Positive Feedback

Cloud-based software helps homeowners monitor and compare their water usage and take action, enabling their utility to cut consumption substantially.
Positive Feedback
An example of a print-format home report generated by the WaterSmart software.

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Customers adopting water efficiency practices and conservation programs from the East Bay Municipal Utility District enabled water usage to remain flat for 40 years despite a population increase of 300,000 (30 percent).

Nevertheless, Richard Harris, P.E., manager of water conservation for the district, based in Oakland, Calif., sought ways to save even more water. “People can’t manage what they can’t measure,” he says. “How to create that awareness is a challenge common to most utilities.”

In June 2012, the district agreed to a year-long pilot project to test the Home Water Reports service from WaterSmart Software. The Web-based data management tool gives homeowners periodic information on their water use, then compares it to how much they used in the past, the average use of similar households, and how much the most efficient similar households use.

In this first independent study of the software, sponsored by the California Water Foundation, a test group using the service reduced water use by 5 percent above a control group. “During the test period, the service saved 3,300 to 6,200 gallons per household,” says Harris.

The study also showed that those receiving Home Water Reports were twice as likely to take part in the district’s water conservation programs, which included rebates for high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers and incentives for water-saving landscape retrofits. They were more than six times as likely to request a home water conservation audit. Households that received their reports on paper performed slightly better than those who received them by email.

Assembling the players

The district’s two-county, 332-square-mile service area has 22 communities totaling 1.34 million customers. The area has three major regions. The flat western portion is influenced by San Francisco Bay and its fog belt. The hilly central region requires extensive pumping. The eastern portion has higher temperatures and a less dense population on larger lots. “Within a 30-mile radius, summer temperatures can differ by 30 degrees F,” says Harris.

The district’s conservation initiatives included a home survey kit to acquaint customers with their water use, standard residential water audits, giveaways of low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators and hose nozzles, and free dye tablets to help detect leaking toilets.

“We saw WaterSmart’s turnkey solution as a cost-effective way to engage all our customers, build their trust, and give them access to information they need to manage their water,” says Harris. The software uses the district’s billing and meter reading data to create personalized household water reports and dashboards that give customers feedback on their usage.

Communities in Castro Valley were selected as the test group. “We sent letters to 8,000 single-family households explaining the pilot program, then included their first Home Water Report in a separate mailing or email seven to 10 days after their most recent utility bill,” says Harris.

The district also identified 1,500 other participants from throughout its service area to bring the total test group to 9,500 households. The report gave owners the choice to opt out, but fewer than 0.1 percent did so. Another 5,000 single-family households were chosen from the Oakland area at random for the control group. They did not receive the reports.

A fresh view

Customers were encouraged to select electronic reports, which generally cost one-third as much to distribute as printed ones. Many did, and they also began using the program’s WaterInsight website. The home page summarizes water use relative to a peer group and recommends tips and tools to achieve the next level of water conservation. Other pages allow users to verify or update household information, track their usage in greater detail, and track the actions taken to reduce it.

“The portal allows customers to link to our conservation services, facilitate rebate applications, and save a survey report to use as a personal work plan for water-saving activities over the next three to six months,” says Harris. “Every 60 days, we forward our meter-reading data to WaterSmart, and they generate new target benchmarks for participants.”

During the pilot, the district distributed surveys via email and postal mail for participants’ reaction to statements about water use. “We received 2,600 replies, or a 21 percent response,” says Harris. “The survey helped us identify areas of customer interest, established baseline household demographics, and told us where to apply more resources and energy.”

Every two months, the district uses the portal to send messages about what it is doing, listing community events and offering additional conservation tips.

The technology often opened the eyes of those who believed they were doing a good job of conserving water. “We received numerous letters thanking us and detailing what participants had learned from the program,” says Harris. “We also had quite a few customers dramatically reduce their water use.”

On the horizon

Harris says he needs another year or two of data before he’ll know the true cost-benefit of the program. “On average, the annual cost of the Home Water Report service is about the same as the cost of a showerhead distribution program,” he says. “The cost is certainly lower than many other conservation measures, and the amounts conserved can defer the purchase of supplemental water or the capital expenditures to expand the supply.”

Harris estimates it costs $5 to $10 per account per year to deliver reports. The district has signed a three-year contract with WaterSmart to expand the program. The expansion projects 50,000 additional participants in fiscal 2015, 75,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017. “Our goal is to expand the program throughout our service area,” says Harris. “We want to cover every geographic subregion and multiple income levels and household sizes.”

Participation should not be a problem: Many in the community lived through the severe 1976-1977 drought and others. They are engaged, curious and willing to look for savings. The study has shown Home Water Reports to be an effective, homeowner-friendly tool to help achieve water use efficiency goals.


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