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“Water is such an interesting field, as every system is different,” he explains. “Neighboring cities can be completely different in reliability and customer base, and this affects the pattern of demand.”
In analyzing water demand, Mayer says many of the same concepts apply across utilities, but it’s important to look at specifics since, “some cities might have one or two customers that dominate demand.”
He cites “unaccountable water” as a critically important factor in determining the scope and origins of water loss. “This varies–it can be a physical loss of water, such as leaks in the system from old pipes, or from equipment such as meters that are not registering accurately. Or, these losses may be an accounting problem, possibly from people stealing water. You have look carefully at every possible angle and account for all of it.”
Mayer says research cites toilets, clothes washers, showers, and faucets as the biggest homeowner uses. Although legislation, improved technologies, and national plumbing codes have reduced water use, getting people to change behavior about water requires more than a trip to the big box store and a pipe wrench.
Not My Problem!
“The barriers to behavior change vary because most people think it’s not their problem, it’s their neighbor’s, and this needs to be overcome. What I do is to help the utilities help their customers understand their own water use. If you are a family of four and see a use of 4,000 gallons of water, how do you know if that’s good or not?”
While Meyer’s company provides research, conservation planning, and a menu of consulting services for customers, he says it’s extremely important to be concerned about customer satisfaction.
Measuring the rate impact of conservation to demonstrate value to the constituency is as important as implementing conservation strategies, so the City of Westminster, CO, asked Meyer to design a study that would look at what their costs would have been had they never implemented certain infrastructure and conservation measures nearly three decades ago.
“What our report found was the water rates of today would have been 90% higher if there had not been the conservation measures in place. The city was thrilled to have this information because they hadn’t quantified this before, and here was clear evidence that the spend for conservation measures provides significant financial benefit.”
The Psychology of Changing Behavior
Jeffrey Lipton, spokesperson for WaterSmart Software, is an enthusiastic believer that the company’s big data analytics, derived from cutting-edge technology, create the perfect platform to change people’s minds about conserving water.
Founded in 2009 by Peter Yolles, a water specialist with the Nature Conservancy for 25 years, the California-based company was a winner of Imagine H2O’s inaugural Water Efficiency Prize in March 2010. Working with utility companies, Lipton says their WaterSmart Software creates an individualized “water score” for each household based on their unique comprehensive data collection process.
This personalized information becomes the incentive to change users’ perception and behavior toward water use, and echoes Mayer’s beliefs that, “Everyone has a need to improve their relationships with their customers.”
Lipton observes that the psychology to engage and motivate homeowners to conserve water and improve efficiency is not, “as you might think, sparked by financial incentives, or even communications about environmental benefit and conservation. These seem like they would work to get people to be more mindful of water use, but what we found is that a personalized home water score, something they can compare with their neighbor’s, is what works.” He says the score taps into “peer pressure mode,” to induce behavior change.
Customized Recommendations for All
Lipton explains that basic household data is provided from the utility, then augmented with public records, inputs from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies to create a model of each individual household that includes number of occupants, bedrooms, bathrooms, and outside irrigable areas. Lipton says the data is analyzed to assess just where water is being used. Once WaterSmart compiles the report it goes to the utility. The utility then sends it, separate from the water bill, to a household customer as an individualized “water report card.”
“We make sure our reports reflect what we believe is an accurate profile and tell customers, “˜based on historical data, we believe there are two people in this household, and you water a 1,200-square-foot lawn. If this is incorrect, please log onto the website and correct the information.”’
Also included in the water report are recommendations for water-saving actions that he says can be behavioral, such as taking shorter showers or turning off the faucet while brushing teeth, or there may be suggestions to change out fixtures or implement technologies.
“We can suggest they install low-flow toilets if they have older fixtures, install a timer for lawn watering, or [install] more efficient showerheads. We also tell the customer how much water they can be saving on a gallon-per-day use with these changes, and project what their annual cost savings would be if they implemented them.”
The individualized report is available to the homeowner online so they can see how they score as compared with their neighbors, plus how their neighborhoods score as compared with others locally. But the biggest benefits from the WaterSmart Software service is realized from personalizing information. Lipton says the customized messaging triples the engagement between the customer and the utility and improves communications overall. Audits of the process find that customer satisfaction doubles as a result. It’s a win-win for everyone.
“Most water utilities are governed by elected boards and these are people who want happy people to vote for them,” he says.
And when customers are happy, they may be less resistant to change.
Tipping Point to Change
While news of escalating water prices is not welcome to any utility customer, Lipton says system upgrades to our infrastructure are essential and inevitable. “We’ve been overusing water, and we don’t pay enough for water,” he explains. “Everyone agrees there is a base amount of water each person has a human right to, but in times of water stress new incentives, such as tiers of usage, must be implemented.”
These incentive strategies are not a popular board decision, but Lipton says, “It’s not a human right to be hosing off your car for free; you should be paying for that incremental water.”
