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Real-Time Water Data & Enabling Competitions to Save Water

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By Nina Kshetry, PE

Are there ways to drive large-scale behavior change in water consumption using real-time water data? For example, to reduce water consumption or to reduce hot water consumption (and the associated energy savings). Competitions (or gamification) have been used to change population-level behavior in many areas, such as consumer engagement, health and wellness, and education. Inducing peer pressure in social networks has shown similar impact. Providing relevant real-time, or near real-time, behavioral data to consumers is needed to support competitions on social networks with behavioral change objectives and can even be enough, in and of itself, to drive change.

Within the power sector, we’ve seen a range of transformations in the past decade that have created a wealth of data on electricity consumption and usage habits. Electric utilities would have deployed more than an estimated 100 million smart electric meters by the end of this year providing real-time energy usage data. Consumer products such as the Nest learning thermostats use machine learning and artificial intelligence to learn consumer preferences for space heating and cooling, leading to optimal energy usage and savings. Similar transformations are underway in the water sector. Many water utilities have upgraded, or are planning to upgrade, their fleet of water meters to advanced metering technology within the coming decade, giving them access to real-time water usage data at the household level for the first time. Additionally, in the past few years, a range of smart water meters for residential consumers have entered the market, such as Flo by Moen and Phyn, giving consumers the ability to understand their water usage patterns in real-time down to the fixture level.

There are many practical benefits of this kind of real-time water monitoring infrastructure when it comes to sustainability, one of which is leak detection and the reduction of water losses as a result of leaks, both within utility water distribution lines and within residential households. According to the Water Research Foundation’s 2016 Residential End Uses of Water Report, 17 gallons per household per day are lost due to leaks, representing 13 percent of indoor residential water consumption. Similarly, by some estimates, water utilities are losing over 2 trillion gallons of water a year as non-revenue water, water that is lost prior to the meter, which includes losses from leaks due aging infrastructure. Identifying and preventing water leaks is one of the major drivers in the increased adoption of smart water metering technologies both at water utilities and residences. With smart water metering becoming more common, there is an increasing availability of real-time water consumption data.

With water data becoming available through these emerging technologies, we are now approaching a tipping point where water-focused competitions and peer-pressure social networks to drive behavioral changes in water savings are becoming a reality. Using competitions and gamification tools have been successfully implemented and demonstrated in other areas of resource conservation in the environmental field. It is important to note that without the use of such tools, people must be motivated to change their habits and behavior through other drivers, such as solely for the sake of advancing the greater good or for economic motivations such as cost savings. In most parts of the country, the price of water remains low, making behavioral change to achieve cost savings unlikely. Adjusting personal behavior to achieve environmental conservation goals for the greater good is a strategy that has historically failed – a phenomenon known as the tragedy of the commons. Competitions centered around water savings and conservation could be used to motivate people to change their consumption patterns and habits who otherwise may not be motivated to do so. For example, electricity competitions have been shown to reduce consumption by more than 25%, even engaging those that lack prior intrinsic motivation.

If competitions can lead to water savings outcomes, what would such a competition or game actually look like? How should it be designed and implemented? What are the common threads of designing successful competitors to achieve behavior change? Such a competition could take many shapes and forms, but one important factor would be the creation of specific and challenging (yet achievable) goals. In goal-setting theory, a well-established theory of motivation in psychology, people are most successful at changing behavior when goals are specific and challenging. One such goal might be setting targets for reducing the length of time a person takes a shower, or a total household consumption goal which can be achieved by implementing a combination of water savings strategies from installing more efficient appliances and fixtures to changing usage habits. Furthermore, when entire social groups are pursuing the same specific goals, this behavioral momentum is strengthened by social comparison. For example, when an entire household, neighborhood, or other social network works towards the same goal, and the achievements of participants are made available to other participants in the form of leaderboards, the intrinsic motivation to change behavior is greater than if the individual was working to meet the goal in isolation. The backbone for creating these types of competitions is hyperlocal and real-time water usage data, which provides feedback for the game participants to know what they have achieved in relation to what others have achieved, and how much better they can do by climbing up in ranks in the leaderboard.

As we continue towards a world where real-time water consumption data is more readily available and more hyperlocal, the opportunities to use competitions and games to drive behavior change and water saving will only increase. We are at the beginnings of starting to deploy competitions as a tool for conservation in the water sector, but work done in other sectors indicates that positive outcomes can be achieved using this strategy. Indeed, smart water metering customer engagement platforms are being developed with water usage metrics and water saving goals/tips, and water fixtures are being developed with real-time feedback to help users reduce usage. Competitions and games may find particular traction in the water conservation field, where cost savings or other motivations have previously failed.

Article courtesy of Working Pressure magazine

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