A Water Wagon In Wisconsin’s Capital Carries A Message About Tap Water Quality

The utility in Wisconsin’s capital city uses a Water Wagon to take its message about tap water quality to people at a wide variety of venues.
A Water Wagon In Wisconsin’s Capital Carries A Message About Tap Water Quality
Madison Water staffers hand out “Drink Local” bottles at Water Wagon events and encourage people to bring their own reusable bottles.

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Customers turn on their faucets dozens of times a day, yet rarely think about what comes out and all the effort that goes into making it clear, usable and drinkable. The Madison (Wis.) Water Utility is working to change that.

The utility’s newest educational tool — the Water Wagon — uniquely touts the benefits of Madison tap water. Promoting tap water in a way that’s kid-friendly, handicapped accessible, bold and eye-catching, the Water Wagon evolved out of a brainstorming session in 2011.

“We initially wanted to buy some type of wagon that could go around town to promote the use of tap water, but there really was not anything out there,” recalls Amy Barrilleaux, public information officer. “We happened to have a very talented welder on our staff who turned a very rough sketch into a real design. Working with one of our engineers, he fabricated our Water Wagon in just a few months.”

Far and wide

Today, utility team members take the Water Wagon to events, from boat races, school fun runs and community 5K runs, to bigger events where organizers may not want to sell or hand out bottled water because of how plastic bottles affect the environment.

It’s a bit of a Midwest joke that Wisconsinites call their public water fountains “bubblers.” But bubblers are the key to how the Water Wagon works. It’s not a water tank — prefabricated tank systems were hard to find, and the utility didn’t want to deal with filling and disinfection, or concern itself with freshness and taste after water sat in the tank for hours at an event.

“We wanted to give people our best water and give them that fresh tap water experience,” Barrilleaux says. So the Water Wagon is hooked up to one of several specially modified “bubblers” around Madison. Water moves through the wagon and is cooled when it goes through copper tubing coiled up in an ice chest inside.

“People ask us all the time, ‘What is this? Filtered water?’” Barrilleaux says. “And we tell them it’s just tap water coming out of that water fountain over there. That’s exactly the point we’re trying to make about how good tap water is. It really takes people by surprise.”

Discussions on tap

Madison Water employees who staff the wagon, with its bold graphics and self-serve spigots designed to look like one of the city’s water towers, find it effective for engaging residents in conversations about the water and the utility’s work. The city’s water source is not its two large lakes (Mendota and Monona) but a deep, high-quality aquifer.

“People have a lot of questions about Madison’s water source, quality and cost, and it’s a great opportunity to have one-on-one conversations,” says Barrilleaux. “We’re definitely changing preconceived notions of how tap water tastes. People will say, ‘My tap water doesn’t taste this good.’ But we tell them it’s the same water they get at home.

“It’s so crazy to be at a school event just offering tap water, but it’s great to see kids excited to have their picture taken next to the Water Wagon and lining up to get tap water, saying, ‘Wow it tastes so good.’ We don’t think we’d get that kind of response without the Water Wagon.”

Residents of this university town and state capital are well aware of the environmental toll of water bottles and so are grateful to have the Water Wagon at events. Organizers appreciate that the wagon helps them cut down on waste.

In high demand

Concluding its second year, the Water Wagon is in high demand. Staff members do as many events as they can during warm months, when many organizations have no other options for keeping attendees hydrated. The Wagon appeared at almost 50 events in 2013 and about the same number last year.

While the staff serves water when event organizers provide cups, the wagon’s spigots are designed to be self-serve, and that’s part of the appeal. The utility encourages organizations to alert people to bring reusable water bottles to events.

Madison Water spent $14,000 on materials to create the Water Wagon (labor was done in-house). On occasion, the utility provides compostable paper cups at events, but the budget also includes some giveaway water bottles that bear the Madison Water logo and the slogan “Drink Local.” The Water Wagon also factors heavily in the utility’s social media work.

“We’re of course promoting tap water, but we always call it ‘Madison water’ because people have a lot of pride in this city, and that pride carries over to our safe, reliable drinking water supply,” Barrilleaux says. “The Water Wagon has been a remarkable tool, enabling us to show residents how lucky Madison is to have such high-quality water.”


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