He adds, “Historically the embedded infrastructure [cost] has been borne by society, borrowing from the public such as a water bond, but communities aren’t running a for-profit business so the costs are not recovered. As a consequence, everyone gets cheap water with no incentives to prevent you from using as much as you want.”
Lipton says upgrades are critically needed, especially in older cities, but will come at a steep price, “something like a trillion dollars over the next 20 years,” and customers are storming town meetings demanding to know why their water bills are still rising, in spite of conservation measures.
The dilemma, Lipton explains, “is that water is priced on what they sell, and conservation means they sell less water.”
But as leakage gets worse, and the operational systems fail, investments are essential. He asserts that the WaterSmart Software offers indisputable evidence that when a utility improves its communication with customers, “it positions itself much better to increase rates to make those needed investments. What we have is an engagement platform, and we use the data to drive behavior change, but our overarching mission is not to have just short-term drought remediation, but to really try to change the way the world uses water.”
Hurry Up and Rinse!
Nobody really wants to take a short shower. But when low-flow showerheads were mandated in 1972, “they weren’t redesigning the fixture, just putting in restrictors and reducing the flow,” says David Malcom, showerhead innovator and president of High Sierra Showerheads.
“Back then, what happened was you got a four-gallon-a-minute showerhead, put in a restrictor, and, as you can imagine, there wasn’t much force. And it wasn’t very satisfying; people just ended up taking longer showers.”
In the ’90s, Malcom says the need to save water launched another showerhead redesign, but, this time, the holes just got smaller, and then smaller again.
“There was water coming out of 100 different holes, but they were a big problem with mineral clogging. I decided then that it was important to make a low-flow rate showerhead that felt like a high flow-rate, and one that could eliminate the problem of mineral clogging.”
With a career in the irrigation business in agriculturally rich Fresno, CA, Malcolm possessed the perfect combination of experience, mechanical know-how, and the flexibility of family business innovation to migrate the solutions his father had designed for the irrigation industry to the showering device.
From Broccoli to Bathrooms
Most of the water in California is used to grow crops, Malcolm explains. “About 75% of water used is for agriculture.” But, he adds, “when people point fingers at farmers overusing water, nothing could be further from the truth.
“The most advanced conservation devices are first developed in agriculture for farmers, and then transition to homeowners. Some of the greatest water saving products we enjoy today as consumers were first designed for agriculture, such as drip irrigation, and pop-up lawn sprinklers.”
And now, showerheads.
“Back in the ’60s, my dad started a company and developed a unique specialty nozzle for agricultural irrigation, which was very successful. After he passed away, I used his techniques and got into golf course irrigation, and then we recently made the transition into showerheads.”
High Sierra Showerheads is doing a brisk business filling commercial orders and supplying military installations, colleges, and institutions, but Malcom says, “I’ve always looked at the consumer market to be the biggest market for us. Everyone has a shower and everyone wants to save money on their water bill.” Now keeping up with the Web-based consumer sales is an exciting challenge boosted by numerous media stories praising the product’s performance.
He says the patented showerhead he designed is based on a premise completely different from anything else on the market.
“Our Full Coverage Spray (FCS) nozzle takes whatever water pressure you have and breaks that into a stream that is delivered in what we call “˜big drops,’ so it feels like a much higher pressure shower than the 1.5 gallon per minute it really is.”
Some customers were concerned that their home’s low water pressure would affect performance, but Malcolm says the unique design “works with whatever water pressure you have and gives the same result.
“We don’t allow more than 15 psi to go into the fixture, and everyone says it is superior to a 2.5-gallon-per-minute showerhead. In fact, our fixture works best at 1.5 gallons a minute, but it feels like it’s much, much more.”
But there’s more benefit in this water-conserving device than meets the eye, or, bar of soap.
More Spray, Less Heat, Quick Payoff
“As a rule, a family of four can reduce their water flow rate by 40%, and that can reduce your water charge by a couple of hundred a year. And, you also save energy because you are using less heat source to heat that water, so you save on those bills, too.”
The fixtures are manufactured from start to finish in his Fresno factory, with high-quality, durable materials such as chrome-plated solid brass and stainless steel. Malcolm reminds people that if they think it’s more expensive than the usual showerhead at the big box store, they are not only buying a high-quality unit, but one that will save them money immediately and will last for many years.
“I remind people that if you put in solar panels you might get a payoff in 10 years; a low-flow toilet takes a couple of years, but this is practically an immediate savings you can see in your utility bills.
To underscore the product’s capabilities, Malcolm says the showerhead will be marketed as a certified WaterSense fixture before the end of the year, having met EPA specifications for water efficiency and performance–requirements which, he says, “we actually exceed!”
During this year’s International Water Day on March 22nd of this year, the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE) celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the 1994 Energy Policy Act. The AWE announced that the benchmark legislation has resulted in the US realizing a savings of 18 trillion gallons of water from installation of more efficient toilets, which they said “is equivalent to a 20- year water supply water for Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.” The water efficient toilets are now saving us an average of 4.6 billion gallons of water each day.
