The internet is flooded with articles on homeowner water conservation, yet why do so many water utility attempts to educate customers seem to fall on deaf ears? Perhaps the problem is not as much about educating people on what to do (water-saving checklists and guidelines) as it is about motivating them on why to do it (personal reward). Consider it to be more a case of attitude adjustment than enlightenment.
Carrot Vs. Stick — Why Not Use Both?
Except for times of drastic water shortages — when people are concerned about the possibility of no water coming out of their faucet — it can be hard to get consumer attention. If there is no immediate perceived threat of water scarcity, threats of gloom and doom tend to fall on deaf ears. But that’s not to say water utilities should give up completely.
Part of the problem is that, short of a huge cash penalty, people perceive relatively little tangible reward for water conservation. For someone paying $40 per month on their water bill, cutting consumption by as much as 25 percent yields only about $10 in monthly savings. That means you’ll need to try creative ways to get people to pay attention to water consumption habits, by hitting them when they are most aware or vulnerable.
Show Them The Money!
One particularly personal focus to drive the point home is being able to identify obvious leaks and quantify just how much they are personally costing an individual homeowner over the course of a year. One way to do this is with timely data from an AMI system that uses highly accurate meters to chart low-level consumption during the overnight hours when no water use should be registering.
Whether that means actively notifying individual customers directly, or simply letting them monitor their own accounts through an online portal, it’s a great way to show them just how much skin they have in the game.
Even utilities that do not yet use AMI can simply remind customers to check their water meters before and after a vacation, overnight, or any other time period when they know they should not be consuming water. Calculating the loss per hour by 8,760 hours per year could be enough to convince them to identify and repair leaking fixtures.
Publicize The Big Picture, Too
If personal conservation incentives don’t seem to generate enough financial motivation, let customers see the big picture of how wasted water impacts the overall utility operating budget. If you routinely publish a “State of the Utility”synopsis as part of an annual report or a periodic newsletter, try relating the utility-wide costs of water loss and non-revenue water (NWR) in terms of how that affects utility rates. Let them know how cutting back on waste and routine use can save hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars annually to keep rate increases at bay.
Manage Expectations Right From The Start
- In areas where large-scale new construction is being planned, governing bodies often levy fees or set conditions with developers in relation to accommodating new traffic or school enrollment. Lobby area planning boards to establish similar conditions for water infrastructure or water conservation, particularly in areas with recurring water scarcity issues.
- Hit them when they’re hot. A water company display at a local home show can focus consumer awareness on low-flush toilets, water-efficient Energy Star and WaterSense appliances, and cost-saving irrigation system tips right when they are making decisions about home renovations.
- Go to the source. Home shows are also a good opportunity to form alliances with contractors and retailers looking to entice consumers with goods or services that deliver long-term paybacks:
- Contractors. Whether area municipalities have built LEED-type standards into local building codes or not, providing local builders with information on water-conserving designs and appliances can be a win-win-win situation — for the utility, the contractor, and the homeowner.
- Landscape Architects. Trying to impact conservation when people are ready to turn on the hose or set the automatic sprinkler timer could be too late — especially if you operate in an area with water scarcity issues or where a high percentage of domestic water use is devoted to landscape irrigation. Help landscapers show homeowners how the real water savings come from using drought-resistant plantings and mulch and incorporating rain sensors and controlled sprinkler heads into irrigation systems.
- Appliance Sales. Provide area retailers with fact sheets on the reward potential of water-saving appliances or even rebates that can help them sell customers on more water-thrifty appliances.
- Encourage the use of low-flow aerators on household faucets and showerheads among all customers by offering them, at cost, through periodic messages sent as part of the billing process or by displaying them in your customer service office. Consider applying for grants to subsidize the cost of offering such devices through direct purchases or rebates.
Erode Resistance With The Drip Technique
Take every opportunity to wear down customer ambivalence by supplying them with constant reminders about water awareness and conservation on every piece of correspondence and with small banners rotating on your utility website. Drive home the point of how good stewardship of the environment conserves water and saves money with every water-smart practice.
- Cultivate good habits. Remind consumers about the cash savings potential of turning water on only as needed when brushing teeth, shaving, showering, or washing dishes, to reduce consumption.
- Propose hot ideas. Show how insulating hot water pipes or installing hot water recirculating systems can reduce water wasted while waiting for flow to come up to temperature.
- Offer tips on reducing water consumption in older toilets by adding a space-taking device to the tank to reduce the amount of water consumed with each flush.
- Double their savings. Drive home the point that conservation is an investment that can pay back twice — once for the water savings and once for the sewer savings where sewer fees are based on water consumption.
Draw Strength From Numbers
Finally, learning from peer utilities is perhaps one of the quickest ways to effect change within your water system constituency. Take note of how other local water system operators, or water system operators of similar size, have been successful in getting customers to reduce water loss. Most important, improve your chances of replicating their success by trying to understand why their efforts might have worked in the first place.