From computer games to smart meters, Rachel England looks at schemes and gadgets designed to make consumers more aware of their daily water use.
Technologies are evolving to make wise water use more appealing and – critically – convenient, to homeowners. The most effective will cut waste down the pipe, slim energy bills, and change the way people use water in the long-term.
In Australia, new homes are fitted with greywater recycling units, and tax incentives are available in some US states to encourage plumbers to incorporate the technology standard. In the UK, a housing development in Huntingdon uses greywater recycling in conjunction with high efficiency tap fittings, reducing consumption from 145 litres per person per day to just 80. According to Gareth Barker, Growth Planning Manager at Anglian Water, local authorities in the UK are increasingly demanding that new developments achieve high standards within the Code for Sustainable Homes. Greywater recycling units are rated at the highest level (Code 6). Such technologies are largely out of the control of householders, though – and it's their role in water conservation that stands to have the much-needed results. Thanks to comprehensive campaigns around the globe, many are stepping up. Australia's annual Savewater! Awards – a scheme to recognise water-saving efforts in homes, businesses and schools, now in its 10th year – has become a highly revered achievement.
Saving water is just part of the battle, though: another is encouraging residents to respect the water system on which they depend. One problem is that some use the toilet and sink as general waste disposal units, for anything from kitchen fat to nappies. Wessex Water has launched a free game for the iPhone called 'Bag it and bin it', where the user has to dispose of waste objects quickly before they land in the loo – learning what shouldn't end up in there as they play.
For Marcia Davies of Anglian Water, education is one of the most important tools in the box. "Educating people about where water comes from, how it's cleaned and prepared, how it then re-enters the environment, and the effect that has on the ecosystem – creating the 'bigger picture' for them – is key", she says, "as is making it as simple as possible to save water."
Households save an average of £100 per year by paying for what they actually use
Anglian's 'Drop 20' campaign gives households simple tips to reduce their consumption. One focus is the benefit of water metering. The company's Water Efficiency Manger, Linda Berkshire, says: "Non-metered customers will look at you with horror at the prospect of having a meter installed because there's an assumption that it's more expensive. But actually, we're finding that households are saving an average of £100 per year by paying for what they actually use, rather than a figure based on their property size. Over 20,000 customers come to us every year, asking for them."
Traditionally, water meters are installed to pipework outside, but Wessex Water is trialling smart meters – which transfer readings from external water pipes to an internal device – to see what difference it makes to water use if householders are able to keep track of their consumption, and its impact on their bills, in real time. These devices will send data to consumers' phones, PCs and tablet devices to help them to understand the impact of actions like washing up and taking a shower.
The trial is part of a wider project, Smart Dorchester, through which Wessex is working with residential customers, local businesses and schools to find the best ways to give them clear information about the price of water, help them to save both water and money, and to understand their own usage. The project will also offer advice to encourage them to change their habits.
Specialist gadgets designed to cut water waste are becoming increasingly popular, too. Thames Water provides 'Leakfrog' devices which are fitted to a customer's water meter for between a day and a week, detecting hidden leaks in their pipes. Working like stopwatches, the digital device shows the longest period of time it has taken for one litre of water to pass through the household's water meter. The shorter the time, the bigger the leak. Over 70,000 properties' supply pipes have been tested with the device since 2008, and 2,100 have been found to have large enough leaks to warrant a repair or pipe replacement.
Out in the garden, solar-powered irrigation systems are also becoming more popular. They require no mains electricity or water supply, instead sucking water from a butt (or other non-pressurised water source) and then thoroughly watering plants every three hours with the aid of a solar-powered pump. The device even gives the garden an extra helping of water when it's particularly sunny. The system uses 90% less water than a hose. Thames Water is offering a 15% discount on the kit (which retails at £79.50) to its customers.
A range of freebies from water suppliers aims to help customers recognise the cost of water. As part of its Waterwisely campaign, Thames Water handed out shower heads, tap attachments and hippo bags for toilet cisterns to its customers on demand. (The nifty hippos save up to two litres of water per flush, reducing a UK individual's daily water use by up to 5%.) Between March and August 2012, over 100,000 water-saving products were ordered. Anglian Water's 'Bits and Bobs' scheme offers similar gadgets, and includes a visit from a plumber who will fit the equipment and talk to the customer about other ways to save water. "This conversation is important as it helps to drive behaviour change," says Berkshire. "We've carried out thousands of visits so far and have a target of 87,500 by 2015. The scheme can save over 40 litres per household per day – it's a significant amount. "
There does appear to be a shift in attitude towards water conservation, says Anglian Water's Marcia Davies, noting that the recent droughts have brought the issue into the public consciousness. "However, there are people who were in the company back in 1976 [during the UK's last major drought] and they say there was a similar discussion then… It's important we keep the momentum of this dialogue going, and that we don't only talk about water when it's perceived to be a problem."
Rachel England is a freelance writer and editor specialising in sustainability.
Photos: H2eco/Water Efficiency Awards / Anglian Water / istockphoto/thinkstock