What the Water Sector Could Learn from the Electric Side

Source: Flickr/Hammer365Each year, the nation wastes an estimated two trillion gallons, or about 14 to 18 percent, of its treated water through leaks alone. That’s a lot of water – enough to fill over three million Olympic-size swimming pools.

We know smart water meters are a critical component to better understanding our water use, but smart meters are only one part of the equation. What we really need is a smart water system.

A more intelligent system could not only help water providers and people better understand their use and how to adjust their behavior accordingly, but it could make the entire treatment and delivery of water more efficient. Plus, system-wide data could make daily water use and associated cost accessible – not an end-of-the-month billing surprise – enabling residents to make more informed decisions and utilities to waste less water.

Energy and water are connected, but they may need different solutions

The energy sector has learned a lot about the smart grid, and put a great deal of its research into practice. And, compared to the water sector, the electricity sector is pretty far along with its smart meter roll-out and understanding of all the information points across the system. For instance, in Texas, more than 3.5 million smart water meters have been installed, compared with approximately 17 million electric smart meters. But, while much of the smart electric grid findings are valuable in relation to the water sector, there are clear differences. 

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Primarily, there seems to be a lack of urgency when it comes to saving energy at the residential level. But, that may not prove to be the case with water. Hearing about an “energy crunch” for electricity is not the same thing as seeing and feeling the effects of drought. Water, by its nature, is a more emotional issue for people than electricity is. We can survive without electricity, but not without water. So, will giving people more control over their use of this precious resource drive them to be more proactive conservationists? That is one thing Pecan Street, Inc. aims to find out.

Learning by doing

Located in Austin, Pecan Street, Inc. manages the nation’s largest energy research network. It’s unique in that it is one of the only so-called “smart grid” organizations that includes water. This test bed represents an incredible opportunity to examine different smart water technologies and behaviors.

In addition to the electric piece, which monitors energy use down to the electric socket for more than 1,200 homes in Texas, California, and Colorado (and energy generation for residents with solar panels), Pecan Street created the University Municipal Water Consortium, consisting of member universities and cities around Texas, to test different water technologies and behavioral tools.

In January, the Consortium held its first conference to gather members, talk about the research so far, share stories from the trenches, and communicate the direction of future research. As Pecan Street’s partner, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) participated in this insightful conversation.

What came as a surprise was how much water residents use outside of the home. One experiment they will work on together is to test whether residents will react to immediate notifications about the water use of their sprinklers – either small, persistent measurements that may signal a leak or large, frequent measurements.

The emotional connection

People have emotional connections to their homes and yards, but they also have an emotional connection to water, and linking those two can result in powerful behavioral change. Many cities in the Consortium noted outdoor water use as the place with the most room for improvement, because sprinkler systems are often programmed to run at night and are then forgotten about. A more responsive metering structure could give the appropriate signals to easily control the sprinkler system based on the current weather.

Cities are tapping into this connection as well. San Antonio Water System (SAWS), one of the nation’s leaders in water conservation, has teamed up with the San Antonio Botanical Garden to offer trainings and information in converting landscaping to more drought-tolerant gardens. Additionally, the Austin Homebuilders Association is working with homebuilders on the front-end to ensure that landscapes are designed with water use in mind, in lieu of the expensive, water-intensive yards of the past.

There are many facets to understanding water use and its connection to homes and businesses. But, a smart water system is the first step. The good news is that with smarter water use, we also reduce our energy use because of their inextricable link. EDF is glad to see Pecan Street jumping in with both feet to better understand what technologies and research can motivate us to understand our water use and be proactive in protecting its future.

Photo source: Flickr/Hammer365

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