Guest Column | May 15, 2018

Empowering Consumers Is Key To Addressing Global Water Challenges

By Mary Conley Eggert with Barry Hochfelder

Empowering Consumers Is Key To Addressing Global Water Challenges

Consumers are taking advantage of technology to gain knowledge and demand rapid, inexpensive (sometimes free) delivery of goods. In supply chain terms, that’s called the last mile — getting the product to the consumer as quickly as possible.

All of these innovations have made life easier and more efficient both for businesses and consumers. Digital content, including that gathered by the Internet of Things (IoT), is expanding exponentially. Manufacturers who have become digital are inundated with new sources of information they can manage, analyze, and use to not only increase business, but satisfy customer requirements. It’s win-win.

When it comes to water, though, it’s not so efficient. According to the U.S. EPA, utilities deliver, on average, 300 gallons to the door of every family, every day.1 No questions asked or answered. No data on how much actually is used. No data showing, perhaps, leakage or tainted water. Nothing.

Here are just a few stats from the EPA.2

  • Each American uses an average of 88 gallons of water per day at home.
  • The average family can waste 180 gallons per week — 9,400 gallons annually — from household leaks, which waste around 900 billion gallons of water each year.
  • Letting the faucet run for five minutes while washing dishes can waste 10 gallons of water and uses enough energy to power a 60-watt lightbulb for 18 hours.
  • Turning off the tap while brushing your teeth can save 8 gallons of water per day.

And that’s just in the U.S. The water issue is global. According to United Nations projections, the global demand for fresh water will exceed supply by 40 percent in 2030, thanks to climate change, population growth, and human activity.

A UK-based company called Save Water Save Money (SWSM) has been using technology to do something about water waste, having worked with 90 percent of the UK’s water companies since its inception in 2007. SWSM also distributes more than 1,000 water-saving products daily — more than 3.5 million to in excess of 1.5 million customers. That has saved the UK 51 billion liters of water (13.473 billion gallons).

“Big Data allows us to understand how customers value water and how to translate that value into better supply and demand strategies,” founder and CEO Tim Robertson says. “Water companies receive data that includes geographic location; water and energy consumption by appliance, person, and household; and water and energy savings possible by appliance, person, and household.”

For The Utility

Consumers, of course, aren’t the only ones who benefit from water conservation and technology. Utilities using SWSM, armed with a large amount of customer-specific data, are discovering conservation and efficiency opportunities they otherwise might not have found. The information utilities receive includes:                                          

  • The number of registered users
  • How much water customers believe they use by appliance — without the need to invest in smart meters or analyze complex data
  • What appliances their customers have, and how they consume water
  • Average potential savings per household — plus the actual savings being made
  • Occupancy per household
  • Percentage of households with leaking appliances and pipework
  • Customer contact details and other data such as the size of their property, gardening habits, properties with pools, and much more

Crucially, water efficiency is the driver to engage customers, which can benefit all areas of the water industry, including finance, operations, marketing, customer service, and demand management. Instead of the largely ignored carbon-copy messaging consumers have received, and often ignored, from utilities, they can instead receive targeted advice and messaging that addresses their specific water use — good and bad — directly about their devices.

“There’s a tremendous need for solutions that empower customers, particularly in low-income areas,” says Nate Conroy, CEO of STEMhero, an online platform that uses meter data to put utilities at the center of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in schools. "SWSM offers personalized suggestions backed-up by actionable resources so that the opportunities for savings can be implemented.”

In finance, return on investment across all areas of business can improve as ancillary revenue streams are opened. Operations will benefit from cost reduction and streamlining by shifting customers to online billing. Marketing can be low-cost and highly targeted. Customer service can be improved as expectations are managed via the portal, increasing constructive input and reducing irritated customers. Finally, targeted low-cost, ongoing water efficiency initiatives and activities will give the company better insight into demand management.

Save Water Save Money’s most recent advance — already active in the UK and expected to roll out in the U.S. during the third quarter — is called the aqKWa Savings Engine.

“Data collection is helping to inform and continuously improve our nation’s utilities,” says Matt Holmes, Deputy CEO, National Rural Water Association (NRWA). “We are encouraged by what the aqKWa savings engine has accomplished in the UK, and see many benefits to gaining usage data at the consumer level.”

NRWA has partnered with the aqKWa Savings Engine to provide consumer education on water conservation through its 31,000 water and wastewater utility system membership. It will be an additional service that systems can offer to encourage water and energy efficiency while improving customer engagement.

Mary Conley Eggert is Chief Innovation Officer at GlobalWaterWorks, a 501c6 and marketing consultancy committed to advancing business adoption of smart water technologies to ensure the availability of clean, fresh water for future generations.

Barry Hochfelder has more than 30 years of experience in research, writing, and editing. He holds degrees from Kendall College and Arizona State University.

References
1 https://www.epa.gov/watersense/how-we-use-water
2 https://www.epa.gov/watersense/statistics-and-facts

Image credit: "smartphone," Hamza Butt © 2017, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/