Despite the 3-year-old drought in the western U.S. and pleas from California Gov. Jerry Brown to conserve 20 percent more water, water use has instead risen by 1 percent in the state. This disappointing outcome illustrates that voluntary reductions have so far proved to be ineffective. Yet a contributing factor could be that consumers are not without good intentions, but rather are lacking the proper tools to do the right thing. As the saying goes, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” and traditionally, the tools for consumers to measure their water use have been pretty weak.
Typically, a bill from the water utility arrives in the mailbox showing a three-month history of water usage data in terms of “units,” which as a measure is hard for the average householder to visualize. And in any case, the bill doesn’t allow an easy assessment as to whether those units used were reasonable or excessive.
Addressing this knowledge gap, Redwood City, California-based startup Dropcountr is about to launch its service to provide tools to both consumers and utilities in a clear and visual format — which will allow this scarce resource to be better managed. I recently spoke to Dropcountr’s CEO, Robb Barnitt, to learn more about its service and how it might prompt more efficient use of water.
First off, Barnitt told me that research by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that consumers are pretty receptive to conservation efforts, with 75 percent of people being in favor of mandatory conservation. I was a little surprised by this — especially as I don’t see 75 percent of suburban homes with dead lawns!
However, this may be explained by the fact that people are simply really bad at estimating their water use. “The average Californian estimates they use half the amount of water than they actually do use” Barnitt explains. “People want to do their part, but don’t have the tools and direction to make a contribution.”
Dropcountr aims to put the right tools literally in the hands of consumers via a free mobile app for both iOS and Adroid mobile devices. Using a language people understand — gallons — the app will be able to provide real-time data on water usage to homeowners, incorporating features such as push notifications when water use is about to cross over into a higher-rate tier, and alerting homeowners when a potential leak is detected. In addition, people will be able to compare their water use with others in similar homes, which as Barnitt points out, taps into a bit of behavioral psychology: “Everyone wants to be better than average, and when they find out they aren’t, they are highly motivated.”
It’s easy to see how such real-time data will allow people to proactively conserve water in a way that their already-out-of-date paper bill cannot. Barnitt told me the consumer focus is paramount, adding that the app incorporates, “simplicity and elegance of design, so that people will use it.”
Of course, the system will only work if the water utility is on board and makes the data available to Dropcountr so that the startup can disseminate it to consumers. But the good news is: It won’t require significant capital expense on a utility’s part to participate. The only requirement is that utilities have meters. Smart meters are best, but as long as an address is metered, it will work with Dropcountr.
Consumers who download the app and are disappointed to find that their utility is not participating can use Dropcountr’s “utility poke.” The app will geo-locate the customer, determine if the local utility is participating, and if not, users can send an automated e-mail to the utility expressing their interest in using Dropcountr.
Though there is a strong emphasis on tools for the consumer, Dropcountr’s customer is actually the utility, Barnitt points out, and the product was designed so that it’s compelling for utilities to become partners. Barnitt told me: “The message has sunk in in California that conservation is important. All bets are off as to a continuous supply of water, and cities don’t want water to limit development.” As such, the hope is that utilities will be keen to take advantage of Dropcountr’s services to help them determine methods to better manage their water resources.
Accordingly, Dropcountr’s product incorporates a “utility admin. dashboard,” which takes the raw usage data and, by doing back-end analytics on the utilities’ behalf, will let utilities better monitor water use in a real-time, visual and intuitive way. This allows utilities, for example, to do things such as filter accounts who are high users, or see which addresses are engaged in rebate programs throughout their district.
And equally important: As well as helping with conservation efforts, Dropcountr believes that its tools will allow utilities to establish a better line of communication with their customers — something that they are not typically good at today. As such, Dropcountr will assist utilities with outreach materials to consumers.
In time, it is hoped that by using the technology and applying their analytics, it will be possible to gather the right kind of data so that a reasonable water budget can be determined at the address level. Today, conservation efforts often ask households to make across-the-board percentage reductions in water use over the prior year — potentially penalizing already frugal water users. In time, Dropcountr may be able to make water allocations more fair.
The service launches initially in Folsom, California on Sept. 1, and shortly after, Los Altos Hills, California will be online. Dropcountr also hopes to announce several other participants in the coming weeks.
Image used with permission of Dropcountr
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