Keeping It Green, Wirelessly
Most people are surprised when they hear that “the biggest waste of urban water is landscape irrigation,” says Chris Spain, CEO of HydroPoint Water Systems whose flagship product, called WeatherTRAK, is a high-tech device that wirelessly monitors and manages landscape irrigation. Spain says that where other industries used the innovations of the information technology revolution to streamline and improve business systems, “the world of landscape had somehow, miraculously avoided it.”
He describes the “freight train fate of water in the world, and lack of data about water” as his motivation to focus on the inefficiencies of urban landscape irrigation, which he says is burdened with “a huge 60 to 70% of water wasted from leaks, overwatering, and poor management.”
These problems cause pollution to the watershed, erosion to foundations and damage to the landscape. Spain says it was their persistent try-and-try-again learning curve during development to create sustainable, remediating techniques that finally led to success.
“It’s a cascading force, that once you bring in a set of solutions that helps you get smart, you get smarter.” Today’s efficiency of their WeatherTRAK product is the culmination of more than 10 years of trial and error, and “a constant refinement collecting, analyzing and delivering data.”
The HydroPoint capability, simply bannered in one sentence on their website as “Bringing proven water conservation tools, real-time data, and water expertise to our residential, commercial, and utility customers,” is, however, far from simple, Spain says.
A Customized Subscription With Daily Weather News
“Everyone is drowning in data and to make this work data needs to be meaningful, accurate, visible, and dynamic to reflect the day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour, weather and climate changes, even microclimate changes just a mile apart,” continues Spain.
In many places landscape irrigation is still in the dark ages operating with a mechanical timer that the homeowner or property owner controls manually.
“You see a lot of sprinklers operating in a downpour, they pop up on schedule whether the landscape needs it or not,” he says. Moreover, some parts of the landscape needs more water than others; some areas are shaded; some areas have less drainage and retain moisture.” The result, he says, is rampant water waste and inefficiency.
HydroPoint WeatherTRAK customers who subscribe to the system are provided the appropriate WeatherTRAK hardware and wireless receivers, whether they are a single homeowner, a golf course, hotel, or other commercial property. Spain explains that a staggering eight million data sets of information are collected each day, stored in cloud systems, and information that is specific to each customer is wirelessly sent to their WeatherTRAK unit. The unit controls the irrigation process of how much water, when to irrigate, and how often. Plus, it knows the type of plants being watered, soil type, slope, and type of sprinklers being used.
The information that drives the optimal irrigation comes from multiple sources including the HydroPoint Climate Center which uses computer-generated climate models that deliver daily local information that Spain says is so precise, “it is accurate to within one kilometer of your location. We also get wireless transmission of real-time information from thousands of other public and private weather sources across the US such as NOAA, atmospheric readings, information from ocean buoys, Doppler Radar, and more–and all of these are validated for accuracy every day by our team of climate scientists.”
Merging Skill Sets, Creating Awareness
In efforts to conserve water, Spain says large corporation customers, like Coca-Cola, Lockheed, and Walmart, can have hundreds of WeatherTRAK stations on their properties, each being fed the correct irrigation schedule wirelessly. Moreover, he boasts that the product creates a real visibility to landscape irrigation and brings people together who might otherwise never interact in collaboration toward water management.
He says, “You start intersecting facility managers, sustainability officers, water agencies, builders, people on the ground in maintenance, and they’re all on the same page with a common goal. Most of the time the companies had no visibility as to what was going on. Our product has been transformative to a water expense that was virtually unrecognized.”
And there’s solid proof it works as success stories continue to roll in. One Arizona hotel chain estimates their annual golf resort properties’ water bill was slashed by six figures with the installation of the WaterTRAK. In Sunnyvale, CA, the corporate campus of Lockheed Martin found their 500-acre property being overwatered by 30–300%, causing runoff, pollution problems, and potential structural problems, with a wasted 126 million gallons of water that could cost over seven figures.
Sustaining the Resource
Despite the concerns that inspire an artistic statement such as the quirky Broadway smash hit Urinetown, where an Orwellian-style world struck by a catastrophic water shortage requires the use of pay toilets, and prison if you can’t pay, or the sobering reports of water experts, Spain observes that we take an almost ostrich in the sand approach and persist in being wasteful.
“You buy a bottle of water and a bottle of soda,” he says. “If you open the soda, you’ll probably finish it. But how many people leave a half or more of an open bottle of water unfinished? How many bottles of half used water do we see every day?
“When we go into a corporation, we don’t talk about irrigation, we talk about conservation, and right in front of our eyes is this huge amount of waste.”
Nonetheless, Spain is positive about the future outcomes. “Ultimately, if you have a scoreboard of objective data, you help people work together, and work better.”